Occasionally we have to change history to understand it better. Not the facts, but sometimes the recipes.
I recently wrote a piece for NPR’s Kitchen Window about the earliest African-American cookbooks. Readers raised good questions about whether I should adapt recipes from these books for contemporary kitchens.
I’ve thought about this as I prepare for a series of historic cooking and baking classes I’m teaching this year at Washington, D.C.’s Hill Center and felt a little guilty. No, it’s not because my family has eaten chicken gumbo from an 1881 cookbook several nights in a row. Nor is it because I make cookies and cakes from the 1800s, well, a lot. (Many neighbors pitch in to eat the desserts.)
I feel guilty because I want to recover recipes and stories from the past, but I also want the foods to be appealing today. Sometimes that means I have to tweak recipes more than I’d like to as I try to recapture their creators’ lives.
Malinda Russell and Abby Fisher were the first two African-American cookbook authors. Born in Tennessee around 1820, Russell was free but still faced inequality. There were black codes that, depending on the state, required free blacks to register with the government, subjected them to curfews, kept them from schooling, banned them from testifying against whites and more. As a young woman, Russell planned to immigrate to Liberia, a colony for free blacks, until her travel funds were stolen. She turned to cooking to make a living, and eventually established her own pastry shop.
Harassed during the Civil War for supporting the Union, Russell fled to Michigan. In 1866, with the war over, Russell published “A Domestic Cook Book” to raise funds to get home. Cakes, cookies, puddings and other desserts – from a simple cornmeal cake to an elegant floating island – make up the bulk of her recipes. Russell also offers directions for savory dishes like chicken salad and Irish potatoes (with codfish) as well as for curing rheumatism and making cologne.
Fifteen years later, ex-slave Abby Fisher published “What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking.” Savory dishes such as soups, croquettes, roast meats and condiments are the strength of her cookbook, although she also includes recipes for breads, cakes, pies and puddings. Fisher was born in South Carolina around 1832 and married in Alabama in 1860. She knew plantation slavery, although she says little about it. After Emancipation, she and her family moved to California, where she set up a successful catering business. She won medals in city and state fairs for her condiments. Encouraged by friends and patrons, who likely helped the illiterate woman with the writing, she published her cookbook.
Cooking from Russell’s and Fisher’s books are ways to explore their efforts to be independent and self-supporting. But, honestly, the recipes sometimes need some work. Ingredients are left out or the quantities just don’t seem right. (The same problems can bedevil today’s cookbooks too.) So I guess at how much sugar, say, a cake needs or I up the amount of butter. Preferences have also changed. Lard, for instance, isn’t popular with the recipe-testers on my block so I try a version of biscuits with butter instead.
Even the recipes with mistakes or ones that don’t appeal today, however, tell us things. I surmise that Mrs. Russell was working quickly to write her cookbook. And I get a taste – only ever an approximate taste – from Fisher’s world.
Making someone’s recipes is like talking with that person. What, author, did you have in mind? How can I make your recipe part of my repertoire? What do we have in common as cooks and how do we differ? By adjusting historic recipes and then making them again and again, we keep a conversation going. We keep their creators’ stories alive .
Amanda Moniz’ class Food and Freedom is Feb. 22 at Washington, D.C.’s Hill Center.
Malinda Russell’s Queen Charlotte’s Cake, a mellow, sweet wine teacake with currants, didn’t need much adjusting. This recipe, like most of her cake recipes, was quite large, so I cut it in half. I also switched the measurements to our standard way of measuring (from pounds and gills to cups). Russell measured the flour in weight (which is most accurate way), but we mainly measure flour by volume (cups) so I switched the flour to a cup measurement. (If you have a scale, you can do it by weight. You’ll need a half pound of flour.) Her directions call for “spice to taste,” and I opted for grated nutmeg and cinnamon. Perhaps the biggest change was that I added baking powder to lighten the cake. Finally, Russell gives no directions on how to combine the ingredients. I opted for our typical way of adding and incorporating ingredients, specified the type of pan, and chose a medium heat for the oven temperature. Russell may have used the name Queen Charlotte's Cake, rather than the more common Queen's Cake, because Queen Charlotte (wife of George III) was rumored to have African ancestry. But I really don't know.
- 1 ¾ cups plus 1 tablespoon flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- Spice to taste
- 1 ½ cups dried currants
- ¼ cup brandy
- ¼ cup wine (I used white wine that I happened to have open)
- ¼ cup cream
- 1 cup sugar
- 4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter
- 2 large eggs
Preheat the oven to 325 F convection (or 350 F conventional).
Grease and flour a 9-inch-by-5-inch loaf pan.
Sift the 1¾ cup flour, baking powder and any spices you choose together.
Toss the currants with the remaining 1 tablespoon flour. (This will help the currants stay evenly distributed in the cake.)
Mix together the brandy, wine and cream. (The liquid will look curdled.)
Cream the sugar and butter together.
Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down after each addition.
Add the flour and liquids alternately, beginning and ending with the flour and scraping down between additions. Stir in the currants.
Pour into the loaf pan.
Bake for about 45-50 minutes, rotating once about halfway through the baking time. Bake until the cake is a nice golden brown and a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean.
Cool in the pan about 15 minutes and then turn out to finish cooling on a rack.