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Enslaved people in South Carolina in the process of being freed by the federal government around 1862. Abby Fisher was born and raised on a South Carolina plantation, but after gaining her freedom, found success in San Francisco. (Henry P. Moore)
nce Abby Fisher had made a name for herself in 1870s San Francisco, the award-winning Southern chef and businesswoman was bombarded with requests for her recipes. Fisher was more than happy to share over three decades of cookery know-how with her fans. But because Fisher was born enslaved and raised on a South Carolina plantation, she never had access to a formal education; she could neither read nor write.
Like all the obstacles Fisher faced in her life, illiteracy wasn’t going to stop her. And in 1880, she became the second Black woman in America to publish a cookbook. (Malinda Russell was the first.) Fisher authored it, rather ingeniously, via dictation to nine friends and associates, all of whom subsequently had their names and addresses printed on the first page of her book. What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking was released in 1881 by the Women’s Co-operative Printing Office, then-headquartered on San Francisco’s Montgomery Street.
Remarkably, Fisher’s book begins with a “Preface and Apology”:
Not being able to read or write myself, and my husband also having been without the advantages of an education … caused me to doubt whether I would be able to present a work that would give perfect satisfaction … The book will be found a complete instructor, so that a child can understand it and learn the art of cooking.
The dictation, however, was not without its flaws. Some of those assisting Fisher in writing and compiling her recipes either struggled with her Southern accent, or simply had never heard of the dishes. (Eight of her assistants were from San Francisco, one was based in Oakland.) As such, there are a few quirks in the text that stand as proof of the difficulty of the task Fisher and her transcribers faced. Succotash is referred to as “Circuit Hash.” Jambalaya is called “Jumberlie.” And mayonnaise is listed as “Milanese Sauce.”
bby Fisher was born in Orangeburg, South Carolina in 1831, the daughter of an enslaved woman and a white farmer. On the 1880 census, she reported that her father hailed from France—typical for many landowners in South Carolina at the time. From the moment she was big enough to reach the stove, Fisher worked in the plantation kitchen and became an expert in Southern cooking. She would go on to use those skills for the betterment of her family when they left the South—and slavery—behind.
By the time Fisher’s cookbook came out in 1880, her family had doubled in size. In her recipe, “Pap for Infant Diet”—a combination of flour boiled in a sealed jar, grated into boiling milk with added sugar—she noted: “I have given birth to eleven children and raised them all, and nursed them with this diet. It is a Southern plantation preparation.” She added: “When the child has diarrhea, boil a two-inch stick of cinnamon in the pap.”
It’s not the only occasion in What Mrs. Fisher Knows that the cook deviates from straightforward food recipes in order to share remedies that will ease sickness. Her “Blackberry Syrup—For Dysentery in Children” is listed as “an old Southern plantation remedy among colored people.” These moments remain brief but enlightening snapshots of how enslaved people took care of their families with so few means at their disposal.
Though much of what Fisher describes in her cookbook still sounds delicious to this day—especially her pie and preserve recipes—not all of it translates so well for today’s audiences. For example, the recipes for terrapin soup (“always have the female terrapins and put them alive in boiling water”) and calf’s head soup (“when the tongue is tenderly boiled or done, take it out”) are not for the faint of heart. (And that’s before we even get into how much lard was involved.)
But in her time, Fisher’s recipes couldn’t be beaten. Literally. In 1879, the Sacramento State Fair awarded her their prestigious “Diploma.” And in 1880, she won two medals at the San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute Fair. One for “Best Pickles and Sauces,” the other for “Best Assortment of Jellies and Preserves.”
By 1890, Fisher’s pickles and preserves business had moved from 569 Howard Street in SoMa to new headquarters in Noe Valley. By that time, she was also running it on her own. (Her husband Alexander had since become a porter.)
Original posted at www.kqed.org