Who Is Abby Fisher? Here’s What You Need to Know About One of America’s First Black Cookbook Authors.

published Feb 8, 2023
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What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking cookbook cover
Credit: Abby Fisher; Katherine Golden Bitting Collection on Gastronomy (Library of Congress)

When we talk about the culinary aspect of Black history, it’s easy to mention prolific figures like Edna Lewis, George Washington Carver, Zephyr Wright, and Malinda Russell. Although each has played a large role in the way Americans experience food, there’s one Black American chef whose name deserves the same amount of recognition: Abby Fisher. 

Abby Fisher — sometimes referred to as Abbie Fisher — exists in pieces throughout history, but much of her story is unknown. Through the limited details we have, we’ve been able to paint an image of a courageous woman who wasn’t afraid to do what she needed to do and she did it well. A cook, mother, and trailblazer, Fisher didn’t let her circumstances stop her from living her most authentic life.

Her work as a 19th-century enslaved cook carried her throughout her life and helped shape the person she became. Growing to become a decorated culinarian, Abby Fisher left behind a legacy that inspired the dishes and recipes of the many African American cooks that succeeded her. Perhaps the most astounding fact about Fisher’s life, however, is that we have a direct connection to her through her cookbook, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking

Although formerly enslaved, Fisher overcame boundaries and became one of the first African American women to publish a cookbook. Today, more chefs and cooks know the name Abby Fisher and honor her by recreating her recipes to celebrate her life’s work.

Abby Fisher was born enslaved.

Abby Fisher was born mixed-race and enslaved in 1831 in Orangeburg, South Carolina. After spending much of her early years working in the kitchen on her father’s plantation, she moved from South Carolina to Mobile, Alabama, and in the late 1850s married Alexander Fisher — who was also mixed-race. Although it’s not exactly clear when Abby earned her freedom, by 1877 she and her family had made it to San Francisco, where she earned multiple awards for her cooking. 

She gave birth to 11 children. 

Abby Fisher’s story is somewhat incomplete in history, as there’s very little known about the historic figure. What is known, however, is that she had 11 children throughout her life, as mentioned throughout her cookbook. And in one recipe in particular, she noted how she nursed them all.

In her last recipe, Pap for Infant Diet, Fisher introduced a traditional African dish named Pap that was updated to reflect her lived experience as an enslaved person. Typically a semisolid porridge, Pap is made of grains cooked in water — with or without milk added — until it’s mushy enough for a baby to eat. In her own words, Fisher said, “I have given birth to eleven children and raised them all, and nursed them with this diet. It is a Southern plantation preparation.” 

Abby Fisher was a pickle manufacturer.

After making it to San Francisco, Fisher began to amass a celebrity-like following. Alongside her husband, Alexander, Abby became a wildly popular caterer and pickle manufacturer. This success pushed the husband-and-wife duo to formalize their business in the San Francisco area as Mrs. Abby Fisher & Company. The secret ingredient to Abby’s prestige was her ability to blend the ingredients and flavors of two cultures very well, resulting in her gaining access to spaces someone with full Black heritage would have previously been kept out of.

Perhaps best known for her pickles and preserves (she won multiple awards at fairs around California), shortly after setting up Mrs. Abby Fisher & Company, Abby and Alexander changed the name of her business to Mrs. Abby Fisher, Pickle Manufacturer, to reflect her success. And in 1879, she was awarded a diploma, the highest honor, at the Sacramento State Fair. The next year, at the San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute Fair in 1880, Fisher took home a silver medal for her assortment of jams and preserves and a bronze for best pickles and sauces.  

Over the years, she used her cultural background and predetermined line of work to create food that made her famous. 

She released what is now known as the oldest cookbook written by a former slave.

In 1881, Fisher dictated her cookbook, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, to her friends at the Women’s Co-Operative Printing Union. Showcasing her range as a chef, the cookbook saw dishes like Lamb Croquettes and Fried Chicken weave effortlessly in between more complex recipes like Calf’s Head Soup and Terrapin Stew. 

Despite being unable to read or write, Fisher was pushed to preserve her recipes in a way that allowed more people access to her cooking style. Now emblazoned in history as the second known cookbook written by an African American woman (but the oldest cookbook written by a former slave), Fisher’s cookbook was — and still is — a massive accomplishment for a formerly enslaved mixed-race girl from Orangeburg, South Carolina.