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Culinary Giants

Pioneer shared 'Old Southern Cooking'

African-American in San Francisco dictated cookbook

By Bill Daley, Tribune Newspapers

June 19, 2013

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Abby Fisher arrived in San Francisco a generation after the Gold Rush ready to make her fortune. In a few short years, she won kudos and prizes for her pickles, jellies and preserves, set up her own pickling business and made influential friends who assisted her in producing a cookbook called "What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking." Published in 1881, by the Women's Co-Operative Printing Office, it is one of the earliest known African-American cookbooks.

"She's important ... because she exemplifies a certain indomitable spirit exhibited by many African-American men and women during and after enslavement," says Jessica B. Harris, a food historian and author of "High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America," among other works. "She is amazing."

The cookbook is a slim one, with just 160 recipes. For the era, recipes are particularly detailed. Manifest throughout is a sense of mastery in the kitchen.

"This book will be found a complete instructor, so that a child can understand it and learn the art of cooking," declares the preface.

Fisher presents herself as "late of Mobile, Ala." She says the book was produced because many "lady friends and patrons" in San Francisco and across the bay in Oakland had asked for recipes. But she couldn't read or write. Nor could she rely on her husband for dictation because he was "without the advantages of an education." She admits doubting whether she could "present a work that would give perfect satisfaction." But she pressed on and completed the book, which features a list of nine prominent Bay Area residents as references.

"You get the sense she was a sensible cook. There's not a lot of froufrou," says Harris, who writes in her book that the title "implies people were interested in knowing just what Mrs. Fisher did know about old Southern cooking."

Fisher "celebrated the culinary legacy of black cooks," Harris writes in "High on the Hog," with "detailed recipes for many traditional Southern and African-American recipes as stuffed ham, corn fritters, watermelon-rind pickles." Fisher's recipes also reflect her life and palate. The oyster gumbo recipe is thickened with file powder (an essential Creole spice), Harris notes, and dry boiled rice is served separately with the gumbo in "true Creole fashion (as one who spent time in Mobile would know)."

"Mrs. Fisher's recipes are very good. Truly Southern recipes," says Jan Longone, curator of American culinary history at the University of Michigan's Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library in Ann Arbor, Mich. It was Longone, an antiquarian book dealer, who discovered what is now considered the earliest known cookbook written by an African-American, Malinda Russell's "A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen" from 1866.

Unlike Russell, who tells of her life as a free-born woman of color, Abby Fisher remains largely silent about herself beyond her admission of illiteracy. Only in the very last recipe, one for infant pap, a "Southern plantation preparation," does Fisher add: "I have given birth to eleven children and raised them all, and nursed them with this diet."

Clues to the lives led by Abby Fisher and her family can be gleaned from census reports and city directories. You learn she was born in South Carolina around 1832. Most historians believe she was born enslaved because she is racially classified as mulatto by census takers, who note that her mother was born in South Carolina and her father was born in France. She married Alexander C. Fisher, a minister and Alabama native, around 1860. The family is in San Francisco for the 1880 census. A daughter was born in the late 1870s in Missouri, presumably as the family was moving west. Abby Fisher last appears in the 1910 federal census living in San Francisco's Noe Valley; her husband is listed as a widower in 1920.

While these records may seem dry and formulaic, they speak to a life that was lived from one end of the country to the other among formidable obstacles and challenges. "She was one of those women who put her face against the wind and moved forward despite conditions beyond harrowing," Harris says.

Circuit hash

John Martin Taylor, a food writer and culinary historian, believes Abby Fisher's Southern accent was "unfamiliar" to the California residents who jotted down her cookbook recipes. He theorizes in his blog, "Hoppin' John's," that they "wrote down what they thought she must be saying." So, succotash became "circuit hash." The recipe is given in paragraph form, as was common in the 19th century. (Season to taste with salt and pepper, if you like.)

One dozen tomatoes, one quart of butter beans, one dozen ears of corn cut off from cob, quarter pound of lean and fat pork cut in fine pieces, if pork is not liked, use two tablespoonfuls of butter; put on in a sauce-pan and stew one hour.

Note. Five minutes before dinner put in the corn to cook with the rest of the stew.

wdaley@tribune.com