Did you ever want something so bad it hurt? That’s how I feel about the last four First Edition African American cookbooks remaining on my Jemima Code shopping list. These extremely rare volumes are all that stands between me and a complete re-write of African American culinary history, told in the voices of the people who did the cooking.
But, this is the story of unrequited love.
My collection includes facsimile copies of these vintage works, and thanks to curators at the University of Michigan and Radcliffe University, I have held these precious gems in my hands, close to my heart. I can still remember how it felt to run my fingers over the gilded lettering engraved on the smooth surface of the cloth boards. I got cold chills as I opened the covers, exposed the fragile, yellowing pages, and uncovered hidden treasure.
Published in the years before and after the turn of the twentieth century, the recipe collections are the rarest of the rare. They are valuable to my mission because they reveal the true Knowledge, Skills and Abilities (KSA’s) possessed by black cooks, whether they were former slaves or free people of color.
It should make no difference that my copies are reproductions. But I want originals. The real thing. Badly. There is just something indescribable about owning such important pieces of history.
Last week, two of the books turned up in an online antiquarian bookseller’s catalog while I was driving to my office downtown. It had only been three hours since the announcement, but the most precious of the books — What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking — was already gone by the time I settled in and logged on. I recovered quickly from the shock of finding a volume published in 1881 by a former slave, Abby Fisher, for the low, low price of $4000.
I scrolled to the next entry on the list, The Southern Cookbook: A Manual of Cooking and List of Menus, published in 1912 by S. Thomas Bivins. My fingers went numb. Hurriedly, I moved the cursor over the price, and clicked. And prayed. The page advanced from the $95 price tag to Paypal and I screamed with delight:
“I got it!”
Featuring several hundred recipes, the Bivins book stands out among other African American works of the time as detailed as a textbook, but welcoming like a diary. This “manual of cooking and list of menus and recipes used by noted colored cooks and prominent caterers,” is a comprehensive study of the depth and breadth of the black cook’s repertoire, with formulas that validate the technical skills ordinary cooks possessed, but took for granted. Plus lots and lots of suprises.
From the author we learn: how to bone capon, to brew beer, to clean and dress fresh fish. We are regaled by innovative recipes such as rice pie crust, transparent marmalade, mushroom powder, and vegetable custard with splash of spinach juice. General rules of housekeeping, setting the table and curing the sick fill out his methodology.
I spent the next couple of hours going through my Zerox copy of Bivins’ book in a luxurious afterglow similar to the one Mariah Carey relished on her Butterfly album following an intimate encounter on the Fourth of July. In his Introduction, Bivins whispered his intentions and I swooned:
“In presenting this book to the public it is with the view of supplying the knowledge so much needed and sought for in a practical, condensed way, that shall give the home greater comfort; and the author hopes that after more than twenty years of experience and investigation he may be able to fill in a measure this long felt want.”
Then the unthinkable happened.
An email from Omnivore Books on Food explained that my request to purchase The Southern Cookbook collided with another buyer’s order. Bivins wasn’t really available after all.
So there I was, unfulfilled, left with only the hope that one day I might have my heart’s desire. I consoled myself with Bivins’ swaggering confidence:
“It is said that the mother who rocks the cradle controls the nation, but the domestic who faithfully and intelligently serves her who rocks the cradle is, in fact, the real ruler. Domestic service consists not simply in going the rounds and doing the humdrum duties of the house, but in scientifically cooking the food, in creating new dishes.”
I carry on.
Wash half a peck of large mushrooms while quite fresh and free them from grit and dirt with flannel. Scrape out the back part clean, and do not use any that is worm-eaten; put them in a stewpan over the fire without water, with two large onions, some cloves, a quarter of an ounce of mace, and two spoonfuls of white pepper, all in powder. Simmer and shake them till all the liquor be dried up, but be careful they do not burn. Lay them on tins or sieves in a slow oven, till they are dry enough to beat to powder; then put the powder in small bottles, corked and tied closely, and keep in a dry place.
A teaspoonful will give a very fine flavor to any sauce; and it is to be added just before serving, and one boil give to it after it has been put in.
With Tiger Woods back in the news this week, my thoughts immediately turned to Fuzzy Zoeller’s yakity yak urging Woods not to “order fried chicken or collard greens…or whatever the hell they serve” at the 1997 Masters golf tournament champions dinner. Zoeller might have been one of golf’s most notable players, but he obviously missed the memo on African American culinary tradition.
For generations, African American cooks living outside of the South have enjoyed confident, creative culinary expression, preferring to be known for their artistry, rather than the narrow outlook that limits the African American cook’s repertoire to the poverty ingredients and methods of plantation cabin cookery.
In 1910, while the domestic scientists were analyzing their food, “draining it of taste and texture, packaging it, and decorating it” to accommodate their shifting emphasis to domestic efficiency, Bertha Turner, a State Superintendent of Domestic Science and private caterer published a remarkable cookbook to preserve black culinary identity.
The Federation Cookbook: A Collection of Tested Recipes Compiled by the Colored Women of the State of California, assembled delicious recipes from the noted cooks living in and around Pasadena. The book exemplified a type of culinary professional who survived blatant discrimination and achieved fame and success.
By coincidence or Divine Order, Turner’s kitchen priorities and caterer’s virtues of uniformity, familiarity, and predictability perfectly aligned with the domestic science movement’s institutional ambitions of standardization and technical know-how. She was also a very good cook, according to the obituary published in a 1938 local newspaper, which also carried this photo of her, dressed elegantly and draped in fur.
She lived prosperously, flourishing in the rich ethnic culture of the Pasadena foothills, and didn’t appear stifled by the Jim Crow ideology strangling her race elsewhere. In fact, her Federation Cookbook set off confidently – perhaps because it epitomized a resolute gathering of out-going, successful women dedicated to social uplift.
Unlike Abby Fisher and Malinda Russell who began their books apologetically, Turner gracefully promised in her Preface to deliver “tested cooking of tried proportions, kindly given by our women.” She boldly suggested that readers purchase the book to thank those “helpful, trusty” women whom she memorialized in every recipe.
“Take it to your friends and neighbors,” she urged. “May it prove a blessing to you.”
Turner probably was obviously a compassionate woman, too. The Federation Cookbook began with a cheerful poem composed by a member of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, to shore up young cooks. She shared more than 200 recipes for simple, as well as elegant cookery, including numerous ways with lettuce, gelatin, and molds – the “dainty” delights popular among domestic goddesses at the time.
Interestingly, the only Southern dishes to survive the trip West with this regal, Kentucky-born patron were croquettes, okra, and cornbread.
Does that answer your question about what we serve, Mr. Zoeller?
In Bertha Turner’s day, homemade salad dressings, including mayonnaise were evidence of a cook’s proficiency. The mix is simple: eggs, good quality oil, vinegar or lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste. With today’s rush through the kitchen, you can achieve potato salad with the same creamy results using commercial mayo and a splash of prepared mustard.
In Her Kitchen
- 4 slices bacon
- 8 new potatoes
- 5 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 3 green onions, sliced
- 2 stalks celery, diced
- 1/4 cup sweet pickle relish
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon mustard
- Salt, pepper
- Cook bacon in a hot skillet over medium heat until crisp. Cool and crumble. Set aside. Scrub the potatoes and boil in their jackets until just done. Cool, peel and dice. Place in a large bowl with eggs, onions, celery, and pickle relish. Stir in mayonnaise and mustard, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with paprika before serving.
Number of servings: 8
In Her Kitchen
As a journalist at a bloggers workshop, I was feeling a little bothered while attending South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW) this week, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, until I realized that the women who inspire me also lived as if there were four of them.
They published cookbooks. Operated retail food businesses. Invented culinary gadgets. Hawked food products. Taught home economics. Catered lavish events. Sometimes, all at once.
As an author, I loved getting to know Abby Fisher and Malinda Russell, and imagining the kind of intelligent and creative recipes that my ancestors might have published if given the opportunity.
This week, I find muse in Kentucky, looking for the perfect mint julep to serve at a catered event next month, where I will be speaking about and teaching southern food traditions, and maybe making a dish or two.
Who me? Multi-task?
The first artifact is The Blue Grass Cook Book, by Minnie C. Fox.
Although it was not written by a black cook, the University Press of Kentucky and I published the historic reprint of Blue Grass in 2005 because it is the first-known cookbook to offer an honest and revealing picture of the state of culinary affairs in the South at the start of the twentieth century. It features more than 300 recipes and a dozen stunning camera portraits – not caricatures – of African American cooks at work. They are pictured above.
More directly than anyone before them – or after, until mid-century – Minnie, and her novelist brother John, publicly acknowledged the black contribution to Southern foodways, Southern culture, and Southern hospitality in 1904. In what amounts to direct and explicit homage, Minnie applauds the “turbaned mistress of the kitchen” for her dignity, wisdom, and talent.
This picture casts a bold shadow of hope and grace on the Aunt Jemima make-believe.
John Fox’s introduction and the photographs of Alvin Langdon Coburn do for these great cooks what historians, cookbook authors, novelists, advertisers, and manufacturers simply did not: They single out for full recognition and credit the black cook as the near-invisible but indispensable figure who made Southern cuisine famous.
Meanwhile, as housewives produced textbooks that emphasized the technical basics of cooking at the turn of the twentieth century, Effie Waller Smith wrote poetry that made powerful statements about the competencies of her African American sisters in the kitchen.
The authority and observations in her collected works, which were discovered and republished by the Schomburg Library in 1991, include interpretation, so I’ve simply included my favorite poem here for you to enjoy, and hopefully to share.
Maybe next time, I’ll attend a meeting of anthropologists.
APPLE SAUCE AND CHICKEN FRIED
By Effie Waller Smith, 1904
You may talk about the knowledge
Which our farmers’ girls have gained
From cooking-schools and cook-books
(where all modern cooks are trained);
But I would rather know just how,
(Though vainly I have tried)
To prepare, as mother used to,
Apple sauce and chicken fried.
Our modern cooks know how to fix
Their dainty dishes rare.
But, friend, just let me tell you what!–
None of them compare
With what my mother used to fix,
And for which I’ve often cried,
When I was but a little tot,–
Apple sauce and chicken fried.
Chicken a la Francaise,
Served with some new fangled sauce
Is plenty good for me,
Till I get to thinking of the home
Where I used to ‘bide
And where I used to eat, — um, my!
Apple sauce and chicken fried.
We always had it once a week,
Sometimes we had it twice;
And I have even known the time
When we have had it thrice.
Our good, yet jolly pastor,
During his circuit’s ride
With us once each week gave grateful thanks
For apple sauce and chicken fried.
Why, it seems like I can smell it,
And even taste it, too,
And see it with my natural eyes,
Though of course it can’t be true;
And it seems like I’m a child again,
Standing by mother’s side
Pulling at her dress and asking
For apple sauce and chicken fried.
Author’s Note: Use caution if you purchase The Blue Grass Cook Book from Amazon. Applewood Books is offering a reprinted copy that does not include my historical background on the Fox family. If you would like to purchase an autographed copy of The Blue Grass Cook Book, please email me.
Kick me for not straight out calling the women in my last post top chef-styled celebrities, and for not telling you that you can and should own copies of their work — the first black cookbooks published in this country.
It’s just that I lost my webmaster and I was going a little crazy at post time. I don’t make a dime off of sales of these books. I just think they are valuable additions to anyone’s cookbook collection. And, if you aren’t collecting books yet these are a great place to start. Indulge me, as I fuss over them a little while longer.
At the end of the 20th century, cookbooks were called household manuals. They emphasized domestic economy and food science, and included “tested” receipts, the old-school word for recipes.
The most popular texts encouraged young housewives to “get rid of the false sentiment that grades different ranks of work as more or less respectable,” and reminded them that “cooking “possesses the dignity of an art, of science, and of philosophy.”
At the same time, most authors of these books claimed that black cooks were too ignorant to be able to translate the recipes from their heads to the written page. If the cook was credited, her recipe was written in illiterate language meant to demean.
But Malinda Russell and Abby Fisher dispute this image. Their little books reveal cooks who truly understood technique, whether they shared that information with the mistress or not. They might not have understood the hydrogen ION concentration and pH of some common foods, but both women were counted among those sensible and experienced cooks of their communities. Each one shared the love of good food and cooking with friends.
The limited-edition facsimile reprint of Malinda Russell’s A Domestic Cook Book: Containing Useful Receipts for the Kitchen, (printed in 1866), is available from the University of Michigan. The booklet was edited by Jan Longone and costs $25.
What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, published in 1881 by Abby Fisher, may be purchased through Amazon.
Malinda Russell’s Elizabeth Lemon Cake is a lovely springtime pound cake, which I make even more special for family and friends by drizzling with a a sweet-tart glaze of Meyer lemon juice and powdered sugar.
In Her Kitchen
Elizabeth’s Lemon Cake
- 1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 5 large eggs
- 1/4 cup grated lemon zest
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/2 cup freshly-squeezed lemon juice
- Tangy Lemon Glaze
- Have all ingredients at room temperature. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 12-cup fluted tube pan or 2 (8×4-inch) loaf pans. Cream together the butter and 2 cups of the sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 5-7 minutes. Gradually beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the lemon zest. Sift together the flour, baking powder, soda, and salt in a bowl. Combine buttermilk and vanilla. With the mixer on low speed, alternately beat in the dry and liquid ingredients, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50-60 minutes or until a wood tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Combine remaining 1/2 cup sugar with lemon juice in a small saucepan and cook over low heat until sugar dissolves. When cake is done, use a skewer to poke holes over the entire top. Carefully spoon the lemon syrup over the cake, allowing syrup to soak in before adding more. Cool in the pan for 30 minutes, then invert onto a wire rack to cool completely. Drizzle with Tangy Lemon Glaze.
- Tangy Lemon Glaze Combine 2 cups sifted powdered sugar and 3-4 tablespoons freshly-squeezed lemon juice. Stir until sugar is dissolved. Spoon over cooled cake.
Number of servings: 12
In Her Kitchen
I was hanging out in East Austin as Black History Month drew to a close when I happened upon a series of banners hanging around historic venues. The proud displays featured the names and pictures of local African Americans who had accomplished great things in various careers — from engineering and medicine to education and the arts. As you might have already guessed, women in the food industry were not included.
That is what makes antebellum African American cookbooks such an important and fascinating discovery for me. During Reconstruction, ex-slaves like Lucille Bishop Smith, Flossie Morris, and Mary Bernon were adding entrepreneurial skills to their culinary proficiency, but their work was unknown beyond the tiny communities in which they lived.
A former slave named Abby Fisher also established a reputation for excellence in cookery and business along the shores of the Pacific, but she did something extraordinary for the time: She published a cookbook to prove it. So did Malinda Russell, a free woman of color.
Although unschooled, Fisher operated a pickles and preserves manufacturing business with her husband, Alexander in San Francisco. She won awards and medals at various fairs in California. And in 1881 she released What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, a collection of more than 150 recipes – “a book of my knowledge, based on an experience of upwards of 35 years in the art of cooking.”
Fisher’s trailblazing cookbook bears witness to a legacy of excellence among black cooks, and to her hidden heritage of African-inspired dishes, including several for okra and black-eyed peas, gumbo, and jambalaya – noteworthy on any day, but exceptionally so during the prickly era of national reform in which she lived.
The Historical Notes in the Afterword to What Mrs. Fisher Knows, historian Karen Hess tells us why, in these tough economic times, we need to remember Abby Fisher: “She was clearly a remarkably resourceful woman, one of those strong matriarchal types who kept their families together under the most adverse circumstances.”
Malinda Russell’s A Domestic Cook Book: Containing Useful Receipts for the Kitchen, was a fragile, 40-page collection, printed in 1866 in Paw Paw, Michigan, before the Longone Center for American Culinary Research at the University of Michigan reproduced it. I was blessed to be part of the process, introducing Malinda to her first audience, and reminding them that this collection also teaches us how to use cooking to manage scarce resources.
In her brief autobiography, this free woman of color tells us a great deal about herself – a stark contrast to Fisher’s contrite spirit, and surprising considering the post-Civil War tensions of the time. She was a hard-working, single mother, a business owner, and the ladies of the community esteemed her.
Including their words of endorsement in her preface made good business sense, but we also can see the gesture as a measure of her integrity. Russell acknowledged everyone responsible for her talent and her project – an unusual action in light of the out-and-out plagiarism that was common practice among her publishing contemporaries. She said she apprenticed under the tutelage of Fanny Steward, a colored cook of Virginia, that she followed “the plan of The Virginia House-Wife,” and attribution accompanied several of her prescriptions.
Together, this free woman, Fisher, and to some extent the male authors of house servants’ guides, corroborate the notion of culinary literacy among black cooks. The modest collections of these masterful authors did for the art of African American cooking what Amelia Simmons’s little book did to distinguish the American cooking style from English cookery in 1796: They are like a culinary Emancipation Proclamation for black cooks.
Abby Fisher’s recipe for “Jumberlie — a Creole dish,” is a masterpiece of simplicity. It relies on farm-fresh chicken, smoked ham, and what she calls “high seasoning.” I’ve adapted her dish for modern kitchens, adding shrimp and sausage to the mix for a hearty one-pot meal. Serve it with crusty French bread and a cool crisp salad, and then wonder, as I do with every bite what delicacies the other women of the time might have left us if they had the means, time and resources to do so.
In Her Kitchen
- 5 slices bacon, diced
- 1 onion, diced
- 1 green pepper, diced
- 1 stalk celery, diced
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 3/4 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 1/2 cups uncooked rice
- 1 cup diced tomatoes
- 3 cups chicken broth
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 pound smoked ham or sausage
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/2 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
- Hot pepper sauce
- Fry bacon pieces in a deep skillet or Dutch oven until crisp. Remove to paper towels to drain and set aside. Add onion, green pepper, celery, garlic and thyme to the pan and saute until the vegetables are tender but still crisp. Add rice and continue to cook until the mixture is light brown. Stir in tomatoes, broth, bay leaf, ham, salt and pepper. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to simmer and cook, covered 15 minutes. Add shrimp to pan and cook 5 minutes longer or until shrimp turn pink. Adjust seasoning and serve with hot pepper sauce.
Number of servings: 8
In Her Kitchen