Ask A Librarian

The woman behind one of West Virginia’s fine bakeries.

Posted by Angela Spatafore.
April 5th, 2021

Blog post by Christina White, undergraduate researcher at WVU

This is the fourth post in White’s series on race, justice, and social change through cookbooksfeaturing the following books from the Ebersole collection: Mammy Pleasant’s Cookbook, A Date with a Dish, A Good Heart and a Light Hand, and The Jemima Code.

Freda de Knight authored the next featured cookbook, A Date with a Dish, but it would be better described as a midnight phone conversation with a friend who knows more than you.

She published this guide in 1948, but her culinary journey began at age 5 when she, like many girls at the time, helped her mother pack lunch for her siblings and prepare family meals.

A page from the guide includes a photo of Freda de Knight and the following biographical information, "This extremely charming, brown-skinned little woman who has written A DATE WITH A DISH brings a wealth of experience as well as a natural bent to her subject. 
"By the time I was five years of age," Freda de Knight relates, "I was able to bake my first loaf of bread, make biscuits, and garnish plates. Instead of cutting out paper dolls and playing house, I was cutting out recipes and playing cook."
After completing her early education in a convent at Salem, N. D., she took several courses at different colleges, majoring in home economics. She has acted as teacher and counsellor in all phases of the culinary arts in the New York schools. During the past twenty years she has collected thousands of recipes from Negro sources, and has used these recipes time and time again for gourmets and people who just love good food. 
She is the Cooking Editor of EBONY, popular Negro national magazine, in which her monthly column, A DATE WITH A DISH, is read by hundreds of thousands."

Freda didn’t hide from challenges facing Black cooks. This was the first cookbook I read that outright rejected the status quo, calling for “a non-regional cook book that would contain recipes, menus, and cooking hints from and by Negros all over America.” Here, there are hundreds of those recipes with anecdotes from the cooks themselves. I have no choice other than sharing one recipe by a West Virginia resident and baker, Ruth Jackson!

Text excerpt reads, "Ruth Jackson. As a girl, Ruth Jackson started her career as a "top notcher" in the Cooks and Bakers Class. Later she married a minister and became one of the pillars of her community when it came to good foods. All this helped toward her Epicurean education and for years she's been holding down first-class positions in her field. 
During her early years of cooking she studied and perfected the art of making pastries and candies. At one time she had charge of one of West Virginia's better bakeries. Everything that passed through her trained hands was baked to perfection, and her wedding cakes and petits fours were "picture-perfect," as if they had come out of the finest French bakeries."

I tried to find more information about Ruth, like her bakery’s name, city of residence, or even a photo. I had no success, although a more intensive search might work out. Either way, her memory lives on in A Date with a Dish.

When I think of West Virginia in the 1940’s, I never thought I’d hear about it from the perspective of a Black, female baker. It is truly awesome that Freda takes a moment to celebrate other women of color, whose recipes and ideas were generally shut off from popular cookbooks or publications. Wouldn’t it be great if they read about female entrepreneurs like Ruth Jackson in West Virginia history classes? The recipe is there, tucked away on a shelf in the West Virginia & Regional History Center. If you take away anything from this blog, don’t be afraid to fill a void in a story you care about.

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