Cookbooks

What Mrs Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking by Abby Fisher

What Mrs Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking: Introduction

What Mrs Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking is an intriguing book by an ex-slave from Mobile, Alabama (which is not too far east from New Orleans) who worked as a chef in San Francisco in the second half of the 19th Century.

We should add that it is not the first book by an African American as we have claimed before. This honour goes to a woman by the name of Malinda Russell who was born a free woman ( we have included a brief summary of her and her book below).

It is worth remembering what was happening at the time on the eastern seaboard of America. From 1861 to 1865 a savage civil war had been fought between (roughly) the northern states and the southern states partly over the issue of slavery. After the southern general, Robert E. Lee, surrendered on the 9th April 1865 an uneasy peace descended and 4 million slaves were freed.

It would take another 12 years up until 1877 (called the Reconstruction Era) for life to resemble some sort of normality and while the 4 million ex-slaves tried to find paid work.

It is against this background that the life of Abby Fisher was playing out in South Carolina. She must have had work, possibly as a cook on a plantation during this time, because when she moved to California with her husband and 11 children in 1877 she established a successful business making pickles and preserves with her husband that was called “Mrs Abby Fisher & Co.”. She also cooked for large events very successfully.

Not only was the business successful but she was the recipient of many awards at food events.

What Mrs Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking: The Book

Mrs Fisher’s success also encouraged her to publish a book of her recipes called What Mrs Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking although we don’t know how it came into being. This collection of 160 authentic old Southern recipes was originally published in San Francisco in 1881 by the Women’s Co-operative Printing Office in Montgomery Street in the now centre of the city.

It is possible to determine from the Preface and Apology that Abby Fisher could not write. The evidence is clear if we are to believe the apology and the list of nine people at the bottom of the page who she said helped her with the book and also shows her doubts about the process:

Not being able to read or write myself, and my husband also having been without the advantages of an education – upon whom would devolve the writing of the book at my dictation – caused me to doubt whether I would be able to present a work that would give perfect satisfaction.

However the Preface and Apology finishes strongly (written, presumably after the book was nearly complete):

The book will be found a complete instructor, so that a child can understand it and learn the art of cooking.

Along with Eliza Acton from England and her fellow country-woman Elizabeth Putnam, Mrs Fisher was a pioneer in the use of precise measurements of ingredients in recipes.

She uses measurements such as quarts, pounds, gallons, tablespoons and even teaspoons and half-teaspoons. Up until then most recipes were simply described in terms such as ‘take a good piece of butter’ or ‘mix with sufficient flour’ or “make puff paste, and roll it thin”.

The Table of Contents is curiously arranged ‘almost’ in alphabetical order of subject. But each “chapter” or section may take recipes from throughout the book. You be the judge.

  • Breakfast Breads
  • Broiled Meats
  • Croquettes
  • Cakes, Etc.
  • Pickles, Sauces, Etc.
  • Pies, Etc.
  • Puddings
  • Preserves, Spices, Etc.
  • Roast Meats
  • Salads
  • Sherbets
  • Soups, Chowders, Etc.
  • Miscellaneous

Mrs Fisher’s recipes themselves range from the inaccesible to others that can easily be re-created in kitchens of today. For example, in the Breakfast Breads section there are recipes for Maryland Beat Biscuit and Plantation Corn Bread. In the strong Pickles, Sauces Etc section there are recipes for Chow Chow and Creole Chow Chow and Sweet Watermelon Rind Pickle (a dish we remember fondly from our time in New Orleans at a restaurant called Indigo, which no longer exists).

In the section on Soups, Chowders, Etc we find a range of Gumbos and Chowders including a chicken Gumbo, an Oyster Gumbo and an Ochra (Okra) Gumbo. In the Miscellaneous chapter there is a very common Southern dish of Terrapin Stew with clear instruction on how to remove the protective shell.

There is also a recipe for a dish called Jumberlie – A Creole Dish which is clearly a recipe for Jambalaya. This probably reflects the lack of knowledge of Southern recipes on the part of her friends who were transcribing her dictation. Another case is recipe 152 on page 69 called Circuit Hash which is clearly a recipe for Succotash.

It should be said that not all of the recipes are from the deep South. There are some recipes that have clearly been derived from England such as on the second last page there is a recipe for Yorkshire Pudding to be taken to the table in the same dish as the beef (very English).

Very early in the book (Recipe 6 on page 10) she includes a recipe for Sally Lund (which is spelled Sallie Lund in the Contents. This is the famous round, yeast bread from Bath in England introduced sometime in the late 18th Century. This recipe follows the general recipe used in England and is a good example of the precise measurements proposed by Abby Fisher.

We have quoted some of Mrs Fisher’s background mentioned in the Preface about her inability to write. The remainder of the book give no further hints about her background until we reach the very last lines of the very last recipe (a recipe for infants called Pap for Infant Diet). Here she makes two admissions.

I have given birth to eleven children and raised them all, and nursed them with this diet.

Mrs Fisher’s words leap off the page as being something she was immensely proud of. In the days when many children died when they were young she was obviously proud of the fact that she had “raised them all”.

The final sentence perhaps tells us more. “This is a southern Plantation preparation”. Giving us perhaps a hint that her time as a slave was spent on a plantation.

This is an interesting book written by a very interesting woman.

Domestic Cook Book by Malinda Russell

We admitted above that we thought Abby Fisher’s book was the first by an African-American author until we read about Malinda Russell. We have therefore included some information about her book for completeness.

Malinda Russell was born in Tennessee around 1812 as a free woman, her mother and grandmother having been emancipated by a benevolent owner (Mr Noddie) before her birth. She is now known as being the first African-American to publish a cookbook in the United States.

She learned her cooking skills, not from the kitchens of a southern plantation, but from a former slave called Fanny Steward who introduced her to the cookbook The Virginia Housewife written by Mary Randolph.

She ran a small pastry shop in Tennessee for about six years until her home was raised by gangs of whites during the Civil War. She escaped to the relative calm of Michigan in a town called Paw Paw, which is not too far from Lake Michigan.

It was here that she published her first book (Published by the Author appears on the Title Page) and the first book by an African-American in the year 1866 just after the end of the Civil War. She stated that she had published the book as a money-making venture in the hope of returning to her home state.

This is one reason why I publish my Cook Book, hoping to receive enough from the sale of it to enable me to return home. I know my book will sell well where I have cooked, and am sure those using my receipts will be well satisfied.

In the book she provides some details of her background:

I was born in Washington County, and raised in Green County, in the eastern part of Tennessee. My mother, Malinda Russell, was a member of one of the first families set free by Mr Noddie, of Virginia. I am the daughter of Karon, the youngest child of my grandmother. My mother being born after the emancipation of my grandmother, her children are by law free.

After her mother died she decided to emigrate to Liberia in Africa but she was attacked and robbed en route and was forced to find work to support herself and her sickly son. This is why she looked for the relative calm of Paw Paw.

There is a facsimile published by the Longone Center for American Culinary Research from the only extant copy held at the William L Clements Library at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

It is important to note that this is not a book of southern plantation food. If you prefer to peruse recipes of that type you should read Mrs Fisher.

Conclusion

We have chosen Mrs Fisher’s book over Malinda Russell’s because we think it more closely represents southern cooking and is more detailed in the descriptions. It therefore is included in our Foodtourist Top Fifty Cookbooks list.

You can read more about both authors in this very good article from the Atlas Obscura website.

You can buy What Mrs Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking by clicking on the link below. We receive a small percentage of the sale which goes towards maintaining this site.

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