1866 African-American cookbook from Michigan woman offers voice from the past
Malinda Russell never set out to make history. Her aim was to make a living.
Little did she know that the self-published pamphlet she penned in Paw Paw would become the pivot point in reshaping thinking about African-American culinary history
Printed in 1866, Russell’s "A Domestic Cookbook: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen" is the first complete African-American cookbook. Its 39 pages of 250 brief recipes for food and home remedies read like a manual for people living well in another time. For Russell, a free woman of color descended from a grandmother who was an emancipated slave, it literally was a survival manual that generated income. It documents her resilience, business savvy and confidence. She wrote that her book would be “benefitting the public as well as myself. I know my book will sell well where I have cooked.”
A bit of backstory: Russell was robbed twice of all her money, first at age 19 in Virginia by a fellow traveler as she was about to set sail for Liberia; then in her native Tennessee in 1864 by a guerrilla gang that drove her out of town. Russell, who was married, then within four years widowed and left with a disabled son, cooked for prominent families and ran a boarding house, pastry shop and wash-house. She moved on to Michigan (then billed as “the garden of the West”), where copies of her books were lost when the library that housed them burned down shortly after they were published.
We don’t know anything about the rest of her life — and it’s a wonder we know as much as we do. But history, like science, is often shaped by utterly unexpected, fortuitous discoveries.
Fast forward more than a century, and enter Jan Longone, an old-cookbook expert and, at the time, prominent rare-book dealer in Ann Arbor, not far from Paw Paw. She acquired the then-unknown pamphlet — which was discovered at the bottom of a box of other materials — after being contacted by a West Coast book dealer.
“When it came in, I almost passed out,” says Longone, founder and Adjunct Curator of Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive at the University of Michigan’s Special Collections.
“I was astonished: Here was a book nobody had ever heard of — and I had the only copy of it!” Longone says. “I thought, ‘This is probably one of the most important books in America.’”
Before then, "What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking" (1881) by former slave Abby Fisher was considered the first African-American cookbook. The two food-related books that preceded it were by men: "Robert Roberts’ The House Servant’s Directory" (1827) and "Tunis Campbell’s Hotel Keepers, Head Waiters and Housekeepers’ Guide" (1848).
Russell’s work was so important because it offered a glimpse into fine cooking by an African-American woman who’d never been a slave and whose skills and point of view went beyond what came to be called soul food. Her work challenged ingrained views of black cuisine and emerged following the black-liberation movement’s celebration of dishes harking back to Africa.
“No one cookbook alone can provide an accurate view of African-American cooking,” Longone says. But Russell’s work, she notes, “dispels the notion of a universal black cooking experience.”
For years, notes Toni Tipton-Martin, author of "The Jemima Code," black-history celebrations have overlooked women in food.
“Together, this free woman, Fisher, and, to some extent, the authors of house servants’ guides corroborate the notion of culinary literacy among black cooks,” she writes. The modest collections of these masterful authors are like a culinary Emancipation Proclamation for black cooks.”
Beyond recipes, Longone says Russell’s book offers “a fascinating, first-person chronicle of a free woman of color.” Like contemporary cookbooks and blogs, it tells a very personal story. Unlike many, it gives credit where credit is due — e.g., to Fanny Steward, a Virginia cook of color under whom she apprenticed, and to "The Virginia Housewife" by Mary Randolph, an upper-class white Southerner who fell on hard times and who also ran a boarding house and wrote a food book.
Russell’s book also offers insights into the food and culture of the time.
“Food provides a wonderful lens through which to view history,” says Anne Byrn, author of "American Cake." “Malinda Russell had the ability to cross between worlds and to see how both worlds are at the heart of Southern cooking.”
Much has been written about Russell and she’s everywhere online — on blogs, Pinterest and other social-media vehicles.
“I was very impressed by her and how she speaks to us,” Longone concludes. “Malinda’s story is more than an African-American story; it’s an American story — a history that should not be confined to a cookbook shelf.”
Read Malinda online
To learn more: Toni Tipton-Martin will speak about her recently released cookbook, "Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African-American Cooking" (2019), at 4 p.m. May 12, at the University of Michigan. For more information, visit Special.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Malinda Russell’s Washington Cake
Makes: 12 to 16 servings
Prep: 20 to 25 minutes
Bake: 1 hour 15 to 20 minutes
(Recipe adapted from 1866 cookbook)
In contrast to the “soul food” style of cooking most associated with African-American cooks, Malinda developed a distinctive cosmopolitan Southern/European style exhibited in her book. She flavors food with brandy, rosewater, spices and almonds. This is one of Mrs. Russell’s pound cakes, a cake very English in style that might once have been called a Queen’s Cake, but that after the Revolutionary War was renamed after General George Washington by a patriotic America.
Butter and flour for prepping the pan
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 cups granulated sugar
Pinch of salt, if desired
6 large eggs
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sour milk or buttermilk (see Cake Note)
3 cups unbleached flour
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 small lemon (to yield 1 tablespoon lemon juice and 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest)
1. Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 325°F. Lightly grease and flour a 10" tube pan, and shake out the excess flour. Set the pan aside.
2. Place the butter in a large mixing bowl, and beat with an electric mixer on low speed until creamy, 1 minute. While the mixer is running, gradually add the sugar, and beat until light and creamy, 2 minutes. Scrape the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the pinch of salt, if desired, and add the eggs, one at a time, beating on low speed until each egg is incorporated, about 15 seconds each. Turn off the mixer.
3. Stir the baking soda into the cup of sour milk. Place the flour in a large mixing bowl, and stir in the cream of tartar. Alternately add the flour and milk to the egg mixture, beginning and ending with the flour and mixing on low speed until smooth. Fold the lemon juice and zest into the batter. Turn the batter into the prepared pan, and place the pan in the oven.
4. Bake the cake until the top is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 1 hour 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, and place the pan on a wire rack to cool for 20 minutes. Run a knife around the edges of the pan, give the pan a gentle shake, then invert the cake once and then again onto the rack to cool completely, 1 hour. Slice and serve.
CAKE NOTE: Sour milk is made by adding 1 teaspoon vinegar or lemon juice to 1 cup of milk. Let it rest for about 30 minutes, or until it looks a little curdled.
Recipe and photo reprinted with permission from "American Cake" by Anne Byrn.