Discovering Early African-American Cookbooks in Black History Month

Celebrating the origins of soul food with four books by African-American cooks.

Stacks of Vintage Books representing Vintage Cookbooks

We were the lucky recipients of four cookbooks by African-American authors honoring African-American food culture and we decided we'd like to share a little of what we've gleaned from our gifts here.

First, what is Black History Month?

Established as 'Negro History Week' in 1926 by noted historian and African-American Carter G. Woodson and officially promoted nationally as Black History Month in 1976 by President Gerald Ford at the bicentennial celebration of the United States, the purpose of the event is to honor the often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans throughout our nation's history. Similar celebrations take place in Canada, the United Kingdom and Norway. The reason the month of February was chosen was because African-American social reformer Frederick Douglass and Emancipation Proclamation author President Abraham Lincoln were both born in February.

So, what does Black History Month have to do with Soul Food?

For those who don't know, the term 'soul food' was coined by Malcolm X in the 1960s to mean the cuisine of the Black Americans originating in the southeastern United States and the gathering and communion that happened around this food. At the time the term 'soul' was used to describe Black American culture. The cuisine of the southeastern United States is most heavily influenced by Southern Indigenous American culture via their food staples (corn, beans, fruits), adapted to traditional recipes by displaced Africans. The cuisine is most common in areas with a history of slave-based plantations, the term itself lending to the idea of a celebration of a long workday with 'good times' food, using the less desirable scraps that are now considered delicacies. Soul food itself is a celebration of Black History in America through the African influences and traditions on American foodways.

But February's over...

If we decided to do a review of soul food to commemorate black history then why are we only posting now, at the end of February? Well, simply put, while we admire those who pushed forward the idea of recognizing Black Americans in American history we're of the mind that black history should be acknowledged as part of American history. So, while we did come across these cookbooks in the month of February, our discoveries don't have to stay here.

So, what about these cookbooks?

Two of the books are early published cookbooks by African American authors, while the other two are more recent books honoring past traditions and connecting the cuisine of today to our heritage.

Book 1: The House Servants' Directory

Author: Robert Roberts

Published: 1827

The House Servant's Directory by Robert Roberts 1827

Synopsis: While this book is credited as the first published cookbook authored by an African-American, it is largely a housekeeping guide for the servants of a household, in the same vein as European cookbooks and housekeeping books of the time. An online version is available (link above; starts on page 7). This book was written for domestics, instructing in the care of the upper classes. The recipes are interesting but they don't cater to the palates of those same domestics but rather to their employers.

Good Help: It starts off with almost a complaint that basically falls in line with the phrase 'it's hard to get good help these days' so apparently this has always been a problem for those who can afford it.

Recipes: The index shows items ranging from 'a delicious salad sauce' to 'lemonade that has the appearance and flavor of jelly' to 'an excellent good ratafia' as well as directions for 'a superb way to clean a plate' and 'a secret against all kinds of spots on silk or cotton'.

We Would Like to Try: 'to turn good wine into vinegar in three hours' and 'to restore that same wine to it's former taste'

The Takeaway: Cool factor for being the first published cookbook by an African-American but unless you're interested in antiquated customs you probably won't enjoy the read

Book 2: Good Things to Eat as Suggested by Rufus

Author: Rufus Estes

Published: 1911

Good Things to Eat as Suggested by Rufus 1911

Synopsis: The author was born a slave and lived through the Civil War, working to support his mother from a young age and rising from a chauffeur of a private car service to a chef who served U.S. presidents. It appears that page space was precious (and probably expensive) so all of the recipes are in paragraph form and as short and sweet as possible, as many as can fit crammed on each page. Like the earlier published work, this book details recipes and tips that involve catering to the upper classes and probably don't reflect the cuisine of the domestics doing the catering. That being said, the recipe list seems fairly extensive and it's an entertaining read if you're a lover of cookbooks. An online version is available (link above; appendix starts on page 137)

Useful: The forward describes the book as the author's brain child and there is a one-page 'sketch' of the author's life that mentions a trip he took to see the Cherry Blossom Festival in Tokyo, Japan with former employers; however, the next two pages are just as interesting, and useful, for their short tips regarding weight and measurements (a gill is half a cup) and a few quick 'hints to the kitchen maids' regarding how to set the table for which meal, what should be served, what dishes pair well together and what to do with yesterday's leftovers.

Recipes: Eye-catching recipes include 'wine soup to be served with a plate of sponge cakes or fancy biscuits'; Lenten Dishes including 'orange fool', 'plum porridge', 'rice soup' and 'rice milk'; and surprising international dishes such as 'spaghetti l’italienne', 'macaroni and cheese', 'Japanese or Chinese rice', and 'tomato chutney'.

We Would Like To Try: cauliflower au gratin, vegetable roast (made up of mashed beans and bread crumbs) and the tips for making apple pies

The Takeaway: While most of the recipes and measurements are somewhat strange and antiquated, the tips within the recipes, particularly for desserts and drinks, are interesting and even helpful for the modern cook

Book 3: The Black Family Reunion Cookbook

Author: The National Council of Negro Women

Published: 1991

The Black Family Reunion Cookbook 1991

Synopsis: It is a collection of African-American heritage recipes collected to ‘enable all people to recognize the power of breaking bread in the building of families and communities’. Most recipes have a little food memory blurb beside them to explain a reason the recipe was significant to the author who submitted it.

Recognized Recipes: Of the many recipes that evoked memories for us about childhood and potlucks and family gatherings we enjoyed seeing monkey bread, succotash and shepherd's pie.

We Would Like To Try: soul bread, emancipation proclamation breakfast cake, old fashioned baked lima beans and Kwanzaa jollof rice

The Takeaway: Great for snippets of history in between nostalgic or amusing recipes but many of the recipes would be hard to adapt for allergy-friendly use.

Book 4: Soul on Rice

Author: Patricia B. Mitchell

Soul on Rice by Patricia B. Mitchell 1993

Published: 1993

Synopsis: 'The purpose of this book is to further investigate native African food customs and how they changed in a new environment'. It goes on to state that ‘the diet of the average population in Africa centered around cultivated plant foods - starchy grains, roots and legumes... fruits and meats were secondary components of the typical diet in West Africa, the area from which most slaves came.'

Research: More booklet than book the majority of the pages are devoted to summarizing how displaced Africans learned to adapt to their new environment in a new country as slaves, than to traditional recipes themselves. It's an interesting read and what recipes are present are recognizable as well-known soul food staples.

Recipes: collard greens with ham, mess o' greens, hoppin' john, gumbo, creole jambalaya

We're Curious About: short'nin bread (because of the old-timey song) and pinto bean cake (because what?!)

The Takeaway: If you're interested in an explanation of the origins of certain traditional soul food recipes and their West African counterparts, this would be an easy read

Soul Food is Our Motto

We love going through cookbooks, new and old, and finding a recipe we can't wait to adapt to fit our allergy concerns. Coming across these four books was like finding treasure. It was educational to learn about the early authors of African-American cookbooks, entertaining to read their recipe tips, and intriguing to start dreaming of how to adapt some of our most favorite recipes from each book.

The idea that food should be enjoyed by everyone at the table is our underlying mission at A Spoon & A Fork and the fact that the term 'soul food', admittedly a favored cuisine of ours, encompasses that just ices the cake.

If you found a recipe in one of these books that you'd like us to adapt, let us know. If you have a favorite cookbook by an African-American author that you think we should check out, tell us in the comments below!

Books and Tea

#Cookbooks #Heritage #Vintage

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