Everyone Should Know About Malinda Russell, the First African American Cookbook Author
What better time than now, Black History Month, to explore the profound contributions that Black folks have made in the culinary world? And to dive deeper into the history of those contributions, which have often been overlooked or undervalued by the mainstream.
In that spirit, this year I wanted to celebrate one very special person in particular: Malinda Russell. She was a free Black woman from Tennessee, and her self-published cookbook, A Domestic Cookbook: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen, was published in 1855. It is the first known cookbook written by an African American. Talk about Black history!
Russell’s personal story, however, is just as remarkable as her cookbook. After unsuccessfully attempting to emigrate to Liberia, Russell found herself in Lynchburg, Virginia working as a cook. After her husband died, she returned to Tennessee, where she was born and raised, with her son. There she proceeded to successfully run both a boarding house and a pastry shop, as not only a free Black woman in a state where slavery still existed, but also as a single mother with a young child. Sadly, after eight years in business, she was robbed and threatened into fleeing to Michigan, where she would later end up publishing A Domestic Cookbook as a fundraiser to help her return to Tennessee.
Given her work as a pastry chef, it is no surprise that a significant portion of the cookbook is dedicated to dessert recipes. In many ways this counters the dominant historical narrative about the role and expertise of Black chefs. Historically, pastry has been regarded as a craft that requires a high level of expertise — and scientific precision — that was too sophisticated for the average Black chef. It has largely been assumed that Black chefs contributed where savory dining was concerned, but little is written about the pastry expertise of countless Black chefs throughout history.
A Domestic Cookbook is one of those historical treasures that creates a powerful counter-narrative, and stands testament to something that so many Black folks have always known: We’ve been baking. Today, it excites me to see an amazing array of Black women trailblazing in the baking space. In so many ways, they’re a part of Malinda Russell’s legacy.
As an ode to Malinda, cookbook author and baker extraordinaire Vallery Lomas and I decided to each pick a recipe from Malinda’s book and put our own twist on it. These days, we’re spoiled by the amount of description and detail that goes into cookbook recipes, but back in the day, recipes often resembled a rough outline — leaving lots of blanks for you to fill in. Some of the recipes in A Domestic Cookbook are more descriptive than others, but Vallery and I had a lot of fun interpreting what was written based on our own baking expertise.
For my recipe, I created a yeasted cornmeal coffee cake, an updated version of Russell’s “coffee cake” recipe from the book, which fascinated me due to its use of yeast as leavener, cornmeal, and cooked rice! Vallery created a triple lemon cake, which was inspired by the cream cake recipe in A Domestic Cookbook, as well as the pound cake recipe from Vallery’s cookbook, Life is What You Bake It. We hope you’ll enjoy baking them as much as we did, and, most importantly, we hope you’ll take a look through Malinda Russell’s book and marvel at this piece of history that’s available to us.