Women’s History Month, Part 11: Malinda Russell (b. abt. 1822?)

This week, I want to talk a little bit about Malinda Russell. I say “a little bit” quite intentionally, as that’s about all anyone knows. In May of 1866, Malinda Russell self-published a cookbook in Paw Paw, Michigan, the first known cookbook by an African-American. In fact, most of what we know of her comes from the introduction to A Domestic Cook Book Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen, which includes “A Short History of the Author.” She was born free in Tennessee, possibly around 1820 or 1822. From her account, we can surmise that she lived a challenging life:

My mother being born after the emancipation of my grandmother, her children are by law free…At the age of nineteen, I set out for Liberia; but being robbed by some member of the party with whom I was traveling, I was obliged to stop at Lynchburg, Virginia…Anderson Vaughan, my husband, lived only four years…I am still a widow, with one child, a son, who is crippled…I kept a pastry shop for about six years, and, by hard labor and economy, saved a considerable sum of money for the support of myself and my son, which was taken from me on the 16th of January, 1864, by a guerilla party…Hearing that Michigan was the Garden of the West, I resolved to make that my home…This is one reason why I publish my Cook Book, hoping to receive enough from the sale of it to enable me to return home [Greenville, TN]…

From what else we do know, she worked as a cook, a nurse, and a wash-woman in Virginia and Tennessee. She owned a boarding-house, then a pastry shop before moving to Michigan, where she seems to have been a cook again at the time the book was published.

The original A Domestic Cook Book Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen was published in 1866. It was a 29 page pamphlet and very few copies still seem to exist. The one most well-known (if not the only one) is in the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive at the University of Michigan Special Collections. In 2007, they printed a small run of facsimiles, a copy of which we acquired not long after. Although the original item is out of copyright, the 2007 facsimile is not. As a result, I’m not posting images from the item itself, though I have included the front and back covers, and I’ll share some quotes below.

A Domestic Cook Book: containing a careful selection of receipts for the kitchen by Mrs. Malinda Russell, an experience cook published by the author, 1866
A Domestic Cook Book, 1866 (facsimile), front cover
A Domestic Cook Book by Malinda Russell a free woman of color, Paw Paw, Michgan 1866. A facsimile of the first known cook book by an african american with an introduction by Janice Bluestein Longone from the unique copy in the William L. Clements Library, 2007
A Domestic Cook Book, 1866 (facsimile), back cover

I first saw Malinda Russell’s name in 2013 while researching African-American culinary history for a talk I gave in our library. I was amazed at her story and excited to find our facsimile, which I quickly pulled from the shelf. After her brief autobiography is another introductory section, “Rules and Regulations of the Kitchen,” in which Russell provides an explanation of her culinary background. The last sentence of this page reads “I cook after the plan of the ‘Virginia Housewife.'” It seems, at times, we can’t escape Mary Randolph on the blog, can we?🙂

Russell’s book doesn’t have a table of contents or index and, aside from loosely grouping like receipts, a structure, but for all its 30 pages, she shares plenty of receipts. You’ll find cakes, cordials, pies, cookies, gelatin desserts, pickled and preserved fruits and vegetables, breads/rolls, and custards/puddings. On the whole, there is an emphasis on sweet dishes and baked goods, but she finished with savory meat and poultry dishes, two fish recipes, and several handfuls of home remedies. Not one recipe has directions longer than about eight sentences (calf’s head soup and cream puffs are among the more complex, and all are written in paragraph form without a list of ingredients (characteristic of the era). Most are summed up in as little as 3-4 sentences (or less!), like Sally Lun:

Three tablespoons yeast, two do. butter, two do. sugar, two eggs, flour to make thick as cake. Let it rise six hours; bake quick.

Or “Baked Peach Cobbler”:

Scald and rub the peaches; stew until done; season with sugar to your taste. Paste your pans, put in the fruit, dropping small pieces of butter over it; cover with paste and bake. When done, float the pie with the syrup from the fruit.

Or “Fricaseed Catfish”:

Boil in water with a little salt until done, then drain off the water, and turn over the fish rich cream, butter, pepper, and a little flour, and simmer slowly.

I’m trying to keep my post from being too lengthy (too late, I know!), but for a women with only one publication there was a LOT to say for this week’s profile. Still, I do want to add a final side note or two. First, despite the dearth of information about Malinda Russell, she is no secret in the culinary world. You’ll find her and her book as the subject of news articles, blog posts, and culinary research, if you take a moment to search for her. Second, to date, A Domestic Cook Book Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen, is the first known cookbook by an African-American, woman or man, in the United States. Robert Roberts’ The House Servant’s Directory is the first book published by an African-American in 1827 and in 1848, Tunis Campbell published Hotel Keepers, Head Waiters and Housekeepers’ Guide. Malinda Russell’s book remains in good company, when it comes to African-American publishing history. And, perhaps more importantly,  she helped paved the way for the the next 149 years of African-American cookbook authors.

Join us again next week for our final Women’s History Month profile of 2015. We’ll look at some of the works of food author M. F. K. Fisher.

5 thoughts on “Women’s History Month, Part 11: Malinda Russell (b. abt. 1822?)

  1. Pingback: Malinda Russell – Food Tells a Story

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

  3. Pingback: Just What Does Mrs. Fisher Know? | What's Cookin' @ Special Collections?!

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