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ABBY FISHER & MALINDA RUSSELL: ACCOMPLISHED IN BUSINESS

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.

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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

Jambalaya

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

  1. 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

PRINCESS TIANA: FAIRY TALES AND GUMBO

I am a Disney girl and everyone knows it. So when the studio announced its intention to release a film with an African American princess, who also happens to be an aspiring chef, I couldn’t have been more excited. I raced to the theater for opening weekend, though I must admit sensing a dark cloud of dread hovering over me as I anticipated the complaints of internet reviewers, and braced for more stereotypes of African American cooks.

After all, this is the same studio that embedded subtle racism in Dumbo and the Jungle Book. And, in the 1950s, Disneyland promoted the Aunt Jemima trademark in its popular restaurant, Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House. Over the years, I was able to overlook those as flaws in a machine that bowed to the social and cultural pressures of its time. But in these “post-racial times, I wondered how they would deal with the New Orleans of 1920 and the limited career options for women of color.

Despite some age-old characterizations about the south and the kitchen in the storyline, critics are gushing, movie-goers pushed the movie to the top of the weekend box-office, and I found the film to be a charming mix of fact and fantasy.

To my surprise, Tiana possesses several of the qualities of the women who will be featured in this journal: she is hard-working with culinary proficiency that is seductive and in high-demand; she has entreprenurial ambitions and skills; she is focused and determined, not waiting around to be rescued by Prince Charming; she is prudent, saving her pennies for a long-term goal (Tiana’s restaurant), she has a very popular cookbook; makes a mean pot of gumbo, and she works selflessly at times to promote the greater good.

Too bad she also is the first Disney princess to spend most of her screen time as an amphibian.

It was also difficult to embrace the image of poverty reflected in Princess Tiana’s Cookbook for children. The book has been sold out for weeks at the Disney store where I live, but her father’s famous recipe for gumbo is posted on Amazon. Unfortunately, the recipe perpetuates the same make-do stereotype of African American cooking that has been promoted for years with its wieners in the mix.

We’ll serve this gumbo over the holidays, instead.

In Her Kitchen

Chicken Gumbo

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne red pepper
  • 1 (3- to 4-pound) chicken, cut up
  • 1 tablespoon each butter and oil
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped onions
  • 1/4 cup chopped green onions
  • 1 cup chopped green bell peppers
  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 pound smoked sausage, sliced
  • 2 quarts chicken broth
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
  • Hot cooked rice

Instructions

  1. Place flour in a cast-iron skillet in a 400 degree oven until the flour turns nut-brown, stirring often. Combine seasonings and sprinkle chicken pieces on both sides. Heat butter and oil in a heavy Dutch oven or soup pot. Add a few chicken pieces to the pan cook over medium-high heat until brown. Turn and cook on other side. Do not crowd the pan. Continue cooking and turning chicken until all pieces are done. Remove to a platter and set aside. Add onions, bell peppers, celery and garlic to pan, and cook over medium heat, stirring to loosen browned bits. Add sausage to pan and increase heat to high. Saute 5 minutes longer, until vegetables are slightly browned and carmelized. Meanwhile, place browned flour in a medium-sized bowl. Gradually whisk in 2 cups broth, stirring until flour is completely dissolved and no lumps remain. Add to vegetables along with remaining 6 cups broth and bay leaves. Reduce heat and let gumbo simmer 45 minutes. Do not boil. Use a slotted spoon to remove chicken from pot. Let cool slightly, then remove chicken from the bone and cut into bite-sized chunks. Remove and discard bay leaf. Return chicken to pan, sprinkle with parsely and season to taste with additional salt and pepper. Serve over hot cooked rice.

Number of servings: 12

In Her Kitchen