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The Legacy of Malinda Russell, the First African-American Cookbook Author

Malinda Russell’s “A Domestic Cookbook” offers more than culinary advice. It also gives clear attribution to figures who are typically erased or lost to history.

In 1866, Malinda Russell self-published A Domestic Cookbook: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen. The book holds the distinction of being the first known, cookbook published by an African American, and the first book to offer culinary advice by an African-American woman (The House Servant’s Directory by Robert Roberts and Never Let People Be Kept Waiting, a hotel management textbook by Tunis G. Campbell, precede it). But it’s remarkable for other reasons, too. Russell published it as a free woman living in Paw Paw, Michigan, as a fundraising effort to return to Tennessee, where she was born and raised. As Toni Tipton-Martin describes in her 2015 book The Jemima Code, the book concentrates on baking, with recipes like gingerbread and cream cake (“one and a half cup sugar, two cups sour cream, two cups flour, one or two eggs, one teaspoon soda; flavor with lemon”), but there are also instructions for savory dishes like chicken soup and onion custard as well as methods for preparing household items like cologne and shampoo.

More than its recipes, though, which showcase deep knowledge of technique and a range of culinary influences, A Domestic Cookbook is notable for the way in which Russell presents her knowledge. The book opens with “A Short History of the Author.” There, she gives an overview of her trajectory: After a thwarted plan to emigrate to Liberia, she wound up as a cook and lady’s companion in Lynchburg, Virginia. She married, and four years later her husband died, leaving her to raise a disabled son. After returning to Tennessee, she ran a boarding house and pastry shop for eight years before being forced to flee to Michigan when she was robbed and threatened.

It’s in this “short history” that Russell also acknowledges all of the cooks who helped hone her kitchen skills and thus contributed to the book’s publication. This includes mention of the cookbooks she’s studied, like The Virginia House-Wife by Mary Randolph, published in 1824 and thought of as the first regional American cookbook (The Kentucky Housewife by and The Carolina Housewife, other 19th-century explorations of Southern food from white women, would follow). Russell also describes her tutelage under Fanny Steward, a Black cook, giving clear attribution when the roles of such figures are typically erased or lost to history.

Russell herself was nearly one of those names — A Domestic Cookbook was only brought to light when cookbook collector Jan Longone stumbled across a copy in the early aughts, publishing a facsimile in 2007; in the years prior, Abby Fisher’s 1881 cookbook What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking was thought to be the first published cookbook by an African-American woman. And the work to lift up the contributions of African Americans in the the history of American cooking continues more than 150 years after the publication of A Domestic Cookbook with books like The Jemima Code and, more recently, The Rise, which pushes back against the erasure of Black authorship by showcasing excellence in cooking from across the African diaspora. Here, Tipton-Martin, the editor-in-chief of Cook’s Country, and The Rise co-author and food journalist Osayi Endolyn consider Russell’s legacy.

Monica Burton: How did you come to learn about Malinda Russell?

Osayi Endolyn: Well, my answer is easy because I learned from Toni.

Toni Tipton-Martin: That’s really cool. I learned about Malinda Russell at [cookbook author] Nathalie Dupree’s house. Many years ago, I was involved in a program with the College of Charleston and visited Nathalie’s home afterward. She had arranged for me to meet with [cookbook collectors and curators] Jan and Dan Longone, who had just gotten access to a copy of the book. They invited me to be part of the research team and, ultimately, to be the one that introduced her to the world.

Did you have any expectations around what the content of A Domestic Cookbook would be?

TTM: Abby Fisher was the book that we originally all assumed was the first African-American book, so she set the standard for the expectation of the time period. What Malinda Russell did was exceed that, not only by being the actual first but by including so much attribution, which is important to me as a journalist to focus on sourcing. She lets us know who trained her, she leaves a record of her training and basically establishes her pedigree.

OE: I’m certainly nowhere near as studied on the topic of Malinda Russell as Toni, but I’m interested in what that reveals to us about how much we’re still learning. I feel like when you learn something like this, you’re just like, what else have we missed? What else was erased and hidden from view or just undervalued?

It’s exceptional for me in terms of the cues that you can take from decisions that she made, like acknowledging her peers and people whose names would have some kind of meaning for her audience. And we still do that, in our book acknowledgments and dedications, these days, but that tells us something about the kinds of access and ideas of power. It’s really easy to truncate and make general what people’s experiences were during this period. This shows that there were many, many different ways of navigating being a Black person cooking professionally — a Black woman cooking professionally.

TTM: In terms of recipe development, one of the important cues, as Osayi mentioned, is her expertise in baking. This is important because, up to this point, we are being told that African-American women were not responsible for baking because that was where the intellect of cooking resided, because of its dependency on chemistry and the knowledge of leavening and all of the scientific variables — very much like the NFL used to say that Black men couldn’t be the quarterback.

A lot of that early writing misrepresented African-American knowledge in the sphere of baking, and [Russell] really does a terrific job undercutting that because she places so much emphasis on the baked goods that come out of her bakery. She identifies the fact that she’s an entrepreneur and has had not only a boarding house, but a bakery.

Can you trace her legacy and her influence through history?

TTM: There’s a subtlety embedded within Black culture that we are great bakers: the hot roll mix that was created under Lucille Bishop Smith and later adopted by Pillsbury or the mentions of Bisquick and the [Black] anonymous, trained chef that spurred that idea.

The fact is that Black baking persists to this day. We all have a grandmother or an auntie who makes the best rolls. She holds that knowledge. But was it spoken and formalized in books or in other mechanisms that society deems the valuable way to transfer knowledge? Not necessarily, but in our own traditions, baking, for sure, conveys through generations.

A worn paperback book cover that reads “A Domestic Cookbook : containing a careful selection of useful receipts for the kitchen by Mrs. Malinda Russell, an experienced cook; published by the author”
The cover of A Domestic Cookbook
Courtesy of MOFAD

How do you think we should think of Malinda Russell as a figure in culinary history? It’s still not a name that most people know.

OE: We want to make familiar everyone who’s a part of this history who simply hasn’t gotten their due. We can’t do that enough. I know people from Louisiana who don’t know who Leah Chase is or was. So, I feel like we have a lot of work to do. I would like to see her celebrated more and efforts to imagine her life, or put in context her work, more clearly parsed out.

I read in this article recently about how the intention of domestic labor is to render it invisible. I’m paraphrasing that quote, but if you dusted a shelf, there’s no evidence that you did it, that you took the time. It’s just a clean shelf. There’s no trace of the labor that was done. I was reading this in context with what’s happening right now in many households, where men are being forced to be domestic in a way that women have almost always had to confront. Many men are doing that for the first time, and it’s actually resulting in a lot of abuse and chaos in households throughout the world.

We don’t have a framework in which Malinda Russell can really hold court because we still undermine the very arena of work in which she operated. You have to do the individual recognition at the same time that you’re addressing these huge lapses in our society where we don’t want to recognize that expertise and effort because, if we did, then we would have to change how you value it. We don’t want to do that.

TTM: That is so true, and I’m experiencing that now making this transition into magazine leadership and functioning in a space where the precision of French-classic technique has been the bar of success. It’s established that that’s where the knowledge is, in the formalized training of what started as domestic science, and now we think of it as just culinary academy work. Black people were left out of that conversation, and that’s why their cookbooks matter so much, because there was no other evidence that they could function in the same capacity as professionals.

Once food society decided to draw this hard line between home cooking and what is taught at academy and domestic-food-science schools and the Boston Cooking School... once we had that division happening, then the default was to say, “The thing that those Black women do isn’t really rising to the level of what the rest of us professionals do,” and that has persisted.

Now fast-forward, and everyone’s talking about the aroma in their grandmother’s kitchen as the inspiration for them becoming professional chefs. It’s like, Jesus, every time we try to make a step forward, you move the bar. So that’s why I am just so awed by Malinda Russell as being the first [African-American] cookbook, going so far back in the midst of the domestic science evolution or revolution of the home, and the embedded areas of agency that she claims. There are numerous spaces that she occupies for us.

Do you see a future in which we do recognize the domestic arena as valuable as it should be? Are we getting there?

TTM: The Jemima Code certainly opened the door for that, but what Osayi has accomplished with The Rise is the next phase. It is drawing from anonymity some people that have, maybe, a social media presence, but they aren’t on that big, giant food-industry stage yet, and putting them side by side with those of us that have been around for a while now.

OE: I think it’s happening and, as Toni said, part of that is the zeitgeist that we’re in, there are just tools that we have now that weren’t available 150 to 200 years ago that allow some easier access. But even within something like social media, you still have a lot of Black figures who have trouble getting verified, which is something that’s been discussed a lot. So you still have these constraints, even within these new opportunities.

You have people who are telling their own stories. I saw recently that Howard Conyers is self-publishing a book about the history of Black people in barbecue. You have people saying that this oral tradition that we’re part of is very important and that will remain, but how you keep something in the conversation in this society is writing it down. It’s not the only way, but it is the way that we have become accustomed to valuing and being able to reference as evidence of something.

The self-authored stories, increased opportunities for people to document their own work in different forms of media — that’s all happening. But I also think that there is a push that is exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19 on people who work in the food world and in service. We are pressuring these systems that have been part of the oppression of Black people, and a lot of these outbursts we’re seeing, these violent outbursts, are in response to this pressure mounting. You feel the energy shifting. I want to say that I hope that day is coming. I just don’t know what timeline we’re on at all because it’s already, like, centuries late, as far as I’m concerned.

TTM: I’m cynical enough and have been around long enough to be fatigued as well, but also to understand that the system has a way of springing back. So every time there’s Black advancement, you get Rosewood [the 1926 massacre and destruction of a Black town]. Or, if you get a Black president — we all know what you get after that. I’m excited to see the pushback and the bursts and the claiming of identity and self-publishing, but we function within a system that knows how to continue to exist the way it always did, by promoting the few and continuing the marginalization.

I don’t want to speak those words out into the ether and be the dream-killer for the next generation, especially since I was so eager, using my work to disrupt the system, to create those opportunities for the next generation. But I also want to encourage everyone to be careful. As Osayi said, we’re still functioning within a certain kind of system. That system, right now, values the written word. That doesn’t mean our oral traditions don’t matter, and we shouldn’t value them, and it doesn’t mean that having a great social media platform doesn’t matter. But if the system says publishing is it, we have to decide if we’re going to play in that arena or not.

And when it comes to the history that we preserve, it’s the stuff that we can see and that was written down, like those early cookbooks.

OE: Part of it gets lost. I think about the formalization of jazz education. There was a time when you didn’t learn that stuff in college. You weren’t at Berklee School of Music, you weren’t at USC, you were in a band in school, then you got hired on someone else’s band, and you learned that way, or you studied under someone, and they say, “You’re an apprentice,” and then you went home to practice. It was one-on-one and lots of storytelling and the opportunity to engage directly out of a creation of music, not out of creating a curriculum.

We’ve done that a lot with food, but even still, you don’t know a chef comes from a certain tutelage (to use that Malinda Russell word) unless you know that chef, unless you practiced where they cooked and who was at that restaurant at that time. It’s all still an oral history in many ways, in the ways that matter to the people doing the work. I hear stories about Darryl Evans from Duane Nutter, even though Darryl Evans has been passed for a long time and I never met him, but I know what he meant to Atlanta chefs because of people like Duane. That’s not really written about. It’s just part of a conversation.

History is valuable and it’s important, but this culture has really forced some of these styles and these traditions to move in other places, and sometimes that ends up deracinating it even further from the people who helped originate it. The same thing is happening in jazz. Now, you have to pay $50,000 a year to learn this music that you were getting for free and getting paid to create. It’s wild. It’s capitalism.

TTM: It’s absolutely true. And you can see it in the word choices that are used, when we’re talking about the precision of language and food technique and [how] what Darryl knew as a chef is transcribed as “making gravy at home.” I just love that as an example: To say that we’re all talking about making a French classic sauce and bechamel and beyond that, we’re talking about roux-making. But when we’re talking about the Black cook, suddenly, somehow, that’s only gravy. It’s not one of the fine dining mother sauces.

If a grandmother is talking about putting on a pot of beans, she’s making a stock. And chefs put a lot of effort into that, from the roasting of the bones to what vegetables they throw into the pot to how high they boil or not boil. What’s the fire under the pot? How does it simmer, depending on what you’re trying to extract from the bones? And so on.

There’s all of that nuance that’s embedded in the knowledge. Both chefs Nutter and Evans know those techniques inherently because they do the work. But how it’s observed and recorded is very different, depending upon the sphere that they’re functioning in. And that’s why it’s been important to me to not dilute the cultural aspect and importance of gravy. Gravy matters to us, too. I don’t want to over-chef-ify Grandma’s home cooking, but I want to give her the props that she deserves for making a French sauce.

And it’s a very nuanced line that we’re navigating. Are you diluting the original mother-culture food? Everyone keeps asking us, “Well, then what is true African-American cooking?” The hyphenated version of everything else? African American, German American, Spanish American? Well, what is that now, for us? Because there is a time gap, an experience gap where we didn’t own our own food in the ways that other immigrant communities did. We lost control of the way we would depict what we were bringing from West Africa and the Caribbean. So, now, it’s all lost in this mish-mash of what is Southern and what is American, whereas there are still some strains of Italian culture that you can still see in their food, even if it did, in some ways, get reduced to Spaghetti-Os. That’s a challenge for us — the need to legitimize, in a broader sense, what we have accomplished without feeling like it got whitewashed somehow.

I feel like we’ve covered a lot of ground, but I’d like to know, what do you think people should know about Malinda Russell, aside from the fact of her being the first African-American cookbook author? Are there any biographical elements to her story that should be more widely considered?

TTM: She was a single mother. Here was a woman who was existing in a slave society, who managed to save money and create a business and try to care for a handicapped child. I think that is so inspirational for us on a personal level, for the everyday person that does not know about her or about cooking and has no interest in cooking.

My [forthcoming] memoir is looking at a dozen of these authors through the values that they offer us beyond the kitchen. It uses the kitchen to tell their values because that’s where they preached their gospel, but they are social values that we all hold dear. In her case, the short version is she was a working, single mother with a handicapped child working outside the home, and many women in our community served in that way.

OE: I would suggest that as we learn about people like Malinda Russell, we think about all the ones that are standing as silhouettes around her. Maybe we’ll know who they are one day, most of them we won’t, but we know that for every single story we hear, you just have to imagine across so many different cities and moments in time and just the completely inextricable way that Black people were embedded at every aspect of society in this country. We’ve always been there, but stories like Malinda’s give us permission to lock into that even more.

TTM: Someone wiser than I posted on Twitter in the days following the removal of Aunt Jemima from the package by Quaker that the rationale was we don’t need any more singular Aunt Jemimas to fetishize because we have The Jemima Code. And I don’t mean to keep making this about my work. I’ve intentionally made this work broader so that what Osayi just described can happen. Anyone can approach it, see a story that resonates for them, and then go hunt down all the other people that this one author stands in the gap on behalf of.

But what this Twitter follower said was, ‘Now, we have The Jemima Code.’ There are real people — at least 400 of them that we know of — that can be the catalyst for other research, and we don’t have to resort to, with all due respect, making Edna Lewis the next version of the fetishized Black woman. And then Leah Chase will come after her. And then Jessica B. Harris and me somehow.

So what do we do to make sure that, as we are talking about equity, we’re looking at African Americans and our participation, as Osayi said, in so many other spheres? I’m not suggesting that Edna Lewis hasn’t earned every accolade, but it places so much emphasis on just the one, and that makes us seem like anomalies, and we aren’t that.

Lead image photo credits: NYPL Digital Collections, MOFAD, Getty Images


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