February is Black History Month – a month-long celebration to acknowledge the historic struggles and accomplishments of African-American people. Today, I would like to recognize Abby Fisher and Malinda Russell – the first known African-American cookbook authors.
Up until 2001, culinary historians have attributed Abby Fisher, a former slave, as the first African-American to publish a soul food cookbook in 1881. Born in 1832, Fisher learned to cook in the kitchens of the plantations. By the end of the Civil War, she, her husband, and their 11 children gained their freedom and moved to San Francisco. She became a successful caterer to the upper class for her award winning cooking, which enabled them to open up their family business: Mrs. Abby Fisher & Company.
Fisher’s cooking specialties were pickles, jellies, and preserves which earned her praise and two first place medals at the 1880 San Francisco Mechanic’s Institute Fair for best pickles and sauces, and for best assortment of jellies and preserves.
Although she could not read or write, she authored the cookbook, “What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking: Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc.,” published in 1881 by the Women’s Cooperative Printing Office in San Francisco.
However, in 2001, an older collection of recipes by another African-American woman surfaced that predated Mrs. Fishers cookbook. Malinda Russell’s, “Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen,” was published in 1866. Inspired by European cuisine, Russell self published a 39 page recipe booklet in Paw Paw, Michigan hoping it would earn enough money from its sale for her to move back to her home town.
Not much is known about Malinda Russell. She was born a free woman in 1812, was a single hard-working mother of a crippled son, and owned and ran a pastry shop. She learned how to cook as an apprentice of Fanny Steward, an African-American cook living in Virginia. In 2007, the William L. Clements Library in Ann Arbor accepted and credited Malinda Russell’s cookbook as the first known cookbook by an African-American.
Today I would like to share Abby Fisher’s Corn Egg Bread recipe from her cookbook. The original recipe was written as:
“Two eggs, one pint of meal, half pint of sour milk, one teaspoonful of soda, – beat eggs very light, – one tablespoonful of melted lard or butter, mix all together, well stirred or beaten. Bake in an ordinary pan.”
I’ve adapted the recipe using modern measurements and instructions. When I baked the bread early this afternoon, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how comforting and simple the bread was. Bite after bite I couldn’t help but feel connected to Abby Fisher in a reverent way. I hope you enjoy this historical recipe as much as I did.
New York Times -A 19-th century cookbook gives a new twist to ‘soul food’.
Black Past – Fisher, Abby (1832- ?)
Black America Web – Little-Known Black History Fact: Abby Fisher
In the Kitchen - The First Known Cookbook by an African American Woman: History Speaks