A Domestic Cookbook
This is a story about the first American cookbook written by a Black person, that we know of at least. This book is 155 years old this year and has tasty recipes you’ll recognize as classics. There are also a few weird recipes that’ll make you laugh.
The writer, Malinda Russell, has a powerful story. She’s someone you should know about. Let me tell you about her and about her food.
Welcome to Family Meal, where we’re all about Memory Making Meals with a splash of wine. This story is the first installment of 2021, y’all. And it marks a milestone, the oldest book we’ve ever discussed on Family Meal. Let’s get into it.
As Malinda writes the last line of the final recipe, “Keep cool,” she must feel some relief. She is really going to finish this cookbook.
It’s 1866, just one year after the 13th amendment abolishing slavery is ratified and 15 years before renowned Black pickle entrepreneur Abby Fisher will write her cookbook in San Francisco.
Malinda’s mostly complete cookbook is a practical one, as useful as she could make it. There are at least 265 recipes within its pages. It’s a good number.
Most of the recipes she’s gathered are for sweets. Even her onion custard has a half-pound of sugar in it. And, there are 70 recipes for cakes. Maybe her sweet tooth got the best of her. No, it’s OK. These are all dishes she’s made before. She’s sure they’re tasty.
She’s writing in Michigan, from a freshly minted farming village of a few thousand people, huddled around the Paw Paw River. Paw Paw trees grow up to three stories tall along the riverbanks here and are the reason for the town’s name, also Paw Paw. But these finicky trees won’t grow unless loftier trees, such as five-story beech or ten-story cottonwoods, protect them from the sun. When conditions are right, though, they produce sugary fruit with flavors that seem too tropical to exist this far north.
“Union values,” she writes. That’s the reason she’s sitting here, writing in Paw Paw. Because holding anti-slavery views in the South can get you robbed or worse. She was spared the worst down there. She was only robbed. But they stole all her money—twice! She has to include that.
“At the age of about nineteen….” There is a scratched lyrical melody as she writes, the sound of chronicling.
That’s how old she was when she left Tennessee, nineteen. She was an inexperienced but determined adult and headed to the continent, to free Liberia. As people do when moving, she was traveling heavy, with her life in her luggage, or at least, the parts of her life that she could carry in luggage.
Yes, she left some things behind. But that wasn’t important. What was important is the life she would build on the other side. Black people with a bit of money could fight to stay in the United States. But what did she have to fight with, to fight for? Trying her luck on the continent sounded like a better offer than toiling and fighting for scraps all the time! So, she “set out for Liberia….” That’s where greed found her, with all her bags and determination. But greed only stole her money.
She never made it past Virginia. The robbery ended her travels for about a decade.
Despite this abrupt end to her travel hopes, she decides not to write much about who greed was for this book. Was greed muscled or lanky, sneaky or bold, female or male? Maybe who greed is isn’t important because this detour is when she learned to cook—the good evens out the bad.
It doesn’t matter now, anyway. What matters is that she moved on, moved forward. She’s industrious. It’s what she does. And there are details about her prosperous years still to get on the page.
“I kept a pastry shop for about six years,” she jots. It was a profitable business for her. She was able to make enough to care for herself, her son, and still save. It’s also where she perfected all those cake recipes. And she was back at home again too, in Tennessee.
Yes, she’s in the South. But there were lots of abolitionists around Greene County. They had also recently built the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Greeneville. It’s clear to her she’s running this business in uncertain times. But home is home, even if not perfect.
Baking cakes in the middle of a civil war is no cakewalk. Besides the clashing armies around her, Confederate-aligned guerilla bands are attacking Union sympathizers at will. They aren’t uniformed soldiers. There’s no way to tell them apart from the rest of the locals. If they visit your shop, maybe they want sweets, or maybe they want something else.
“…a guerilla party…”
On January 16th, 1864, guerillas attacked Malinda and stole her savings.
“…threatened my life if I revealed who they were.”
Meanwhile, in Michigan, Sojourner Truth, the anti-slavery and women’s rights activist, is living in Battle Creek, just 40 miles away from Paw Paw. There’s a network of people in southwest Michigan who are connected to the anti-slavery cause. And networks of safe houses and churches are nearby if needed.
Malinda is a free woman and not worried about being taken anywhere. But everybody needs a community of likemindeds. In Paw Paw, there is community, there are those peculiar Paw Paw trees, and most importantly, there’s a chance of peace.
So, she moves to peaceful Paw Paw and begins, at 54 years old, to write this cookbook that will become a treasure. She writes about what would become classics of African American cuisine: peach cobbler, green tomato preserves, blackberry spirits, sweet potato pie, chow chow, baked salsify, and more. But her goal is not a book about classic dishes.
Her goal for this book is quite simple. She wants “to receive enough from the sale of it to return home.” So, she writes a book of recipes that will “satisfy,” a suitable outcome for her and the industrious people around her. She promotes the book as a practical instruction manual for her farmer neighbors and customers, not as a book about sumptuous plates.
Why This Book?
Now, if you’re familiar with Family Meal, you know that it is not about food that simply satisfies. In 2021, I think it’s OK to be delighted by sumptuous food. In fact, I want more sumptuous food moments, not fewer. You also likely know that this channel is all about recipes for the culture. My eyes get a bit wider whenever I learn something new about how Black food ideas have endured. Yours probably do too.
In short, you and I are perhaps the exact opposite of who Malinda was writing for. She didn’t write this book for people looking for a memory-making meal. She really didn’t write it for the culture either.
So, what’s the point of talking about this book on Family Meal? Is it just a noteworthy cultural artifact? Is it a simple record of the strange things people ate in the past? (Did I mention that she put a half-pound of sugar in onion custard?) No, I think there’s more than that to this book.
First, there’s a story of struggle here. The book’s 2007 reprint says Malinda’s tale is about the “hard labor” of a woman with an “indomitable spirit.” That’s true, but it’s not as if her challenges gave her life its form—her story only arced when times were tough but flattened when life was comfortable. My life isn’t like that. Is yours?
Yes, Malinda struggled. But she wasn’t only struggle. We just haven’t studied her life enough yet to see how both labor and leisure played a role. So, I’ll take the liberty in the next few paragraphs to consider a Malinda at rest.
I imagine her, on a swampy spring day, writing. The air is heavy on her skin, like soaked wool. But that doesn’t stop her arms from moving the quill across the pages. Her teeth are showing just a bit, but she isn’t smiling. This is a mix of contentment and determination. It’s the face of a woman writing about the food she knows and for the people knows. And she knows those people like sweets.
Yes, people like sweets, so sweets mean good business. But let’s be honest. You don’t go into the sweets business for purely practical reasons. You make sweets because they are delightful. That’s why she wrote a book mostly about the delights of sugar in all its forms: pies, cakes, quick breads, cookies, puddings, trifles, pastry, icings, jams, cordials, and cobblers.
She writes 70 cake recipes, and each is different. They’re all unique snowflakes, made mostly of the same ingredients, but with little differences that are each worth noticing. Sometimes sour cream is needed. Other times fresh. Some cakes require lard, others butter. Some cakes need brandy, and others: rose water. Caraway, lemon, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice: she’s reveling in the flavors of freshly baked sponge and warm crumb in this book.
You must LOOK for delight if you expect to find it.
She even includes a whole roasted pig recipe. She says it should be fully dressed and stuffed. She leaves out the ingredients for the stuffing, but I think this pig’s got to be stuffed with the kind of ingredients she mentions elsewhere in her book: roasted parsnips, carrots, marjoram, and butter, always butter.
Imagine a suckling pig on a rustic platter approaching your dinner table. There’s no more feast-worthy dish than that. Even though Malinda is targeting industrious people, this is not a book focused on crunchy, healthy dishes. (Did I mention that even her onion custard has a half-pound of sugar in it?)
Even if the people she knew were only concerned with being satisfied, these recipes offer delight. But only those that look for delight will find it. I’m looking. Are you?
That’s what Melinda Russell is serving up. Anybody that can do that with food is someone worth learning about.
But don’t take my word for it. Make these recipes yourself. Start with this savory fried cruller. You know those crispy edge bits on fried food? They’re the best part, right? That’s what this bread is giving you.