A 19th-Century Ghost Redefines Soul Food

FOR nearly seven years Jan Longone, an antiquarian cookbook collector, has been haunted by a ghost. The spirit came into her life as thousands of other vintage volumes from book dealers had before: in a plain brown wrapper. But as soon as she held Malinda Russell’s “Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen,” she could see its author and her world — the small, seldom-discussed society of free blacks in the 19th century — coming to life before her eyes.

“I felt like an archaeologist who had just stumbled on a dinosaur,” said Mrs. Longone, who is the curator of American culinary history at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “I was in awe.”

Mrs. Longone, long considered the top expert on old American cookbooks, knew immediately that she was holding the earliest cookbook by an African-American woman that had ever come to light. Turning the 39 fragile pages of the 1866 pamphlet, she realized, too, that it could challenge ingrained views about the cuisine of African-Americans.

The black liberation movement of the 1960’s had celebrated “soul food”: dishes with a debt to Africa, like black-eyed peas, greens, gumbo and fried chicken. Neither the activists nor the scholars who later devoted themselves to black studies intended those dishes to be seen as the food on the stove of every black cook in America. But that is exactly what happened, historians say.

“Southern poverty cooking was mistakenly established as the single and universal African-American cuisine,” said Leni Sorensen, a researcher at Monticello outside Charlottesville, Va., specializing in African-American history.

And then the volume by Malinda Russell surfaced.

The evidence of a single cookbook is not enough to rewrite culinary history. Still, Mrs. Russell’s book suggested that a more nuanced view might be in order. Instead of rustic Southern “soul food,” it served up complex, cosmopolitan food inspired by European cuisine.

Mrs. Russell, who had operated a pastry shop in Tennessee, provided mostly dessert recipes, but they were for puff pastry and delicate rose cake, not sweet potato pie. Her savory recipes included dishes like an elegant catfish fricassee and sweet onion custard — not a mention of lard-fried chicken legs, beaten biscuits or slow-cooked greens. Here was a black cook who was already two generations removed from the plantation kitchen by the time Lincoln died.

And what seemed even more remarkable to Mrs. Longone was Mrs. Russell’s voice and the brief first-person account that she provided of her life. “I found myself straining to hear her voice, and trying to talk to her,” Mrs. Longone said. “She had such an American story, and it seemed like her message was timeless.”

Mrs. Longone soon became obsessed with finding Malinda Russell. And that is when the heartache began… (This is a great article…click here to read the rest)

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Filed under african american, black women, culture, food, history, news, race, women

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