This is one reason I publish my Cook Book, hoping to receive enough from the sale of it to be able to return home. I know my book will sell well where I have cooked, and am sure that those using my receipts will be well satisfied.
— Malinda Russell, A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen, 1866
“Everything we know about Malinda Russell is in this book — the first cookbook ever written by an African American.”
The kids leaned in for a better look at the iPad.
“And this is the only remaining copy.”
“She published her book in 1866. What do we know about that time?”
“Was it the time of the Civil War?”
“Yep. Remember, the war began in 1861 and lasted for four years. This book came out just after that.”
We talked a bit about what life in America might have been like during those years, and the challenges a woman of color like Malinda Russell would have faced. Then I gave them a very abridged version of the already condensed version of a biography that Ms. Russell had included in her book:
“She writes, ‘My mother being born free after the emancipation of my grandmother, her children are by law free,’ and that her family was one of the first families released from slavery by a Mr. Noddie of Virginia. At 19 she attempted to emigrate to Liberia but was robbed by a traveling companion. Forced to abandon her plans, she ended up staying in Lynchburg where she worked as a cook. She married and had a son who she describes as crippled. Then, just a few years later, she became a widow. So aside from everything going on in America at the time, she had her own personal challenges.”
The kids nodded in empathy.
I went on to describe how Ms. Russell moved to Tennessee and ran a boarding house and pastry shop, and “by hard labor and economy, saved a considerable sum of money” for the support of herself and her son.
But yet again, her plans were derailed:
“In 1864, a ‘guerilla party’ robbed Ms. Russell of her money and she was ‘compelled to leave the South on account of (her) Union principles.’ She moved to Michigan with hopes that she could return to Tennessee when ‘peace was restored’.”
The kids were speechless at first, but since we had just finished a unit on the Civil War, they were well aware of the ugliness that took place.
We turned our attention back to the cookbook and the recipe we would be making.
“Yeah, all of her recipes are like that. She lists the ingredients and the amounts, but no method or instructions on what size pan to use.”
We talked about how to mix this particular cake. We could see that it had the usual ingredients: sugar, flour, eggs, and baking soda for leavening.
They remembered that the baking soda needed an acid to react with.
“That would be the sour cream.”
I pointed out that there was no butter in this recipe. Usually one would either cream the butter and sugar together to create pockets of air in the batter, or whip the eggs with the sugar to aerate it. But it didn’t seem like the recipe called for enough eggs to whip with that amount of sugar.
“While planning this lesson, I remembered a similar cake recipe that uses whipped cream instead of butter. The problem is, commercial sour cream doesn’t have the same butterfat content as cream, so you can’t whip it. But then I realized that the sour cream in Malinda Russell’s day would have been cream that had been left out to sour naturally. That you could whip.”
So we would substitute my homemade crème fraîche for sour cream.
“It’ll be an experiment.”
“We know it won’t taste bad.”
I love these kids.
So they got to work preparing cake pans and measuring and mixing ingredients.
We would flavor the cake with meyer lemons.
While the cakes were in the oven, I filled the kids in on the equally fascinating story of how Malinda Russell’s 39-page pamphlet of recipes came to be known.
“It was found in the collection of a famous food writer named Helen Evans Brown. Only after Jan Longone, the curator of American Culinary History for the University of Michigan, purchased it from Ms. Brown’s estate, did she realize how historically significant it was.”
Jan Longone’s discovery and her subsequent quest to uncover more information about Malinda Russell has been written about at length. Ms. Longone and her husband even planned their 48th wedding anniversary to include driving around the southern United States in search of trail back to Ms. Russell, but to no avail.
Stymied by a lack of dependable records, Father Time, and a fire, Ms. Longone’s plans for finding Malinda Russell were consistently and heartbreakingly denied.
Our cakes were done.
They were very lofty when they came out of the oven, but they sank down as they cooled. Curious. And I thought I had come up with such a good plan.
But! As the kids predicted, the cake did not taste bad. In fact, everyone deemed it quite delicious.
My thoughts went back to Malinda Russell. I’d like to talk to her, not about the lack of instructions in her book, but about her plan of writing it “with the intention of benefitting the public as well as myself.”
Did she benefit? I hope she did. Her book prompted a new review and revision of beliefs regarding African American culinary history. Did she realize just how much the public benefitted from her perseverance and skill? It’s a shame we can’t have that conversation with her. I hope she eventually learned a little about her contribution.
Then maybe I’d ask her about the cake.
Malinda Russell’s Cream Cake
This is the way we made it. I would probably do it differently next time — maybe I would whip the eggs with the sugar. Or maybe just whip half of the crème fraîche? If anyone experiments with it, let me know!
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter and flour two 9×4″ loaf pans.
1 1/2 c sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 t salt
Zest and juice of 1 Meyer lemon
2 c all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 cups crème fraîche
Whisk flour and baking soda together and set aside. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, sugar, salt, and lemon juice and zest; whisk well. Whip crème fraîche until it mounds softly. Fold dry ingredients into the egg mixture, then fold in the whipped crème fraîche.
Place batter in the prepared pans and smooth the tops. Bake until the cakes spring back when pressed, and when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Cool cakes for ten minutes before removing from pans to a wire rack.
For more in this historical cake series: