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.
What do you do to become a better cook? Consult an expert, of course. That is exactly what readers did in 1930’s Maryland when The Baltimore Sun published Aunt Priscilla’s Recipes, a regular recipe column of conversational culinary advice.
The writings followed a common style for the time. Every day, Aunt Priscilla answered reader requests. Every day a recipe followed a brief statement of culinary wisdom with dishes that were sweet and savory, simple and complex. Some days, she offered ideas for variations; other days she shared make-ahead secrets. But always she spoke in pernicious slave dialect. A Jemima-like illustration accompanied her words.
“I’se bery glad to gib you de crab recipes Miss Katie, speshully as serbil mo’ ladies done ast fo’ de same. Try yo’ crab cakes dis way.”
Odd communication for a black woman so intelligent that a major metropolitan newspaper featured her recipes, right? It becomes even more so as the truth about Aunt Priscilla unfolds.
Discovering Aunt Priscilla several years ago was the highlight of my search for evidence of real black cooks in the archives of the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive at the William L. Clements Library on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor. It was there that I encountered her perky little cookbook, Aunt Priscilla in the Kitchen, A collection of winter-time recipes, seasonable menus and suggestions for afternoon teas and special holiday parties, authored “By Aunt Priscilla, herself.” The tidy collection represented a stunning departure from the publishing traditions of previous generations, ushering in a new way to cloak black women’s kitchen skill. (Some time later I added a couple dozen Aunt Priscilla newspaper clippings to my collection.)
The years following the publication of the influential The Boston Cooking School Cookbook, by Fannie Merritt Farmer, were chaotic for cooks. In the North, the domestic scientists classified and codified cooking, while their contemporaries in the South elevated their culinary proficiency by lifting up local specialties, and the pleasures of regional soil — the taste of terroir as we know it today. The Southern belles also published collections comprised of recipes accumulated from “our famed cooks.”
This struggle to define and defend southern regional cooking paradoxically turned the spotlight on black culinary prowess, as prolific Southern authors got caught up in the Antebellum nostalgia sweeping the South. In the introduction to her comprehensive 1927 compilation, Mammy’s Cook Book, Katherin Bell, provides a snapshot of the formula.
“With the dying out of the black mammies of the South, much of the good and beautiful has gone out of life, and in this little volume I have sought to preserve the memory and the culinary lore of my Mammy, Sallie Miller, who in her day was a famous cook…”
Over on the Atlantic Coast, Harriet Ross Colquitt affirmed the black cook’s talent when she published the Savannah Cook Book in 1933.
“We have had so many requests for receipts for rice dishes, and for shrimp and crab concoctions which are particular to our locality, that I have concentrated on those indigenous to our soil…begging them from housekeepers, and trying to tack our elusive cooks down to some definite idea of what goes into the making of the good dishes they turn out.”
Eleanor Purcell, the white secretary of one of The Sun’s most distinguished writers Frank Kent also was among the compilers extracting the coveted specialities of “colored cooks,” but she took a different tack. It was she who posed as the spurious Aunt Priscilla, and the one who answered reader requests for everything from divinity to chili con carni, according to Alice Furlaud. (Furlaud explains how she came to own a copy of Aunt Priscilla’s Cookbook, and how she plied the true identity of Aunt Priscilla from Baltimore friends in a 2008 NPR story.)
But what does it matter? A lot, I think.
In their complete exasperation from trying to prove the value of their cuisine, Southern housewives documented black culinary skill that has been virtually ignored in modern history.
“Most of these recipes were Mammy’s,” Katharin Bell explains. That means that Sallie Miller was competent in more than 300 recipes, many of which are still Southern standards today. The women of Colquitt’s Savannah community demonstrated excellence as entrepreneurs. “The majority of Savannah housekeepers prefer to buy their sea foods from the negro hucksters who…peddle their wares from door to door,” Colquitt writes. And, mythical Aunt Priscilla was the voice and the face of the first African American newspaper food columnist.
Duncan Hines summarized it this way:
“Many Southern ladies had Negro cooks to help them; and just how much we owe to their skill I have no way of knowing except that almost all of the finest Southern dishes are of their creating or at least bear their special touch and everyone who loves good cookery should thank them from the bottom of their heart.”
The following recipe was taken from one of Aunt Priscilla’s many newspaper columns.
Aunt Priscilla’s Crab Cakes
To 1 poun’ ob crab meat take 1/2 a small lofe ob bread, 2/3 ob a cup ob milk (6 tablespoons), 2 eggs, 3/4 ob a teaspoon ob musta’d (dry), 1 tablespoon ob Wooster saus, salt an’ pepper to sute yo’ tas’e an’ a dash ob kyan. Crumble de bread an’ poe ober it de milk, lettin’ it set while you fixes de res’ ob de ‘gred’ents. Beat de eggs lite wid de sesinin’, stir in de crab meat an’ mix all togeder wid de bread. Hab yo’ skillet well greased an’ hot. Make out de cakes an’lay on’y as many as you kin han’le e’sy in yo’ pan at a time. Brown fus on one side, deon on de oder, bein’ keerful not to let ‘em burn.