Teaching African American History and Culture through Cookbooks and Etiquette Manuals

By Hughes, Sakina M. | Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Teaching African American History and Culture through Cookbooks and Etiquette Manuals


Hughes, Sakina M., Teaching History: A Journal of Methods


Malinda Russell was in a tough spot. Inspired by the back to Africa movement of the American Colonization Society, she saved her meager earnings, sold her belongings, and started on her journey to the meeting location of people going to Liberia. She made the trip by herself. Traveling solo made the trip a dangerous one, and a fateful one, as Russell was robbed of her money and belongings on the road to the Liberia meeting place. With no money and no way to carry out her dream of going to Liberia, Russell turned back to what she knew: cooking. She built a respectable business, cooking for well-to-do white clients. Eventually, tragedy struck again for Russell, and once more she relied on what she knew to get by. She decided to write a cookbook to raise money for herself and her children. This work, published in 1866, was the first known cookbook published by a black American woman in the United States. (1)

Black-authored cookbooks and etiquette manuals can be effective in the undergraduate classroom as primary documents to teach students about the biographies of individuals as well as larger trends in black history, culture, and race relations. In this article, I first argue for the importance of a variety of culinary works--cookbooks and etiquette manuals--from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to demonstrate culinary books' contribution to a wide range of historical study. Then, I suggest sources that teachers and students can use in classrooms to investigate the lives of authors and their connections to American culture. Next, I offer a teaching method I used in one of my classes with particular reference to Malinda Russell's 1866 A Domestic Cook Book. Russell's life story opens a window for students to inquire about her unique challenges and the broader view of African American experiences in the middle of the nineteenth century. Finally, I reflect on how teachers of history may use cookbooks and etiquette manuals as primary sources to teach lessons on African American history and culture. (2)

Cookbooks and Etiquette Manuals in Historical Study

Diverse authors wrote cookbooks and etiquette manuals: a head butler in the New England home of a senator; a free woman of color who moved from the antebellum South to Paw Paw, Michigan; a cook who grew up in the Arkansas governor's mansion; a famous Civil Rights and Black Power leader; musicians, hoteliers, a renowned scientist, and many, many more authors from all walks of life. There were as many different reasons for writing as there are authors. Some authors stated that they desired to share their years of wisdom; others hoped to benefit the health of African Americans across the country; some wrote to make ends meet; others wrote in order to raise consciousness about culture, to educate about holiday traditions, and even to move toward racial justice and solidarity.

Culinary books hold a special place in the history of race and class. The first book of any kind by a black American printed by a commercial publisher in the United States was The House Servant's Directory by Robert Roberts, published in Boston in 1827 by Monroe and Francis. (1) Three black-authored works followed in the nineteenth century: Tunis Campbell's Hotel Keepers, Head Waiters and Housekeepers' Guide in 1848; Malinda Russell's A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen in 1866; and Abby Fisher's What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking in 1881.

For decades few scholars paid close attention to the culinary history of America. Instead, historians relied on sources such as letters, diaries, journals, and government records. Today, we recognize food studies as an important tool of analysis in cultural and economic history. Food reflects both national and regional culture just as art, literature, music, politics, and religion do. (4) Besides being publishing firsts for African Americans, cookbooks and etiquette books have wide social and political implications. …

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