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Black history revealed by 19th century cookbooks

African American authors left an open window to 19th century society through their cookbooks.

One of the first books of any kind authored by a Black American and printed by a commercial publisher was "The House Servant's Directory" by Robert Roberts, first published in 1827 with later printings in 1828 and 1843. Roberts served in many New England households, eventually working for Christopher Gore, former senator and governor of Massachusetts.
(Courtesy Longone Center For American Culinary Research)

The Roberts manual and other cookbooks by Black Americans are part of the Longone Center for American Culinary Research, a collection of primary source materials relating to the history of food in America, housed at the William Clements Library.

Encouraging young Black men to become the finest of professional house servants, Roberts's book gave them directions about cleaning—from boots and shoes to knives and forks—as well as recipes for making a wash to revive old deeds and a potion for intoxication:

"Make the person that is intoxicated drink a glass of vinegar, or a cup of strong coffee without milk or sugar, or a glass of hot wine. Any of those articles are a most safe and quick remedy to recover a person from intoxication, " according to an excerpt from the book.

Roberts' book is remarkable for several reasons, says Jan Longone, curator of the culinary history library at the Clements.

"It offers one of the most detailed discussions on the proper management of a fine, upper-class New England household,'' she says. "It gives advice to servants on how to behave, how to perform their work and how to utilize the variety of new household utensils and equipment then becoming increasingly available."

Also notable is Tunis Campbell's "Hotel Keepers, Head Waiters and Housekeepers Guide" of 1848. Abandoning his training to be a missionary in Liberia because he was opposed to the planned removal of Blacks from America to Africa, Campbell dedicated a major portion of his life trying to benefit his race as a social worker, reformer, abolitionist and an activist in anti-slavery causes.

Campbell was convinced that a near-military precision by a staff of servers was necessary for hotel and family dining.

"Select men of good appearance, as near of a height as possible," he said. "The head waiter is the same as the regulator of a clock or watch, the machinery moving fast or slow as the impulse given by the regulator."

Longone says Malinda Russell's "A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen" is unequivocally the earliest work written by Black Americans and devoted solely to cookery. It was published by Russell and printed in 1866 by the "True Northerner" office in Paw Paw, Mich.

"This printed work offers a fascinating first-person chronicle of the life of a free woman of color in mid-19th century America," Longone says. A native of eastern Tennessee, Russell aborted a trip to Liberia when the money for her passage was stolen. She then began working as a cook, companion, nurse, widow, mother of a crippled son, keeper of a boarding house, bakery operator and proprietor of a washhouse.

Robbed of her savings and property again, Russell moved to Paw Paw after hearing that Michigan was the "garden of the west." With the publication of her book, Russell hoped to raise enough money to return to Tennessee "to try and recover at least a part of my property," she said.

"Interesting though not surprising," Longone says, "considering Russell's diverse background, the recipes in the book are not distinctly southern."

Most of the recipes, including onion custard, could be from any part of the contemporary eastern United States, although there are a few Southern touches, such as sweet potato baked pudding, sweet potato slice pie and fricasseed catfish, she says.

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