I have always been fascinated by food history and, in particular, Southern food history. There is something about knowing where your food comes from that excites me, as if I have been let in on a special secret. I’m not talking about just what farm on which your vegetables were grown or how your pork was raised, but really knowing how the dishes you prepare each night, the old family recipe kept locked away in a decaying book, the one dish that defines your entire childhood came into being. There’s a story behind it all; a beginning, a middle and a never-ending. But nowhere can you find more history, a chance to glimpse at the daily life of yesteryear, than a vintage cookbook. These books to me are the Old Testament of food, filled with poetic preludes, kitchen law and folklore, nearly extinct ingredients and antiquated cooking methods. The pages call out to the reader, enticing, tantalizing, waiting for someone to recreate a dish or learn a forgotten technique modern kitchen appliances have made obsolete.
Most vintage Southern cookbooks were written by former matriarchs of large plantation families, while others by women of humbler means like those on the farms that covered the varied landscape of the South, and still others by the many city slicker Leagues of Atlanta, New Orleans or Charleston. However, for me, the most fascinating cookbooks are those by African American women living prior to 1940. Pages upon pages of dishes and recollections which followed their families through slavery and into the almost as cruel Jim Crow era. It is in these books that we learn of their daily diet, the various plants and animals grown on their tiny plots of land, how they survived on little yet always seemed to perform the miracle of the 5 loaves and 2 fishes regularly. You can almost hear them speaking to you as you read aloud the recipes written in their distinct vernacular. A history lesson wrapped in food, etymology, seasons and culture.
I recently stumbled upon the cookbook What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking through a friend of mine after discussing our mutual love of Southern food in an historical context. As we nerded out over our affinity for vintage African American recipes, it became apparent that I needed to add this lovely to my growing collection. Yes, I am becoming the crazy cookbook lady.
Abby Fisher is said to be the first ex-slave to write a cookbook. She had moved to San Francisco from Mobile, AL after the war with her husband and began to cook and cater for the various wealthy families of the city. With the help of the Women’s Co-operative Printing Office of San Francisco, Mrs. Fisher published her many recipes in 1881 which included dishes like Ochra Gumbo, Corn Fritters and Chow Chow. It is likely she had the recipes transcribed for her as it is said she was mostly illiterate. Her story is now a part of Southern history and the food she cooked preserved forever in print for the next generation.
And just like that, Amazon has notfied me that my copy of What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking has shipped.
Awaiting your arrival, Mrs Fisher. In a mere two days, my kitchen will soon be yours.