Ask A Librarian

Not just fried chicken.

Posted by Angela Spatafore.
May 3rd, 2021

Blog post by Christina White, undergraduate researcher at WVU

This is the fifth 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.

“It is a fallacy, long disproved, that Negro cooks, chefs, caterers and housewives can adapt themselves only to the standard Southern dishes, such as fried chicken, greens, corn pone, hot breads, and so forth.” The preface was probably quite inflammatory to prejudiced whites that came across it. To get a sense of the author’s courage, glance over the first page here:

A copy of the Preface page of A Date with a Dish. The preface reads, "There has long been a need for a non-regional cook book that would contain recipes, menus, and cooking hints from and by Negroes all over America. I have attempted in these pages to present, along with my own contributions, as complete a collection as can be found anywhere in the land. Recipes new and fresh in the modern manner...recipes ages old brought back to life...original, traditional, and exciting.
It is a fallacy, long disproved, the Negro cooks, chefs, caterers and housewives can adapt themselves only to the standard Southern dishes, such as fried chicken, greens, corn pone, hot breads, and so forth. Like other Americans living in various sections of the country they have naturally shown a desire to branch out in all directions and become versatile in the preparation of any dish, whether it be Spanish in origin, Italian, French, Balinese, or East Indian.
Years ago, and even today, some of our greatest culinary artists were unable to read or write. But their ingenuity, mother wit and good common sense made them masters in their profession without the aid of measuring spoons."

The author, Freda de Knight, in her book, A Date With a Dish: A Cook Book of American Negro Recipes, acknowledges stereotypes. She knows that Black individuals had to improvise, cooking without measurement or modern equipment. How could they formally publish cookbooks when they couldn’t read or write?

Hannah Giorgis in Bon Appetit describes how Freda’s cookbook transformed the future of Black cooks. She recognized that “cultural archiving and culinary research are both pursuits for which few black people have received compensation.” It’s a great read for home chefs, history buffs, or anyone interested in how one woman stood for justice.

*It’s nearly impossible to find a print copy of Freda de Knight’s book, as numerous Amazon and Google searches proved. However, WVU students and staff can visit the Ebersole Collection on the 6th floor of the library to read our copy for free! Make an appointment. (They’re open during the COVID-19 pandemic by appointment.)

**I also found this online version of A Date with a Dish digitized by Cornell University.

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.

I’ll have the molded cucumbers and meat stock rutabaga, please

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
March 22nd, 2021

Blog post by Christina White, undergraduate researcher at WVU

This is the third 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.

It’s a tall order, de-mystifying the history of a group that was, and still is, slighted by a clear lack of representation. Delving into the Ebersole Collection of cookbooks, I unlocked a treasure chest of personal records on the issue of race. Now, I want to shine the limelight upon the recipes themselves. Let their components and technique do the speaking for women like Mary Ellen Pleasant and their prowess in the culinary arts. Despite the trope that Black women had “natural cooking talent”, Mary’s recipes show an impressive level of education and technical skill in the culinary arts.

First, compare the meals Mary provided her Black wait staff and elite guests at the ex-governor of California’s dinner parties. She catered for Mr. Latham, the ex-governor and US Senator, with an international buffet that boasted boiled pigs feet and veal knuckle. She meticulously set tables with gold dinnerware. Apparently, the punch bowl had five types of wine mixed in — not your typical frat party.

Sketch showing people in fancy dress at Milton Latham's house
A drawing of one of the dinner parties that Mary would cater for Governor Latham.

Here’s a bit of her recipe for molded cucumbers, which Mary served to guests at New Year’s Supper:

“Slice cucumbers and put into salted water… Put into the water 1 blade of mace, 1 teaspoon of peppercorns and ½ bay leaf… Put 6 tablespoonsful of gelatin in 1 cupful of water to dissolve…  Add 1 cup of tarragon vinegar and several drops of green coloring… When the gelatine has set, drain the cucumbers, arrange in a layer in mold, pour the rest of the gelatine into the mold and let jell until firm…”

Whoo! I’d botch up at slicing the cucumbers. Every item sounds like something you’d learn at a prestigious school of culinary arts in Paris. Yet Mary, enslaved since birth, had no such education. She learned these techniques as a young girl and expanded her repertoire independently. She was fortunate to have her creations documented in this cookbook, as most Black women of her time didn’t receive recognition for their tremendous and diverse culinary skills.

This is evidence that Black women trained and practiced cooking in a formal way, even if it didn’t result in a formal certificate. There was, and remains, a stereotype that Black women are born with an intrinsic, homely knowledge of cooking, and that they exclusively whip up Southern comfort foods like fried chicken and gravy.

Jumping back to the food she’d serve to her Black staff members, here is a recipe for “Cheap John Rutabaga:”

Recipe for "Cheap John Rutabaga"

This is no walk in the park, either. The ingredients for Mr. Latham’s guests at their lavish New Year’s Supper party were expensive and imported, but the technique required to make the perfect rutabaga is formidable. When I first read the new section of recipes for Mary’s staff, I was troubled by the “lesser” quality of food. The recipes tell a different tale, one of resourcefulness and creativity. The staff section includes sour-sweet bites that require a double boiler to get just right and an ingredient I’ve never heard of: caraway seeds. The ingredients used for Mr. Latham and Mary’s staff may differ, but the thoughtfulness and technical merit are consistent across every page.

What the Thomas Jefferson Knowledge Institute has to add about Mary Ellen Pleasant can be found here.

Mammy Pleasant: An Agent of the Underground Railroad, Riverboat Chef, and West Virginia Abolitionist

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
March 8th, 2021

Blog post by Christina White, undergraduate researcher at WVU

This is the second post in White’s series on race, justice, and social change through cookbooks, featuring 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.

W.E.B. Du Bois compared Mary Ellen Pleasant to Harriet Tubman. He said, “Here was a colored woman who became one of the shrewdest business minds of the State.”

From “plantation lamb” to “smoked picnic tongue,” Mary Ellen Pleasant cooked it all and saw it all on her careful rise to culinary stardom in Victorian America. She was born into slavery on a Georgia plantation. Her training in the culinary arts began early in childhood, and once she was freed, she combined cooking and business skills to climb the ranks in gold-rush San Francisco and on a river boat owned by wealthy financiers. She used her connections with powerful figures to find jobs for colored people and led an effort to desegregate San Francisco’s streetcars, which established a legal precedent in the California Supreme Court for future civil rights suits (Thomas Jefferson Knowledge Institute). I’m left thinking, Where was this series of events in my American History class?

Taking her story closer to home, Mary Ellen was a leading figure in John Brown’s uprising at Harper’s Ferry. She financed his mission by donating $30,000, nearly $1 million in current money. When John Brown was hung in 1859 for treason, officials found a note in his pocket from an unknown, assumed-to-be-male source. It expressed complete support for the raid. That note was written by Mary Ellen Pleasant, self-made millionaire and West Virginia hero.

Portrait of Mary Ellen Pleasant, seated

Mary Ellen’s arduous journey is written between the lines of kitchen guidance, local recipes, and lists of common ingredients like nutmeg and bread crumbs. You get a sense of life’s everyday essence in the words of a chef to a novice reader. It’s conversational, light, yet studded with evidence of Mary Ellen’s home and career at the time. This timeline of food showcases her major steps, characteristic recipes, and social position throughout her life.

She’s a feminist leader whose name belongs beside modern icons like Simone de Beauvoir, Coretta Scott King, or Malala Yousafzai. I read about her campaign for justice in the pages surrounding quaint recipes for stews and cakes. No other book I’ve read detailed the process of stewing turtle meat with sherry wine or whipping cream with a rotary beater.

Like many women of color in the United States, Mary Ellen was artistically and academically restricted. She was blocked from etching her success, struggle, and feelings in popular documents. We must widen the reading lens of history, piecing together hidden accounts from secondary sources like cookbooks. Stories like Mary’s, a brilliant entrepreneur, self-made millionaire, and important abolitionist, cannot remain shrouded by discrimination.

When you step back and absorb Mary’s well-rounded recipes, you can almost taste her march toward self-empowerment and social change. As we move through this blog, let’s celebrate the women who built modern food systems and simultaneously campaigned for freedom.

“I’d rather be a corpse than a coward.” -Mary Ellen Pleasant

Resources:

Mary Ellen Pleasant’s Timeline of Major Events: https://timelines.gitkraken.com/timeline/8afdcc6908984b1887c2dce8884f2b1d?range=1830-01-01_1879-08-08
(Dates are approximate, as they were not listed explicitly in the cookbook. Scroll over blue boxes to read more.)

Image of Mary Ellen Pleasant:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Ellen_Pleasant

Source of quotes and more information about Mary Ellen Pleasant from the New York Times:
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/obituaries/mary-ellen-pleasant-overlooked.html

An Undergraduate’s Take on Race, Justice, and Social Change Through Cookbooks

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
February 22nd, 2021

Blog post by Christina White, undergraduate researcher at WVU

This series of blog posts will feature the following books: Mammy Pleasant’s Cookbook, A Date with a Dish, A Good Heart and a Light Hand, and The Jemima Code

Collage of cookbook covers
Emphasis on race, gender, socioeconomic status, and themes of social justice

Note: The cookbooks in this series feature revolutionary and talented women of their times. Reading their stories in the West Virginia & Regional History Center, I chose to refer to the authors by their first names. Their casual tones conveyed a desire to connect with the reader, and being one of those readers, I wanted to uphold that connection while maintaining the highest respect for the work they created.

I found a place on campus I never knew existed. The West Virginia & Regional History Center houses doorways into the past, into the day-to-day struggles, relationships, and moments of sweet relief. I’m sifting through the realities of women, Black Americans, and other marginalized groups to elucidate forces that affected their lives. These forces, far from obsolete, persist into today’s social landscape, whether it is in private conversations at the Mountainlair or national media coverage.

Donated by the late Lucinda Ebersole, an acclaimed writer and cookbook collector, hundreds of cookbooks await analysis on the sixth floor of the Downtown Library. I started with Mammy Pleasant’s Cookbook, which captures the travels and fierce entrepreneurship of Mary Ellen Pleasant.

Double doors with sign above that reads "Rare Book Room"
The Rare Book Room at the West Virginia & Regional History Center.

I realized that recipes cast a new light on history with an intimate truthfulness. Standard high-school history books don’t reveal the ins and outs of stewing a turtle, running a renowned kitchen on a senator’s riverboat, or feeding enslaved people at secret boarding houses of the Underground Railroad. The language around recipes, be it an author’s note or long introduction, tells a story about a time period. How are specific groups of people described? Mammy Pleasant’s Cookbook uses “Negro,” while later books opt for “African American” or “Black.” Who knew a timeline of societal awakenings and changes in norms is etched between the dinner and dessert section of a cookbook?

As I flipped the page of a hundred-year-old cookbook, a plume of dust shot into the air. I caught a whiff of an unfamiliar scent that reminded me of my grandmother’s stack of outdated newspapers, musty yet potent. I felt like a foreigner in an unexplored country, getting to know the smells and rituals of a group whose history was scrubbed and sanitized by dominant groups.

For example, the “mammy” stereotype — a jolly, rotund Black woman who cares for everyone and whips up a southern feast — seemed awful but extinct in today’s world. However, it was only three months ago that the international brand Quaker Oats removed a notorious mammy stereotype from their most famous product line, Aunt Jemima syrup and pancake mix.

Check out this TikTok on “How to Make a Non Racist Breakfast.” The creator spells out how a pancake icon propagated racism: https://twitter.com/singkirbysing/status/1273053553876074496

The content of these frayed cookbooks is so pertinent to the current moment. Their lessons on racial identity and inclusion matter in policy decisions, university trainings, and dorm-room discussions among friends.

My goal in these blogs is to share stories from sources as raw, as delicious, and as unfiltered as personal recipes. I don’t mind if opinions are unsettled or comfortability is shaken. I’ll also let you in on experiences that I’ll likely never witness, like skinning an opossum or preparing fruit punch for a hundred people at a church social.

At some points, I found myself agitated over a cookbook. I texted friends and annoyed my family about what I read, mostly injustices against the authors and their communities. Civil rights, intercultural blending, mental health, women’s suffrage, gender issues, slavery, single parenthood, poverty, environmentalism, and more fills the pages of the Ebersole Collection. This blog would be lucky to dust off just one of those topics!

I invite you to accompany me into the daily lives of skilled chefs who objected in the most cunning, illusive way. Their judgements and hopes are woven into the blank spaces between recipes for roast duck and spice cake.

I’m excited to show you what I uncovered after hours in the West Virginia & Regional History Center, carefully leafing through these antique cookbooks on a special book pillow.

I’m a senior pursuing a double major in Biology and International Studies and intern at the WVU Center for Resilient Communities. Welcome to my excursion into the Ebersole Collection!

Display of cookbooks featuring Black women
An exhibit of cookbooks written by Black women, an underrepresented group in culinary publications. This case and others can be viewed at the West Virginia & Regional History Center.

*I will capitalize the term “Black” in agreement with the New York Times’ 2020 decision to respect a shared cultural identity. Read more about their decision here.

Members of the WVU community can make an appointment to browse and read books from the Ebersole Collection by visiting: https://wvulib.wufoo.com/forms/modzhm01sagr2x/

A warm thank you to our dedicated Rare Book Librarian, Stewart Plein, and our Reference Supervisor, Jessica Eichlin, for empowering me during this process. Without their work, organizing the hundreds of books and spreading the word about their content would not happen.

More about the Ebersole Collection: https://news.lib.wvu.edu/2018/12/05/the-importance-of-a-good-cookbook/

Written by Christina White
Biology and International Studies
cdw0030@mix.wvu.edu

*photos taken by Christina White

The Jemima Code: Three Centuries of African American Cookbooks

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
February 25th, 2020

Blog post by Stewart Plein, Assistant Curator for WV Books & Printed Resources & Rare Book Librarian

Book cover of The Jemima Code, featuring an African American woman chef

A new book on our shelves, The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks, by Toni Tipton-Martin, documents more than 150 black cookbooks published in America.  The cookbooks range from a rare 1827 house servant’s manual, the first book published by an African American in the trade, to modern classics by authors like Edna Lewis.  Each book is listed chronologically and illustrated with their covers.  Recipes are also included. According to the listing on Amazon, this book “offers important firsthand evidence that African Americans cooked creative masterpieces from meager provisions, educated young chefs, operated food businesses, and nourished the African American community through the long struggle for human rights.”

Read the rest of this entry »

The Importance of a Good Cookbook

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
December 5th, 2018

Blog post by Stewart Plein, Assistant Curator for WV Books & Printed Resources & Rare Book Librarian

Recently the West Virginia and Regional History Center received the gift of hundreds of cookbooks that are part of the Lucinda Ebersole Collection.  Ms. Ebersole was bookstore co-owner, cookbook enthusiast, editor, and book collector. Her collection of cookbooks spans the late nineteenth century up to 2016.  The much beloved cookbook pictured here arrived as part of the larger Ebersole collection.

Beneath the hand sewn plaid cover is the Rumford Complete Cook Book printed in 1918.  Nearly every page is covered with handwritten recipes, cooking spills and splashes marking favorite recipes, clippings pasted on pages that completely cover the text and recipes attached by paperclips.

Yellow, blue, and red cookbook cover

Yellow, blue, and red cookbook cover Read the rest of this entry »