Women’s History Month, Prequel #1: Just What Does Mrs. Fisher Know?

It’s hard to believe it, but March is almost here. As a transition post to move us from Black History Month to Women’s History Month, I thought this week, we might talk about Mrs. Fisher. In 1881, the Women’s Co-Operative Printing Office in San Francisco published What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking.

What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking, 1995 reprint title page
What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking, 1995 reprint title page
What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking, 1881 title page
What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking, 1881 title page

A couple of weeks ago, while talking about Rufus Estes, I rambled on a bit about the question of authority in cookbooks. Abby Fisher’s book also includes an introduction. It partially addresses her qualifications. And, like Malinda Russell’s A Domestic Cook Book Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen, also gives us some insight into Mrs. Fisher herself:

The publication of a book on my knowledge and experience of Southern Cooking, Pickle and Jelly Making, has been frequently asked of me by my lady friends and patrons in San Francisco and Oakland, and also by ladies of Sacramento during the State Fair in 1879. Not being able to read or write myself, and my husband also having been with the advantages of education–upon whom would devolve the writing of the book at my dictation–caused me to doubt whether I would be able to present a work that would give perfect satisfaction. But, after due consideration, I concluded to bring forward a book of my knowledge–based on an experience of upwards of thirty-five years–in the art of cooking Soups, Gumbos, Terrapin Stews, Meat Stews, Baked and Roast Meats, Pastries, Pies and Biscuits, making Jellies, Pickles, Sauces, Ice-Creams and Jams, preserving Fruits, etc. The book will be found a complete instructor, so that a child can understand it and learn the art of cooking.

Respectfully,

MRS. ABBY FISHER,

Late of Mobile, Ala.

While the publication location and the introduction itself suggest Mrs. Fisher has, for some time, been located in California, she is careful to continue to align herself with the American South, too, being “Late of Mobile, Ala.” and in which kinds of recipes she extols her expertise, including gumbo, terrapin, and biscuits. If you peruse the table of contents, you’ll see other familiar Southern dishes like fried chicken, Creole soup, corn fritters, and a sea of pickles and relishes. A few of the recipes include commentary (“I have given birth to eleven children and raised them all, and nursed them with this diet” or “This recipe is an old Southern plantation remedy among colored people”) which again remind us of her history and her culinary roots.

But, at the same time, she offers us some items and methods you might not expect, given that we’re talking about recipes that date back to the 1840s at least. Home ice cream makers were decades away in 1846 (though they were on the horizon in 1881), but Mrs. Fisher presents us with techniques for ice cream and sherbet. Her “Coccoanut Pie” requires actual coconut, an ingredient available to in the South as an import from the West Indies. While coconut was available in colonial America, it probably didn’t travel well and was likely more common in the South.  And her recipes tell us a lot about the mid-19th century food timeline. She incorporates Cox gelatin (Snow Pudding, 110), a commercial product from Scotland that the producers began exporting to America only in 1845. (Commercial, granulated gelatin wouldn’t be mass produced in America until the 1890s.) Nor does she shy away from alcohol, offering variations on brandy peaches and blackberry brandy.

Unfortunately for us, we don’t have an 1881 edition of What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking (though it IS on our wishlist), but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy looking at one! The digital collection at Michigan State University has a copy that includes page images, transcripts, and a PDF. Or, you can visit us and view our 1995 reprint, of course. It may not have that “old book” smell, but it most certainly serves as a reminder of Mrs. Fisher’s legacy.

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