Puff pastry. Catfish fricassee. Roasted eel.
These recipes and many more can be found in the oldest published cookbooks with black authors in American history. These cookbooks offer historians a window into the diverse world of African American history and cuisine.
Take a look at the oldest cookbooks we have now:
(1827) Robert Roberts, The House Servant’s Directory
This text isn’t quite a cookbook–it’s a domestic guide that contains a number of recipes. The book, which is the first book by a black person ever published by an American publishing house, according to the University of Michigan’s Feeding America blog, offers recipes and cooking advice ranging from how to buy poultry to how to make jams and jellies.
Robert Roberts wrote the book while he was employed by U.S. senator and Massachusetts governor Christopher Gore, according to Not By Bread Alone, Cornell University library’s cookbook blog. “His book is typical of many English and American household manuals of the period, offering a vast store of information on running a large home,” writes the blog, but it’s unique in that it is a window into “the work habits and thoughts of America’s domestic workers, and into antebellum African American culture and life.”
Read it for yourself on the Feeding America website.
(1848) Tunis Gulic Campbell, Hotel Keepers, Head Waiters and Housekeepers’ Guide
This domestic guide includes more recipes than The House Servant’s Directory, including Lobster Sauce, Roasted Eel and Apple Tart. “It is one of the earliest manuals written by any American on the supervision and management of first-class restaurants and hotel dining rooms,” writes Feeding America.
Beyond the practical information, this book “is more valuable for its instruction in interracial social skills, its insistence that managers recognize the dignity of labor, and its emphasis on the need for workers to be educated, well paid, prompt, clean, and competitive,” writes the New Georgia Encyclopedia. Campbell himself, besides being a hotel steward, was an active Republican who was elected as a senator for Georgia in 1868. Read about his days at the hotel at Feeding America.
(1866) Malinda Russell, Domestic Cook Book
This cookbook stands out as the oldest cookbook written by an African American woman. Culinary historian Jan Langone rediscovered it in 2000.
Although it had been published in Paw Paw, Michigan, its author came from Tennessee, where her short introduction to the self-published book says she was part of “one of the first families set free by Mr. Noddie of Virginia,” she wrote.
“I felt like an archaeologist who had just stumbled on a dinosaur,” Langone told Molly O’Neill writing for The New York Times in 2007. Russell’s extraordinary cookbook consists of mostly dessert recipes, as she ran a pastry shop in Tennessee–these include puff pastry and rose cake, writes O’Neill. “Her savory recipes included dishes like an elegant catfish fricassee and sweet onion custard,” she writes.
Food historians who studied the above books tended to see the manuals by Roberts and Campbell "as a reflection of who was being served more than who was doing the serving,” writes O’Neill. In other words, those lobster sauce and apple tart recipes were for the authors' employers, and weren't what African Americans would have eaten. Russell's book challenged that assumption.
Russell herself wrote that she cooked “after the plan of the ‘Virginia Housewife,’” a popular cookbook written by a white woman named Mary Randolph. “Most recipes are for dishes common throughout the Eastern United States in the 1960s,” writes Juli McLoone for the Michigan University Library blog, “but a few recipes such as ‘Sweet Potato Baked Pudding’ reflect specifically Southern cuisine.”
You can read this cookbook for yourself at Hathi Trust.
(1881) Abby Fisher, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking
Former slave Abby Fisher’s cookbook, written when she was running a business in San Francisco after the Civil War, is the canonical early cookbook by a black author.
Fisher was a successful businesswoman whose preserves won awards at the San Francisco State Fair. Her book includes recipes for Flannel Cakes, Sweet Watermelon Rind Pickle and Blackberry Rolls, among other things. Her book was held up for years as the quintessential "mirror of the African American kitchen," O'Neill writes. Now we know it's just one style of cooking among many.
Take a look at the text at Feeding America.