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Vintage Cookbooks: '58 tome a slice of black history

Thursday, February 01, 2001

By Alice Demetrius Stock

A recipe for Southern Hopping John shares the page with an excerpt from the Emancipation Proclamation. A recipe for Peanut Cake with Molasses is interspersed with information about the agricultural chemist George Washington Carver. And a recipe for Cornmeal Dumplings and Stew is placed back to back with an 1833 advertisement written by Prudence Crandall, first teacher to start a school in Boston for "little misses of color."

Such unusual mingling of food history with social and cultural history is part of the unique charm of "The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro," printed in 1958 and recently re-released.

Sue Bailey Thurman, who worked closely with Mary McLeod Bethune, founder in 1936 of the National Council of Negro Women, the book's sponsoring group, was the original cookbook editor. Anne L. Bower, associate professor of English at Ohio State University, explains the book's unusual arrangement of recipes in the introduction to the reprint, saying Thurman's group hoped readers "would be nourished by history as much as by food."

So, instead of grouping recipes by type in the conventional way, the compilers presented them according to the calendar year beginning with Emancipation Proclamation Day, Jan. 1, and ending with the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations, Dec. 10.

Anecdotes, old photos and black-and-white line drawings are interspersed with rare family recipes in order to recall celebrations and historical events important to the African-American community before the civil rights movement.

Throughout, the compilers also pay tribute to famous African Americans, such as Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington and James Weldon Johnson. And, as Bower notes, " 'The Historical Cookbook' exudes what, in years following its publication, would be called 'black pride.' "

The collection of 132 recipes not only includes classic dishes, such as Pot Roast, Potato-Corn Chowder, Blackberry Cobbler and Pumpkin Pie, but also some unusual ones, such as West Indian Banana Jam and Ohio Pork Cake.

Though we have not tested them, the Banana Jam and Pork Cake recipes make interesting reading.

The jam recipe: Cut 5 bananas into thin slices. Boil in 2 cups water until soft. Add the juices of 2 oranges, 2 limes and equal parts water. Cook until thick, stirring occasionally to prevent burning.

The pork cake: Pour boiling water over 1 cup finely chopped salt pork and cool. Add 1 cup each molasses, sugar and raisins and 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon each ground nutmeg, allspice and clove mixed into 3 cups flour. Bake in a slow oven until set.

Those interested in saving and protecting an important part of our nation's history will want to be on the lookout for the 1958 edition of "Historical Cookbook of the American Negro" and even harder-to-find pre-1970s works such as "The House Servant's Directory" by Robert Black and "What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, 1881." Both are available as reprints.

Hot Tomato Juice Cocktail

The compilers suggest a St. Valentine's Day toast to Frederick Douglass with this old-fashioned vegetable juice starter -- a precursor of V8. They describe orator Douglass as "anchor man in the abolitionist cause for freedom of all people."

1 quart tomato juice
2 stalks of celery, cut in 1-inch pieces
4 thin slices onion
12 cardamon seeds (green or white), hulled
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Combine the first four ingredients in a saucepan.

Cover and heat to boiling, then simmer 5 to 10 minutes, or to taste.

Strain, then add lemon juice and serve hot.

Makes about a quart.

"The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro,"
National Council of Negro Women, 1958, (reprinted in 2000)

Thursday, February 01, 2001

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