Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson joins Kojo to discuss her new memoir and explore how her experiences growing up in Chicago frame her perspectives about race and opportunity in the United States.
A half century ago, the term “soul food” emerged to describe both African-American and Southern cooking. It’s a term that historians and scholars say muddles the long, varied history of a cuisine with roots stretching from Europe to Africa. Now, some of the earliest cookbooks penned by African Americans are shedding light on the lives and struggles of early black chefs, as well as the nuanced recipes they contributed to American cuisine. Kojo explores what we’ve learned from early black cookbook authors and how their recipes are changing our perceptions of Southern cooking.
- Amanda Moniz Historian; Assistant Director of the National History Center of the American Historical Association; Author of the culinary blog "History's Just Desserts"
- Psyche Williams-Forson Associate Professor of American Studies, University of Maryland; Author, "Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food and Power"
Recipes From Early African-American Cookbook Authors
Abby Fisher’s Cheese Pudding Recipe
From “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc.” by Abby Fisher. Published 1881.
Ingredients and Preparation:
Have mild cheese; grate half pound of cheese and half pound of apples, add to this half pint of sweet milk, beat four eggs very light, and add to the above. Before mixing apples with cheese, put to it one tablespoon of white sugar; stir all well. Season with nutmeg, and pour it into a dish and put to bake, putting one tablespoonful of butter over it in small pieces. Twenty minutes will bake it, and send to the table as a vegetable.
Amanda Moniz’s Adaptation
Butter to grease baking dish
1/2 pound mild cheese, such as mild cheddar
One big apple
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 pint (1 cup) of milk, preferably whole milk or 2%
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg, or to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoonful butter, in small pieces
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Butter a baking dish, such as a 9 x 12” oval baking dish.
Using a box grater, grate cheese. Put in medium bowl.
Peel apples. Using the same side of the box grater as used for the cheese, grate apple all around to the core. Put in a small bowl. Add the sugar and cornstarch and toss together.
Put the grated apple mixture into the bowl with the cheese. Add the milk, nutmeg, salt and pepper. In a small bowl, beat the eggs with a fork thoroughly. Add to the cheese mixture.
Pour into the baking dish and dot the top with the butter.
Bake 20-30 minutes until the pudding is nicely browned and set.
Serve as a vegetarian main dish or hearty side dish.
Note from Amanda: The only changes I made were to add a little cornstarch since the apple gives up a lot of liquid and to standardize directions to today’s style.
Malinda Russell’s Jumbles Cookie Recipe
From “A Domestic Cook Book: A Careful Election of Useful Receipts For the Kitchen” by Malinda Russell. Published 1866.
Ingredients and Preparation:
One lb. flour, 3-4 lb sugar, one half lb butter, five eggs, mace, rose water, and carraway, to your taste.
Amanda Moniz’s Adaptation
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons mace
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons rosewater
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon rosewater
Preheat the oven to 375° on a convection oven or to 400° on a conventional oven.
Lightly grease two cookie sheets or line them with parchment paper.
Sift together the flour, salt, baking powder, and mace. Set aside.
Cream the butter and sugar together in a stand mixer or with a hand-held mixer.
Add the egg and beat until incorporated. Scrape down.
Add the dry ingredients and mix on low speed until just about combined.
Add the rosewater and caraway seeds and mix on low speed just until everything is combined.
This dough is stiff enough to work with right away. Or you can wrap it in plastic wrap to refrigerate for up to a couple days before using. To wrap it, place the dough on plastic wrap. Flatten it into a disk. Wrap fully.)
Roll walnut-sized pieces of the dough into balls and place on the cookie sheet. Press each cookie gently with two fingers.
Roll pieces of the dough (a bit bigger than walnut-sized) into a snake about 10 inches long. Bring the two ends towards each other so the snake now looks like a narrow U. Twist the two strands together and form into a circle. Press the ends together to close the circle.
Bake, rotating once about halfway through baking, until fragrant and golden brown, about 10-12 minutes. (If you do balls and rings, just bake them on separate trays because each shape will take a slightly different amount of time to bake.)
While the jumbles are baking, combine the sugar and rosewater for the glaze. (Most of the sugar won’t dissolve.) Have ready a pastry brush.
As soon as you take the cookies out of the oven, brush on the glaze. Let cool. Enjoy!
Note from Amanda: Rosewater can be found at some supermarkets, Middle Eastern groceries, and online. (I trust I don’t need to tell you that you want the edible stuff, not the skin toner.)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world on "Food Wednesday." A little more than a decade ago, an antique book collector discovered a cookbook with some mouth watering and history changing recipes. The pages described how to make puff pastry, delicate rose cake, sweet onion custard, an elegant catfish fricassee, among other dishes. The 19th century cookbook wasn't just important for the refined cooking it described.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt was groundbreaking because of who wrote it. A black woman named Melinda Russell, who was born around 1820. Russell is now recognized as the first African-America cookbook author. Her recipes and the work of many other early African-American chefs is giving historians new insights on the death and the breath of early black cuisine. But are these insights enough to change our engrained notions of what African-American cooking, and even soul food really is? Joining us to have this conversation is Amanda Moniz.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIShe is a historian, assistant director of the National History Center of the American Historical Association. She's author of the culinary blog, "History's Just Desserts." Amanda Moniz joins us in studio. Thank you for joining us.
MS. AMANDA MONIZThank you for having me on.
NNAMDIAnd joining us from studios at the University of Maryland is Psyche Williams-Forson, Professor and co-director of Graduate Studies in the American Studies Department of the University of Maryland. And author of "Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food and Power." Psyche Williams-Forson, thank you for joining us.
DR. PSYCHE WILLIAMS-FORSONThank you. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIYou're welcome. You too can join this conversation. Have you ever had a meal that completely redefined your idea of soul food? Give us a call. 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Amanda, a lot of people might think they've got a pretty good idea of what southern cooking, and particularly black southern cooking, looks and tastes like. Those images might center around fried foods, chicken, heavy greens, sauces, biscuits and pies.
NNAMDIWhile those foods certainly are a part of the south's traditional country cuisine, we're finding out from some of the earliest African-American cooks that even during the slave era, cooking was a lot more refined than what we might expect. You've spent some time researching the first African-American cookbook authors and Melinda Russell comes out as one of the most interesting. How is her cookbook turning the idea of rustic southern cooking on its head, and who was Melinda Russell?
MONIZWell, Melinda -- we don't know a lot about Melinda Russell. Everything we know basically comes from the brief sketch of her life that she gives us at the beginning of her cookbook. She tells us that her grandmother was free -- a free black woman, and so her mother was born free. And she suggests she was, by rights, therefore, should have been born free, although she sort of hints she may have -- may have known slavery. She lived in -- was born in Tennessee, lived in other parts of the south, and when she was 19 years old, she planned to immigrate to Liberia, but she tells us that her money was robbed and she was not able to make it to Liberia.
MONIZSo, she says she learned to cook, she learned to cook, she says, from a colored cook named Fanny Seward, presumably this woman was a slave. And after that, she worked as a cook, a nurse, a lady's traveling companion. And in time, she opened her own boarding house, and then her own pastry shop. And her cookbook really features a lot of desserts that are not the kind of things I think we typically associate with southern cooking or soul cooking. She...
NNAMDIYeah, it talks about -- talk about some of the spices and flavors and the methods that she used that changed our idea of African-American cooking.
MONIZShe uses a lot of rosewater. That's one of her favorite flavorings. She uses spices like cinnamon and mace and cloves. She also -- lemon is one of her, truly one of her favorite flavors. She is a very -- I think she's a very confident cook, because many of her recipes are simple, and I don't mean simple in a sense that they're plain, but she clearly thinks if you have good ingredients and you prepare your desserts well, your cakes or cookies or whatever you're making, that you're going to have a good dessert, and you don't need a lot of flavors.
MONIZYou know, you don't need to gussy things up.
NNAMDIPsyche, Melinda Russell's book was only discovered about 14 years ago. What did her book mean for the scholarly study of southern and African-American food ways?
MONIZWell, certainly, it was an added treat for those of us who study African-American food ways, and it was a compliment to some of the other chefs that we had been studying. But one of the things that the speaker has already emphasized, which I think is often missed, is the level of skill and also the experimentation with simple things. Lemon, caraway seeds, and all of these kinds of other spices that suggest that African-Americans have been cooking from the land for a very long time and have been more than making due, but have been doing some incredibly ingenuous kinds of things with the foods that they came into contact with.
NNAMDIOne of the other things, apparently, we learned from her cookbook, Amanda, is that she was married and left with a widow and an invalid son.
NNAMDIYou spend a lot of time recreating the recipes you're researching, and you recently made a batch of cookies called jumble, straight from Melinda Russell's cookbook. Tell us about these cookies and how Melinda Russell may have used them in her time.
MONIZThis is one of my favorite recipes. It's simple, but so different and so good. The cookies have rosewater, caraway seeds and mace in them. Those are the flavors that give it its distinct flavoring. It's a simple butter cookie. She had a pastry shop and so I assume she would have been selling these in her pastry shop. And like I say, it's the combination of things like rosewater and caraway seeds that I had never combined before I was a pastry chef, before I went to grad school, and this has just changed the kind of flavors I'm putting together. She -- we don't know how she shaped them. That's one of the things I've been playing around with.
MONIZDid she do them as balls? Did she do them as double rings, which was traditional for jumbles? Did she roll them out and cut them out with cutters? So, those are the kind of fun questions that I can ask as I play around with these recipes.
NNAMDIYou can see images of Melinda Russell's book plus find a recipe for jumbles at our website, kojoshow.org, if you simply go the website. If you'd like to join the conversation, you call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think people confuse soul food and southern food? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. But Amanda, a lot of what Russell may have used may not be on our store shelves anymore. When you recreate these recipes for the classes you teach, what kind of obstacles do you encounter working with these early measurements and these ingredients?
MONIZA lot of the ingredients are available, but you just have to look a little harder. Like rosewater is something available if you go to -- at certain grocery stores or middle eastern stores, definitely not at every grocery store, but it is out there. The challenges are really that, a lot of times, either measurements aren't given -- she does not give directions in her cookbook, for most of the recipes. Only very few recipes have directions on how to actually combine the ingredients.
MONIZSo that's where there's guesswork and experimentation, or looking at other cookbooks -- yeah. How long to cook something. That's what I sort of have to try and figure out.
NNAMDIYou brought some cookies, for which we will be eternally grateful. Are these jumbles?
MONIZThose are jumbles. And tried -- I brought three -- I did them as double rings, balls and circles. So you can tell me what you think.
NNAMDIWe will be indulging in jumbling. I don't know if we just created a new word, but we will be indulging in jumbling during the course of this broadcast. In case you're just joining us, it's a "Food Wednesday" conversation about early African-American cooks and cookbooks with Amanda Moniz, historian, assistant director of the National History Center of the American Historical Association. And author of the culinary blog, "History's Just Desserts." She joins us in our Washington studio.
NNAMDIJoining us from studios at the University of Maryland is Psyche Williams-Forson, Professor and Co-Director of Graduate Studies in the American Studies Department at the University of Maryland, and author of "Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food and Power." Psyche, I'd like to go back about 30 years before Melinda Russell was born, and talk about the lasting influence of a cook who just went by one name, Hercules. Not a bad name.
NNAMDICan you tell us about this man and how he became one of the first great chefs of Philadelphia?
WILLIAMS-FORSONSure. And Hercules, who was a trained chef for George Washington, created a number of different menus, very prescribed menus, very sophisticated. He was, in fact, trained. Lots of my colleagues have done work in this area. Jessica Harris, the Hidden Kitchens have featured him. And one of the things that's so interesting is both Hercules and Thomas Jefferson's chef, James Hemings, have really burst on the scene in the last sort of decade to highlight, not only the skill, but the training of early African-American chefs, which is one of the parts of the conversation that sorely is missing when we talk about southern food, in general.
WILLIAMS-FORSONBut then African-American cookery. And so, both of them, having been trained, having learned to, and become adept in cooking with a number of different herbs and spices and creating marvelous kinds of dishes, enough to grace the tables of two of our early Presidents, just fills in the gap of one of the legacies, many legacies of African-American cookery.
NNAMDIYou mentioned the name James Hemings, because around the same time that Hercules was running Washington's kitchen, a slave of Thomas Jefferson's was making his own mark, and that was James Hemings. Of course, for a variety of reasons, his name probably has a familiar ring to a lot of people here. Tell us about James Hemings.
WILLIAMS-FORSONWell, James Hemings, as you mentioned, was -- worked in the home of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. He was classically trained in France, and Hemings has a very interesting history because he was paid wages for his work, and ultimately was able to negotiate his freedom. And so, he too has this very interesting history, primarily because of his being classically trained as a chef. And, of course, we know of the legacies, the culinary legacies of Thomas Jefferson, so here you have an African-American who was in his employ.
WILLIAMS-FORSONAnd I say that because, again, he was paid wages and was able to negotiate for his freedom.
NNAMDIEven as we now celebrate the food culture that these early cooks contributed to American culture, Psyche, you spend a lot of time talking about the politics of what was going on in these early kitchens and at the tables they served. Could you explain that for us? Could you make that distinction for us?
WILLIAMS-FORSONSure. I mean, one of the things that we have to, I think, constantly keep in mind is that these early African-American chefs, African, and then African-American chefs, male and female, were certainly working under duress, not only because they were enslaved, but also because they were negotiating the very thorny space of cooking and preparing these elaborate meals, and setting tables, and household management, but they were simultaneously unable, of course, to partake in the very foods that many of them were cooking. And so...
NNAMDIYou call it the politics of want versus the politics of have.
WILLIAMS-FORSONAbsolutely. It's what you are able to have but not that which you are given access to. And so for me I'm always interested in examining the power dynamics that inscribe the kinds of food offerings that we somewhat sometimes I think take for granted. So much of these foods are surrounded by power dynamics even today, I mean, in our contemporary food times. Food is so very much a part of the power dynamics of our lives.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation on Food Wednesday on early African American cooks and cookbooks. If you're interested in joining the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Are we too quick to make assumptions about what people of different ethnic origins cook in their homes? What do you think we can learn about cooking from some of our earliest ancestors, 800-433-8850? You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our Food Wednesday conversation on early African American cooks and cookbooks. We're talking with Amanda Moniz. She's an historian, assistant director of the National History Center of the American Historical Association and author of the culinary blog History's Just Desserts. And I am now in a position to report that Melinda Russell's jumbles are very good when they come from the hand of Amanda Moniz where some of the ingredients have been changed. Thank you so very much for that.
NNAMDIAlso joining us is Psyche Williams-Forson, professor and co-director of graduate studies in the American Studies Department of the University of Maryland and author of "Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food and Power." Psyche, I'd like you to expand just a little bit on the theme you were addressing earlier, and that is the politics of wants versus the politics of have. Because people would assume that if these people, especially women, were in a position to be chefs then they were in a position to consume all of the food that they were preparing.
WILLIAMS-FORSONYeah, that's a great assumption but in reality, again, there was so much power that was circumscribing these women's lives. They were constantly watched. Ingredients oftentimes were kept under lock and key. As you move forward into the 20th century, you have some fabulous narratives coming out of books like "Living In, Living Out" by local historian Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, who detailed the lives of African American women who, in domestic work, found themselves subjected to a number of horrors and atrocities, particularly around the kitchen.
WILLIAMS-FORSONFood was bitten off of and eaten so that those who were cooking the food couldn't take it home. So it wasn't actually that folks had as much access as we assume that they did. At the same time I just want to say that cooking was one of the few sanctioned artistic forms of creative expression that African Americans had. And so when we talk about quote unquote "making due," it's not always about the ingredients and the food stuff. But it's the ways of which they were able to perform African American and African cultures outside of the eyes of those who held them in captivity.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Alice. "How difficult was it for black people in the 19th century to create their own food businesses, especially in the South? Did the authors you're talking about encounter racism as they made their way up the culinary ladder?" Amanda Moniz, apparently one of the reasons Melinda Russell went into business was to escape some of the racism that she would've had if taking orders directly from whites.
MONIZYeah, I mean, she sought independence in her life she just sort of by -- tend to immigrate to Liberia by opening her own food business. I'm sure she would've of course encountered racism but this also gave her a space to be free of white oversight. And that was true of free African Americans' food businesses in the antebellum South in general.
NNAMDIMelinda Russell was the first African American female cookbook author and 15 years after Russell's book was published, a black woman named Abby Fisher published her own book. what was Abby Fisher's story, Amanda?
MONIZShe also does not tell us very much. She tells us very little about herself. She had presumably been a slave. I was almost certain she was. She was born around 1832 I think in South Carolina, then was in Alabama. She married. She had 11 children, she tells us in her cookbook. In 1877, at the end of reconstruction, she and her family moved to California. And she and her husband opened a successful business producing pickles and preserves and doing catering. And she went on to write her cookbook after winning some prizes for her pickles and preserves and condiments.
NNAMDIWhat was -- that was her culinary specialty? What was her culinary specialty?
MONIZYeah, pickles and preserves and condiments make -- I think are really her specialty. She also has recipes for different meats and gumbos and stews and for cakes and desserts. But clearly pickles and condiments and things like that.
NNAMDIBut how about this one? We've got a recipe of Abby Fisher's on our website for cheese pudding. Cheese and pudding are two words that most people don't normally think of together. Is this a savory dish? Is it a dessert?
MONIZIt's a savory dish and I was intrigued. So I -- and I had never had cheese pudding with apple in it before. And hers has apple in it and I was intrigued. I made it the other night for dinner. It was great.
NNAMDIOkay. It's meant as a main dish or a good vegetarian dish, huh?
MONIZShe says to serve it as a vegetable but I thought, yes, maybe more of a main dish or a hearty side dish.
NNAMDIPsyche, the whole post-reconstruction period up to the 1920s was really a heyday for African American catering. Abby Fisher was a caterer and you also had a lot of African Americans developing their culinary talents on trains and ships. We got this email from Margo in Washington who said, "Last year I came upon and purchased a cookbook in a New York City bookstore titled "Good Things to Eat As Suggested By Rufus." The book says he was born a slave and became one of the finest chefs of 1911, and the first American chef of African ancestry to write and publish a cookbook. Do your guests know anymore about Rufus Estes?"
NNAMDIWell, Psyche, tell us a little bit more about the railway chef Rufus Estes.
WILLIAMS-FORSONYes. I think one of the exciting things about the life of Ms. Estes is having been born a slave in Tennessee. He attended school in Nashville. He performed a number of jobs, of course, growing up. And at the age of 16 he was employed by a restaurant keeper. But we don't know a lot about the jobs he performed. We do know that he went on to live in Chicago and ultimately he entered service on the Pullman Company, a sleeper car railway.
WILLIAMS-FORSONAnd one of the exciting things for me as a food historian about Mr. Estes, he speaks to the sort of African American men and women who we know little about who worked on the railway, but also who worked on the waterways and just so many other spaces that we don't imagine African American cooking is taking place.
WILLIAMS-FORSONHe actually went on to pen a cookbook and become a very noted author in Chicago and actually was noted by the Chicago Defender as one of the greatest chefs of their times. So again, he's a very exciting chef to study, having Africanized several foods. And by that I mean adding things like chestnut and other kinds of spices that we tend to associate with African and African American cookery.
NNAMDIHis books includes a section on weights and measures. It was apparently European inspired dining with fresh American regional ingredients. He writes of green tomato soup and other foods of his upbringing that he would never have cooked them for the Pullman riders.
NNAMDIWhat were conditions like for chefs on these railways? Was Rufus pretty exceptional for making it head chef in these private cars/
WILLIAMS-FORSONHe really would have been because, again, most of the chefs -- or most of the African American men on these cars would've been Pullman porters. So the fact that he's able to obtain the heights -- and I don't say that lightly -- of being a chef on one of these -- on the railway is quite exceptional for an African American at that time, who would've been relegated to the more lowly of tasks such as, again, working as a Pullman porter.
WILLIAMS-FORSONBut I should also say that even within the porter staff we should be mindful that there were food kinds of offerings going on, that many of them were responsible for making sure that children -- African American children who were traveling from -- you know, traveling the railway were fed. So in some ways that's another part of the food story. Though they're not necessarily actually preparing the food, they are part and parts of the distribution of these food ways.
NNAMDIAnd railway kitchens apparently exacted a pretty tough physical toll. They required a lot of heavy lifting and withstanding temperatures over 100 degrees?
WILLIAMS-FORSONYeah, sure. Absolutely.
NNAMDINot too favorable.
WILLIAMS-FORSONAnd they also would've been -- and also would've been unsafe by today's standards, yeah.
NNAMDIAmanda, you've cooked some of Rufus Estes' recipes. What did you learn from him and how did his recipes turn out?
MONIZHe was a very -- his recipes are very sophisticated. He liked rich food, a lot of rich dishes. I made one of his fish dishes. He called it fish east India style, which I thought was interesting. He clearly has a cosmopolitan orientation. He traveled to Asia at one point. He was interested in foods from different parts of the world. The fish dish was very good.. Yeah, I liked it a lot.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. He traveled to Asia which is where he picked up some of these recipes?
MONIZWell, he traveled to Japan with one of his employers but he's so -- as far as I know he never traveled to India. He doesn't mention that but I -- when I chose to make a recipe from his cookbook, I wanted to highlight that he had traveled. He met celebrities from around the world, international people. And this was his orientation.
NNAMDIHis book also contains several tips for serving and pairing foods. Tell us about some of his advice.
MONIZYes. He starts off with some advice to kitchen maids suggesting what you might serve for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner. He says, lunch is the easiest meal to prepare. You can use things leftover from last night's dinner. His -- he does give one tip that's caused me no end of worry. He says, do not serve dishes at the same meal that conflict. Well, that makes sense. I understand that. And I agree. Then he says, for instance, if you have sliced tomatoes do not service tomato soup. If however you have potato soup, it would not be out of place to serve potatoes with your dinner.
MONIZSo now I'm left to worry, what if I have asparagus, do I -- can I service asparagus soup? If I have avocado, avocado soup?
NNAMDIThat was the intention, to make you think.
MONIZExactly, exactly. He knew what he was talking about.
NNAMDIOn to the phones. Here is Alexa in Washington, D.C. Alexa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALEXAOh yes, hi. Thanks for taking my call.
ALEXALet's see, what was my question? So I came in kind of late to the show when you were discussing, you know, the cooks that cooked -- or the chefs that were working for George Washington and then of course Thomas Jefferson, which is very interesting to me. I've always loved the kitchen at Monticello knowing this kind of history there. But I'm very curious about what kinds of things they were cooking for themselves and not for the president.
WILLIAMS-FORSONRight. I think that's -- right. You know, sure, I think that's an excellent question. And it ties into something earlier that Amanda said in both instances of Ms. Abby Fisher and also in the instance too of some of the other chefs. We don't know a lot about what African Americans were cooking for themselves because sometimes they don't tell us. And I think that was part of the sort of culture of secrecy and also the culture of protection. So honestly we don't necessarily have a record of what folks -- African Americans were doing in their private lives.
WILLIAMS-FORSONWhat they present to us on the pages that they have left are their sort of public personas, which as we know from our own lives, we can assume are not always the same as their personal. So, you know, Dr. Leni Sorenson who was the culinary historian down at the Monticello home has talked a lot about the different kinds of foods that were cooked there. But even in the times that I've heard her share her expertise, I've never heard her actually talk about what the chefs have cooked for their own families.
NNAMDIIt's Food Wednesday. We're talking about early African American cooks and cookbooks. I'm taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Was early American cooking necessarily rustic cooking in your view? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Has Southern cooking gotten a bad rap? You can also send email to email@example.com or send us a Tweet @kojoshow. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org and ask a question or make a comment there. Here now -- Alexa, thank you for your call. Here now is Jim in Gaithersburg, Md. Jim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JIMOh, thank you for taking my call. Kojo, I listen to your programs a lot. I just wanted to ask the lady, could she explain a little bit more about the relationship between food and power? Does she mean between slaves and owners or -- it was a little vague and I didn't quite understand it.
NNAMDIWell, she talks about the relationship both during the slave period and the relationship as it exists even today. But I'll let Psyche Williams-Forson speak for herself.
WILLIAMS-FORSONSure. I mean, as -- thank you for that question. Food is laden with power in the ways in which it's prepared it's sort of most basic. If someone has a habit or a culture of cooking for you and they get angry with you, they can withhold food from you. You can over season food, you can spoil foods by burning them or what have you. All of these suggest different kinds of food relationships that are going on between the person who's receiving and the person who is providing food stuff.
WILLIAMS-FORSONSo we know of instances where folks have spit in food. I mean, you know, that's one of the sort of stories I was told as a child. Never send food back in a restaurant because you never know how it will come back. And so on the one hand, yeah, these are instances of different kinds of deeds that are done with food.
WILLIAMS-FORSONBut there's also the dimension of the ways in which we exercise power around food. Again, if you're a vegetarian and you go to someone's home to eat and they have nothing that is vegetarian for you, that is a form of power. It's personal power. It's social and cultural power. So I think here I'm talking very broadly about between slaves and those who held slaves, but also between one another. And so it's very expansive, my discussion of food and power.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Esther in Alexandria who says, "I think you mentioned both African and European influences in early African American cooking. Can your guests talk a little bit more about these European influences?" Starting with you, Psyche?
WILLIAMS-FORSONSure. As I mentioned earlier, some of these -- well, one of the things we know is that many -- and this is a piece that I think we have to continuously emphasize -- many of these chefs about whom we're talking and cooks learned to cook in part from those who -- with whom they were enslaved. Many of these women taught the African American cooks how to -- what certain ingredients were and also how to maybe boil waters and cook different kinds of foods.
WILLIAMS-FORSONI think it's really important in African American cookery for us not to assume that all African American women and men just naturally learned to cook that, you know, somehow the gods of cooking breathed life into them and then they just one day started cooking. It's really, really important for us to emphasize the skill, the training, but also the educational process. Numerous dishes, as Amanda has talked about the experimentation, numerous dishes were burned in the process of learning how to get them right, which temperatures to use.
WILLIAMS-FORSONAnd so that would be on a very sort of basic level where some of those influences come from, not to mention different kinds of ingredients, which I'm sure Amanda can elaborate upon.
MONIZYeah, there really is a global story when you talk about the ingredients that cooks like Melinda Russell and her contemporaries were using. Rosewater had been encountered first by Europeans in the middle ages during the crusades. And then it became used in European cuisine and in American cuisine. Sugar was of course something produced in the West Indies by enslaved Africans, then after emancipation, the British Empire by indentured servants from different parts of the British Empire.
MONIZBut sugar culture -- the cultivation of sugar had been learned by Europeans from Arabs who had been doing it earlier. Caraway seeds were used in European cooking. Okra came to the Americas from Africa on slavers on the slave ships. So all of -- if you look at the cookbooks altogether, there are global stories about ingredients.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. If you'd like to call, the number's 800-433-8850. Do you think cooks who have the barest ingredients can often be the most innovative, 800-433-8850? Shoot us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a Tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's Food Wednesday and we're talking about early African American cooks and cookbooks with Amanda Moniz, Historian, assistant director of the National History Center of the American Historical Association and author of the culinary blog History's Just Desserts. Psyche Williams Forson is a professor and co-director of graduate studies in the American Studies Department of the University of Maryland and author of "Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food and Power."
NNAMDIYou can call us at 800-433-8850. Amanda, we did a show in September about soul food and how its origins are a lot more diverse than most people think. Black cooking from the South has a reputation for being heavy, for being unhealthy. But from what I'm hearing, freshness was a priority for a lot of African American cooks going way back. I'll start with you and then go to Psyche.
MONIZYeah, I think that's right. A lot of these recipes include fruits and vegetables often cooked for quite a while in puddings -- particularly in puddings, but using fresh fruits and vegetables. And the recipes I've made are not heavy kinds of recipes. There are a lot of delicate cakes and delicate cookies. So I think that's right, this is a different story we're getting from the cookbooks.
WILLIAMS-FORSONYeah, I do agree certainly with what Amanda has said. And one of the sort of sticking points for me and my work is that African American food ways gets reduced to this sort of, as you said, fried, heavy laden with, you know, gravies and so forth and so on. But many studies have shown that over I guess about 60 to 80 years now years ago, African Americans really were eating off the land, sweet potatoes and leeks and different kinds of, as Amanda has mentioned, herbs and spices.
WILLIAMS-FORSONAnd so this notion of making due and overcooking foods, it's really over conflated. It's not really as true as we would like to think. Therefore were and continue to be a variety of African American diets, depending upon which part of the South you found yourself enslaved, right. I mean, slavery in Louisiana was not the same as slavery in Virginia. And so it depended upon what you had access to, the work cycles, you know, whether or not you were on a plantation where you worked with a particular planting season.
WILLIAMS-FORSONSo, I mean, you know, there's so many variations but I think it's easier for us to collapse the understanding of African American food ways into something that we can define. And so we do that by saying this is what it is and this is soul food and it's unhealthy.
NNAMDIWell, Psyche, with all this very cosmopolitan cooking going on in kitchens both in the South and beyond, how did we end up with the stereotypical soul food label applied to black cooking?
WILLIAMS-FORSONWell, you know, historically there were -- this is not to say there weren't groups of people in parts of the South who were cooking biscuits and fried chickens and things like that. Along the Mississippi Delta where these kinds of food ways tend to still be heavily employed, these kinds of methods of preparation tend to still be heavily employed. And then of course with migration, folks were leaving the South going west and north and east. And you're taking your various food habits with you.
WILLIAMS-FORSONAnd then of course in the '60s when we encounter the need for African Americans to come together under this rubric of soul, which really was a political terminology, right, to embrace foods that we felt -- or the writers felt were being taken away from us and celebrating -- being celebrated as someone else's expressive culture. They said these are the foods that represent soul food for black people.
WILLIAMS-FORSONAnd when you look at the list, it is heavily sugared. It is heavily fried but it's not the whole of African culinary culture, again, depending upon where you were.
NNAMDIYou know, we talked with former cooking show host Vertamae Grosvenor back in 2000 on this show, her most famous book being "Vibration Cooking or the Traveling Notes of a Geechee Girler most famous book being "Vibration Cooking: or The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl." And she said, quoting here, "It seemed to me that while certain foods have been labeled soul food and associated with African Americans, African Americans could be associated with all foods." Is that something that you would share, Amanda?
WILLIAMS-FORSONYes, yes, yes, yeah.
MONIZYeah, I agree with that looking at these cookbooks and making the recipes. I agree with that. And I think to follow on what Psyche was saying, I completely agree that the idea of the soul -- the civil rights movement and the interest in soul food -- the interest in soul food relates to the civil rights movement. And I think there's a larger story also that we often forget. The kind -- how much cross cultural and transnational context there was in the 19th century and the 18th century, so that we forget how cosmopolitan people were in earlier eras.
MONIZThere's a clergyman in Boston in 1787 who was marveling in a sermon that people could eat things from all over the world. And he happened -- his family happened -- his in-laws owned the -- Phillis Wheatley, the early African American poet.
NNAMDI...writer and poet.
MONIZSo somebody like Phillis Wheatley was part of a world where people thought they were eating food from all over the world. And we forget that.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here is Jenny in Falls Church, Va. Jenny, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JENNYOh, hello. I like your show very much and often listen.
JENNYWhat I was interested -- I started -- started to listen to you late and don't know whether you mentioned the benny seed. I grew up knowing about it as something that was used in cookies but it's used in all kinds of other -- it's similar to a sesame seed. And my understanding is it was brought from West Africa by the slaves as was okra.
NNAMDIDo you know anything about that at all, Amanda?
MONIZYeah, those ingredients, benny seeds and okra and other ingredients did come with -- from West Africa with slaves on slave ships. And the reason those foods came along was because African captives on slave ships refused to eat food they were unfamiliar with. This was one way that they could resist -- they were also, you know, I guess anxious or fearful of unfamiliar food, but it was a form of resistance to eat -- not eat food that was unfamiliar. So slavers had to carry African foods. And that's how foods like okra and benny seeds came to be introduced to the Americas.
NNAMDIWell, speaking of West Africa, Psyche Williams-Forson, I for one, and I think our listeners also would be interested in the food history in your current family. What do you cook at your house?
WILLIAMS-FORSONWell, it used to be that we cooked quite a few Ghanaian foods as well because...
WILLIAMS-FORSONWell, because my husband is from Ghana, West Africa. And so we found ourselves in an African American African household that had to blend food cultures, which was itself a negotiation particularly because, you know, you've got -- as you do in any sort of coming together in union, you have blending of food cultures, whether it's, you know, transnational or even transregional.
WILLIAMS-FORSONAnd so what we found was a need to sometimes compromise and have various kinds of peanut soup or light soup, but also on a regular basis, be introduced to southern cookery, which is what I'm most familiar with and collard greens and other kinds of leafy vegetables and turkey products. So, you know, it's always -- as Amanda mentioned earlier, it's never generally one type of food culture but multiple coming together to inform what we know and are used to.
NNAMDIPsyche, I want you to take us back to the early 20th century, maybe even the late 19th century for a second, because in your book "Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs" you talk about food hawkers during this period who made culinary and entrepreneurial inroads. Can you tell us about them?
WILLIAMS-FORSONSure. I mean, and these hawkers go back as early as the 1700s or with the first entry of Africans to this country, selling legally and often not legally, different kinds of food products. And what's really interesting about this legacy is that African women in particular, but then African American women were well known for their skill and ingenuity at selling and hawking food stuffs. Of course for me the most noted group of women, the most well documented, comes out of Orange County, Va., also the home of Ms. Edna Lewis who was the Grand Dame of, if you will, of Southern cooking.
WILLIAMS-FORSONBut this group of women who called themselves waiter carriers had a very systematized way of cooking and then selling food products at the train depot. These women were in Gordonsville, Va. And so this was one of the earliest entrepreneurial enterprises that happened...
NNAMDIAnd who was Bella Winston?
WILLIAMS-FORSONBella Winston was a second generation food hawker or a waiter carrier as they called themselves. And she learned the trade of selling these foods at the train depot from her mother who was a food hawker, and then her mother -- her grandmother before her. And she tells this incredible story about how her mother built their house out of chicken legs, which is of course where I take the title of the book.
WILLIAMS-FORSONBut what I think it speaks to is this incredible way in which African Americans, both before and since then, have used food to mobilize themselves and to make lives for themselves, their children and further generations.
NNAMDIYou mentioned Edna Lewis. If we're talking 20th century, cannot talk about Southern cooking and African American influences without giving a few minutes to Edna Lewis, or Miss Lewis as she was known.
NNAMDIMiss Lewis was from Virginia but she completely turned the idea of southern poverty cooking on its head. How?
WILLIAMS-FORSONAs was mentioned too by Amanda, similar to some of Miss Russell and also Miss Fisher, Miss Lewis went from Orange County, Va. on a farm that was -- her grandfather owned to D.C. and then also up to New York where she worked a variety of odd jobs, and then became a restaurateur. And she was well known for championing Southern cooking, and so fresh ingredients and the marvelous things that she could do with that freshness.
WILLIAMS-FORSONAnd in the 1940s when she really came into being in vogue, you had very few black chefs at that point, and certainly even fewer black female chefs -- or female chefs and then even fewer black female chefs. So she was a rarity. And she was able to take what we now celebrate through the Southern Food Ways Alliance and other organizations like the James Beard and so forth, take Southern foods and really make their mark in the north.
WILLIAMS-FORSONAnd she won quite a bit of acclaim for being able to restore, if you will, the novelty of fresh food cooked in a very kind of, I guess if you want to say soulful way.
NNAMDIAnd she and Rufus Estes, is my understanding, were huge on food presentation.
NNAMDIMade an important role in the culinary experience. Was that aspect of their work surprising for modern day food historians, Amanda?
MONIZThat they cared about presentation? I don't think it should be. They were -- someone like Rufus Estes was serving food on trains. These were well-off people traveling on trains. Things needed to be presented in appealing ways. So I don't think -- I think of the context in which he was working, I don't think it should be surprising.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Katherine in Springfield who writes, "Southern African American cooking is basically legumes, vegetables, carbs with some fruit and meat when they could get it. People in physically taxing occupations expending thousands of calories per day needed all the calories they could get, hence fat, bacon grease added to everything. Pull out the fat and the food is perfectly healthy." Psyche.
WILLIAMS-FORSONAbsolutely. I agree with that comment 100 percent. I think one of the things that we're seeing today is because so many of us have more sedentary types of jobs and we're not doing the kind of taxing work that was being done when you're working on a plantation, whether urban or rural, large or small. And so the continued use of some of the fats tends to override the freshness of the food. But, I mean, any food cooked to excess or any food cooked with a lot of oils and bacon greases and things of that nature could render it a bit unhealthy.
WILLIAMS-FORSONBut for the most part, you 're still -- I mean, collard greens are collard greens. But how you cook them will make the difference.
NNAMDIAmanda, you're going to be teaching a seminar tomorrow on the life of Melinda Russell and Abby Fisher at the Hill Center, the old naval hospital. This is part of an ongoing historic cooking and bakery series this year. You can find a link at our website at kojoshow.org, a link to her program at the Hill Center. What other tasty parts of history will you be exploring?
MONIZIn a couple months we're going to be looking at Dolly Madison's parties. She was famous for her parties and for her politicking at her parties. And a couple months after that in June, I'll be teaching a class on the first American charity cookbook which came out of one of the civil war sanitary fares. And that's the 150th anniversary of that cookbook.
NNAMDIAmanda Moniz. She's an historian, assistant director of the National History Center of the American Historical Association and author of the culinary blog History's Just Desserts. Psyche Williams Forson is a professor and co-director of graduate studies in the American Studies Department of the University of Maryland and author of "Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food and Power." Thank you both for joining us and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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