As an avid collector of antiquarian cookbooks, I have built a collection numbering in the thousands over the last 30 years. I’m often asked about my favorites, and there are one or two standouts not just because of their content, but also because of the historical context surrounding them.
Probably the most interesting and valuable cookbook in my personal collection is What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking by Abby Fisher. The author was born a slave in Alabama, around 1822, and with her husband and children made the arduous journey to California after they were freed. One of her three children, Tillie, was born along the way, in Missouri.
Once in San Francisco, Alexander and Abby Fisher started a pickling and preserving business, garnering numerous customers and fans around the city. In 1881, Mrs. Fisher, who could neither read or write, enlisted the aid of an anonymous writer to pen What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking. It was published in 1881 in San Francisco, by the Women’s Co-Operative Printing Office, and became only the second cookbook written and published by an African American woman in the United States. Because she was African American and couldn’t write herself, she sadly felt the need to not only apologize in her introduction for her illiteracy, but also to provide the names and addresses of white female patrons who could recommend her recipes to potential book buyers. It is heartbreaking to read her humble appeal to her readers, as her knowledge of Southern recipes was so far above what most people out West knew at the time.
Her introduction reads thus:
“The publication of a book on my knowledge and experience of Southern Cooking, Pickle and Jelly Making, has been frequently asked of me by my lady friends and patrons in San Francisco and Oakland, and also by ladies of Sacramento during the State Fair in 1879. 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. But, after due consideration, I concluded to bring forward a book of my knowledge—based on an experience of upwards of thirty-five years—in the art of cooking Soups, Gumbos, Terrapin Stews, Meat Stews, Baked and Roast Meats, Pastries, Pies and Biscuits, making Jellies, Pickles, Sauces, Ice-Creams and Jams, preserving Fruits, etc. The book will be found a complete instructor, so that a child can understand it and learn the art of cooking.”
Her book is replete with jam and pickle recipes, including pepper mangoes, sweet pickle peach, a spiced round of beef that required a week’s marinade in vinegar, peach pie, sweet watermelon rind pickle, brandy peaches, and more. She also included savory standards such as fried chicken, roast pig, Maryland beat biscuit and boiled corn. Recipes before 1900 did not list ingredients or measurements the same way they do now; in fact, it was expected that the reader (often a cook hired by the lady of the house) would already have common cooking knowledge under her belt. Therefore, instructions such as “bake in the oven” or “make a batter” were not described any further. Measurements were given within the body of the recipes, and read as if a friend was jotting down instructions. Therefore, we have Fisher’s simple recipe for fried chicken:
“Cut the chicken up, separating every joint, and wash clean. Salt and pepper it, and roll into flour well. Have your fat very hot, and drop the pieces into it, and let them cook brown. The chicken is done when the fork passes easily into it. After the chicken is all cooked, leave a little of the hot fat in the skillet; then take a tablespoonful of dry flour and brown it in the fat, stirring it around, then pour water in and stir till the gravy is as thin as soup.”
Because of the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake, most copies of the book were lost, making it extremely rare; a copy sold this year at a New York auction for $11,000. Imagine my surprise when I looked at a 19th-century census recently and discovered Fisher lived a block from my store, Omnivore Books on Food. The reality that she likely shopped at my store (a butcher shop back then) sent chills up my neck. Perhaps she even sold her preserves at the front of the shop, which was then a grocery store (and is now my pet supply store, Noe Valley Pet Company). The house looms large on the north side of the block, with many original Victorian details. In fact, a local resident recalls his mother leaning over the back fence and gossiping with Tillie, Abby Fisher’s youngest daughter, after she inherited the house from her parents.
The knowledge passed on from a former slave, who moved to San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood and started her own business, is invaluable. The fact that a neighbor is still alive who knew her daughter is amazing. This history is what unites us.