S. Thomas Bivens and the Business of Food

February is Black History Month. Around this time last year, I was asked if I might be interested in giving a talk about African-American contributions to culinary history. Since my culinary history is learned on the job, I thought it might give me a great opportunity to explore a subject I didn’t know much about, and I agreed. With a time limit, there was only so much I could talk about, so I devoted my 20 minutes to a hundred year period, from about 1820-1920 (and even that BARELY scratched the surface). I talked about a number of significant and influential publications in our collection, including John B. Goins’ The American Waiter, which I’ve blogged about previously.

Today, I thought I’d share another important early 20th century African-American manual: S. Thomas Bivens’ The Southern Cookbook: A Manual of Cooking and List of Menus including Recipes used by Noted Colored Cooks and Prominent Caterers. In 1912, S. Thomas Bivens wrote The Southern Cookbook: A Manual of Cooking and List of Menus including Recipes used by Noted Colored Cooks and Prominent Caterers. As we can infer from the activities and successes of previous  African-American authors like Abby Fisher (What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, 1881) , John B. Goins, Tunis Campbell (Hotel Keepers, Head Waiters, and Housekeepers’ Guide, 1848), and Robert Roberts (The House Servant’s Directory, or A Monitor for Private Families: Comprising Hints on the Arrangement and Performance of Servants’ Work, 1827), food had become a business, and an important one for African-Americans. Bivens was a teacher at the Chester Domestic Training Institute in Pennsylvania. In his introduction, he writes:

“Domestic service consists not simply in going the rounds and doing the humdrum duties of the house, but in scientifically cooking the food: in creating new dishes and in having a thorough knowledge of the family…Such service would be indispensable to any family.”

The recipes in Bivens’ book run across every meal and even include things like making cheese and a whole section on home brewing (beer, wine, cordials, vinegars and shrubs). There’s a wide variety of recipes in the book and, returning to southern roots, many foods made from brains, feet, and offal.  Much like the household manuals of a slightly earlier era, there are directions for cooking for invalids, but also three pages on easy dishes to make for poor or needy families. Charity is part of the experience of serving oneself and one’s boss. Bivens closes his volume with directions for table settings, etiquette, and suggested menus for the home. Equally important, when considering the work of Bivens and Goins, is that, by the early part of the 20th century (and perhaps as early as  Abby Fisher in 1881), voices, ideas, recipes and even foods that had been co-opted during the previous century were becoming more authoritative and instructional. And these authors began to pave the way for the next 100 years.

You can view the entire book online, via the Hathi Trust, here, if you can’t visit us. We do have a reprint of Abby Fisher’s book in our collection, so I won’t spoil that one today–it’s a post for another day. Currently, however, we don’t have a copy of either Tunis Campbell or Robert Roberts’ publications…yet. Thanks to MSU’s “Feeding America” project, you can see both online here and here.


2 thoughts on “S. Thomas Bivens and the Business of Food

  1. Pingback: S. Thomas Bivens and the Business of Food | Antonius Magirus

  2. Pingback: Wondering What’s Good to Eat? Rufus Estus Has Some Answers! | What's Cookin' @ Special Collections?!

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