Diverse City - African American History Month

African American woman holding a frying pan

Detail of cover, La cuisine creole, a collection of culinary recipes from leading chefs and noted Creole housewives, who have made New Orleans famous for its cuisine., by Lafcadio Hearn, 1885

Earlier this month I gave a talk on Southern cookbooks to Stephen Berrey’s class for his course "The American South: A History of Race and Culture since Reconstruction." (History 262/American Culture 263)

The story of Southern cooking is a long and complicated one, with diverse cuisines feeding into it in various ways. And the account of Southern cooking in Southern cookbooks is more complex yet, as elements of that history are romanticized, rationalized, highlighted or suppressed.

One thread that runs through Southern cookbooks is the figure of the African American in the kitchen. After about 1880 this figure, usually female, often explicitly a “mammy”, is praised for her cooking skills, and often lionized as being at the foundation of good southern cooking.
The (usually white) authors take for granted that these culinary artists belong in a servile position, having always occupied one in the south.

There’s more to the characterization than good cooking, however. The black cook is portrayed as a creature of instinct, not of reason, one who has a mysterious sense of how to cook, likened to magic, or to a cult. 

Here’s the sequence of images I show the class, which (since there will be another post on the class next month) I'll allow to speak for themselves:

Illustration of a caricature of an African-American woman in an apron and head scarf
Frontispiece, The Creole Cookery Book  Edited by the Christian Woman's Exchange of New Orleans, 1885


Ornate book cover, blue with gold lettering, and a picture of an African-American woman with a frying pan
Cover, La Cuisine Creole, a Collection of Culinary Recipes From Leading Chefs and Noted Creole Housewives, Who Have Made New Orleans Famous For its Cuisine, Lafcadio Hearn, 1885


Illustration of an African-American woman nursing a child
Illustration (unnumbered page between p.32& p.33), Cooking In Old Créole Days  La Cuisine Créole a L'usage Des Petits Ménages by Célestine Eustis, 1903


Abstract design in red, white, and black of the head and shoulders of a caricatured African-American woman wearing a head scarf
Cover, Mirations and Miracles of Mandy by Natalie Scott, 1929


Book jacket with an orange and black illustration of an African-American woman in an apron and head scarf carrying a dish
Dust jacket, The Savannah Cook Book: a Collection of the Old Fashioned Receipts From Colonial Kitchens Collected and Edited by Harriet Ross Colquitt, 1933


Book cover with a red and black illustration of an African-American woman wearing a head scarf
Cover, New Orleans Creole recipes by Mary Moore Bremer, 1961 


Black and white photograph of an African-American woman cook
Frontispiece, Emma Jane's Souvenir Cook Book and Some Old Virginia Recipes Collected by Blanche Elbert Moncure, 1937


Further reading
Cooking in other women's kitchens : domestic workers in the South, 1865-1960 / Rebecca Sharpless. 2010
Cooking in other women's kitchens [electronic resource] : domestic workers in the South, 1865-1960 / Rebecca Sharpless. 2010

Hog & Hominy: Soul Food From Africa to America by Frederick Douglass Opie 2008

African American Foodways: Explorations of History and Culture Edited By Anne L. Bower. 2007

Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. 1994 

Domestic Advice, Racial Etiquette, and a Pinch of Salt: Three Black Nineteenth-Century "Cookbooks." 1998

Further Viewing
Guide to African-American-Authored Cookbooks 

David Walker Lupton African American Cookbook Collection, University of Alabama
Alphabetical list of Lupton Collection holdings