Malinda Russell (born c. 1812) was ready to bake no fewer than 44 kinds of cake. She made fried cakes, iced cakes, many breads, she made Floating Island and Trifle. On just one page of her book she lists Lemon Custard, Indian Meal Batter Bread, Tomato Catsup, and Pickled Cauliflower. She mixed in recipes for Black Ointment, Peleg White Sticking Salve and Barbers’ Shampooing Mixture on the same page as Ham Omelet, Rice Omelet, and Fried Oysters. How has this woman, this talented cook escaped our attention for so long?
For culinary historians the collection of Mrs. Abby Fisher’s pickle and jam recipes published in 1881 was long considered the earliest cookery book by an African American. Only in 2001 was the single, amazingly preserved, copy of Mrs. Malinda Russell’s A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen (1866), described to the culinary public in Janice Bluestein Longone’s article in Gastronomica. In 2007 the William L. Clements Library in Ann Arbor, which holds the original, published a facsimile of what has now been accepted to be the first known cookbook by an African American.
Russell’s enslaved grandmother was freed in Virginia at a date unknown; this woman’s youngest daughter was born free and thus her children, including Malinda, were born free. With a frustrating lack of the sort of details we would love to know Russell only hints at the adventure of her life. At age nineteen she almost went to Liberia as part of the African Colonization Society. She was a skilled laundress and ran her own pastry shop. Her cookery skills were learned as an apprentice of “Fanny Steward, a colored cook, of Virginia, and [I] have since learned many new things in the art of Cooking.” To top it all, after having been run out of the south during the Civil War she took her invalid son and went to Paw Paw, Michigan to write and self publish her book in 1866 with the expressed hope it would earn her enough money from its sale “to enable me to return home.”
To my personal delight Russell declares with pride “I cook after the plan of the Virginia Housewife.” And as in the Mary Randolph classic, first published in 1824 and published continuously throughout the 19th century, Russell assumes she is speaking to an experienced cook; many of her recipes are little more than a list of ingredients since it is clear she assumes the reader will know how to actually prepare the dish.
Two cups sugar, one cup butter, one do. sour milk, six eggs, one teaspoon soda, grated nutmeg, flour to mix a soft dough ; boil in lard.
Ah well, that is how we cooks can learn – think about the process implied by the ingredients, add our former experience, then give it a go!
*Page 24, A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen, by Mrs. Malinda Russell, an Experienced Cook, Paw Paw, Michigan, 1866. A Facsimile with introduction by Janice Bluestein Longone. Inland Press, Detroit, Michigan, April 2007. (ISBN 978-1-4255-8881-6)