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
The only known copy of Russell’s book resides at the University of Michigan. See a scan of the original 1866 publication and the 2007 facsimile
Source : Robin Watson, “1866 African-American cookbook from Michigan woman offers voice from the past“, Detroit News, February 19, 2020.