Books

Black History Month: A Look Back at African-American Cookbooks

By Marcus Samuelsson | February 28, 2014

what mrs fisher knows

I’m a firm believer that one of the best ways to learn about a culture is through food. For those of us who can’t travel, can’t physically break bread with the originators we have to rely on shared traditions.  Growing up in Sweden, I had little reference point for American cooking, let alone African American cooking so when I finally moved to the States, I studied everything and ate anything I could.  Nowadays, most Europeans know that the only food that is intrinsically American is Southern food; African American cuisine.  These books below are some of the greats; the ones that tell the story and fill the bellies the best.

 “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking” 

Originally published in 1881, this is the oldest known black cookbook.  Abby Fisher’s food was a huge hit with the ladies of Sacramento during the State Fair of 1879, but being a former slave who couldn’t read or write, she didn’t have the ability to compile her recipes for publication.  After meeting the Women’s Cooperative Printing Office in San Francisco, she decided with their help and “based on an experience of thirty-five years– in the art of cooking soups, gumbos, terrapin stews, meat stews, baked and roast meats, ice creams and jams,” that she could create an instructive cookbook.  Clearly, Mrs. Fisher knew a lot about southern cooking as her collection of 160 recipes covers everything from Plantation Cornbread, Cherry Chutney, Oyster Gumbo and the first ever documented recipe for fried chicken.

“Rufus Estes’ Good Things To Eat: The First Cookbook by an African-American Chef”

Also born into slavery, Rufus Estes worked his way up from milking cows to eventually cooking meals for the executives of a major steel corporation.  His cookbook, originally published in 1911,  not only features unique recipes like Green Tomato Soup, but also opens with a chapter entitled “Hints To Maids,” which details how best to prep meals and serve food (“fish should never be served without a salad.”)

“Vibration Cooking: Or The Travel Notes Of A Geechee Girl.” 

Long before my friend Anthony Bourdain traveled to Parts Unknown, Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor turned the concept of the cookbook being solely about recipes and preparing meals on its head by linking her love of cooking with her love of travel to create this cookbook. Sailing to Paris to learn how to cook omelettes properly combined with a life marked by segregation and the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements inspired Smart-Grosvenor to create recipes where history lessons flew off the page with items like “Harriet Tubman Ragout” and “Nat Turner Apple Pork Thing.” Even though “Vibration Cooking” was published in 1970, shortly after the term soul food was coined and nearly 100 years after Mrs. Fisher’s cookbook debuted, Smart-Grosvenor resisted being boxed-in by the soul food label. Like many of her predecessors, she did not include measurements in most of her recipes, keeping alive and propelling forward the freeform vibration of cooking that her ancestors created.

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