History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers


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Business or Charity? Why Publish a Cookbook in 1866?

I’ve been pondering why Malinda Russell chose to publish a cookbook in 1866.  She was African American and had been born free in Washington County, Tennessee, sometime in the early 1800s.  Over the years, she had lived in various part of Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina, but was back in Tennessee, in Greenville, when the Civil War broke out.  In January 1864, a guerilla party robbed and threatened her “on account of [her] Union principles,” she tells us, and she fled to Paw Paw, Michigan.  In 1866, she published A Domestic Cookbook – the first-known cookbook by an African American – to raise funds, she explains, “to return home.”

The woman tells us why she published her cookbook, you may be thinking.  What’s there to wonder about?  Okay, you’re right.  She had been a cook for twenty years and had had her own pastry shop for the several years before fleeing to Michigan.  She was proud of her recipes and, she says, people had suggested she publish them.  Writing a cookbook was the best way she knew to raise money.

Seems straightforward enough.  But how she thought about her cookbook project is what I’m wondering, and it’s, well, impossible to know.  Did she think of it as a business venture?  After all, she had been a businesswoman in Tennessee.  She would market a desirable product to the public at a price that would sell?  Or did Mrs. Russell approach her cookbook as a charitable undertaking?  Did she put it together to solicit contributions from people she knew in a dignified way?

It may be more appealing to imagine her cookbook as a business endeavor, to think of Mrs. Russell as a smart businesswoman.  But if she published her cookbook as a self-respecting way to ask friends and acquaintances for support for herself and her disabled son – as a charity cookbook of sorts – she was no less savvy.

Charity cookbooks were new in the 1860s.  The first known charity cookbook, A Poetical Cook-book by Maria J. Moss, was published in 1864 to benefit a sanitary fair, one of the major means of raising funds to support Union soldiers.  Sanitary fairs were well-planned festivals where people could patriotically buy everything conceivable, and buy they did:  The 1864 Great Central Fair in Philadelphia brought in over a million dollars.  The Poetical Cook-book was the first, but people in other communities followed suit.  An unknown woman put together a book of recipes from a sanitary fair in Bangor, Maine, in December of 1864, and over the next decades, the charity, or community, cookbook would become a common fundraising tool.

Was Mrs. Russell at the forefront of this trend?  Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether she thought of her cookbook as business or charity.  The line between the two has always been blurry in American history, and either way, she had the self-possession to venture into print.  I may keep pondering this question, however, as I continue my quest to uncover more about this remarkable woman.

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The Lifesaving Nature of Buttermilk

The other day I wrote about Malinda Russell’s  butterless Sour Cream Cake.  Was buttermilk available in Mrs. Russell’s day, someone asked.  Could we use it today in place of the sour cream?

Buttermilk was available in Mrs. Russell’s day.  Indeed, the first-known reference to it dates to a 1528 health manual that proclaimed, “Nothynge nourisheth more than” fresh “Butter mylke” “sopped up with new hotte breadde.”  Mrs. Russell, however, does not use the term.  Many of her recipes call for “sour milk,” which may, in fact, refer to buttermilk.  (According to Joe Pastry, because of a lack of refrigeration, all milk and cream used to be somewhat sour.)  Other of Mrs. Russell’s recipes use sweet milk, while still others call simply for milk.  Helpful, huh?

To add to the confusion, the name “buttermilk” is a misnomer since buttermilk is what’s leftover after cream has been churned into butter.  That means, Joe Pastry explains, that buttermilk is low-fat.  Its thick texture, and its tanginess, comes from the lactic acid bacteria in it.  Because buttermilk is so low-fat, I wouldn’t use it in place of sour cream in Mrs. Russell’s cake.  There’s no butter in the recipe and using naturally low-fat buttermilk in place of higher fat sour cream (which is already much lower in fat than butter) would result in a cake fairly thin in taste.

So, yes, buttermilk was available in Mrs. Russell’s day and it is wonderful in cakes, though perhaps not her sour cream cake.  But buttermilk can be more than a cake ingredient.  It could, some thought in the late 1700s, save lives.  Yes, you read right, buttermilk might prevent untimely deaths.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, who we have already met reporting on the 1782 celebration for the newborn French prince, was the leading doctor in the United States.  A Philadelphian, he was also active in reform movements at a uniquely fraught time.  The success of Americans’ fragile experiment in republican government – in self-government, without the political or social authority of a monarch – depended on citizens’ self-restraint, many believed.  It depended on citizens’ ability to put the good of the community ahead of their own good.  Among the threats to the health of both individuals and the republic was excessive drinking, Dr. Rush thought, and so he urged temperance on his fellow citizens.  In 1782, with the harvest approaching, Dr. Rush particularly worried about “the custom of consuming large quantities of spirituous liquors at that season.”  Farm laborers who drank too much fought, used profanity, squandered their money, and sometimes suffered sudden death.  All these evils could be avoided, however, by choosing “simple, healthy, and frugal drinks.”  First among the beverages that Dr. Rush suggested?  Buttermilk mixed with water.

With all due respect to Dr. Rush, I’ll stick to using buttermilk in baking.  In fact, all this talk of buttermilk makes me think that in coming days, we should explore one of Mrs. Russell’s cakes that uses sour milk.


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Malinda Russell’s Sour Cream Cake

I said you would be surprised by Malinda Russell’s recipes.  Perhaps I should have said I’ve been surprised by them.  Not one has chocolate!  A number of her recipes combine unexpected flavorings.  And then there’s this one, the first cake recipe presented in her cookbook (plus a few others like it.)

Here’s Mrs. Russell’s Cream Cake recipe.

Sour Cream Cake from Malinda Russell’s 1866 Domestic Cookbook

If you’re a baker, you may be thinking what I thought.  “How should the ingredients be combined?”  “What temp do I bake it at?”  “What kind of cake pan should I use?”  (If you aren’t a baker, you may be thinking, “yeah?”)  Then, bakers, you may suddenly realize, “There’s no butter in the recipe” and think, “That’s weird.”  That was my reaction too.

Dedicated scholar that I am, I decided to forge ahead with the recipe.  In Rose’s Heavenly Cakes, the incomparable Rose Levy Berenbaum has a recipe for a whipped cream cake that has no butter.  She explains that the butterfat in the whipping cream takes the place of the butter and the cake is moist and tender.  Sour cream, however, has a much lower butterfat content than whipping (or heavy) cream does so I wasn’t sure how the cake would come out.  (At least, today’s sour cream has a much lower butterfat content than today’s whipping cream.  I confess I’m no expert – yet – on the history of sour, or any other, cream.)

To make the cake, I basically followed Berenbaum’s method with the whipped cream cake, and I decided to bake it in two 9 x 5” loaf pans.  Oh, and while I used Mrs. Russell’s exact ingredients, I took advantage of modern technology for the mixing and baking.  Here’s what I did:

2 c. sour cream

2 eggs

1 ½ c. sugar

2 c. flour

1 tsp. baking soda

Zest and juice of 1 or 2 lemons

Preheat the oven to 325 on convection (or 350 in a conventional, non-convection oven).

Butter (generously) and flour two 9 x 5” loaf pans.

Using an electric mixture, beat the sour cream for a minute or so.

Lightly mix together the lemon juice and zest with the eggs.

Add half the eggs-lemon mixture to the whipped cream.  Beat until combined.  Repeat with the other half.

Gradually add the sugar and combine thoroughly.

Stir together the flour and baking soda.  Add the flour mixture to the sour cream mixture in two separate additions and mix only until combined.

Pour into the cake pans (or pan depending on what you use).

Bake until golden and a toothpick or metal cake tester comes out clean.  In two 9 x 5” loaf pans, the baking time was about half an hour.

*Rotate the cakes about halfway through the baking time to ensure even baking.

How was it, you ask?  I like it.  The cake is light and moist.  It has a nice tang.  And it would be great with berries, perhaps lightly crushed raspberries.  (So, if you’re still looking for a dessert to celebrate the birth of  Prince George Alexander Louis, this is it.)

I’d love to hear about how the recipe worked for you, especially if you did anything differently, such as combined ingredients differently or used a different cake pan.  Now, if you don’t know how to bake and you’re in the DC area, the family baking class I’m teaching at the Hill Center is the place for you.


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A Free Black Cook in the Antebellum South

The troubles between an African American cook and a famous white restaurant owner are getting a lot of attention today.  “The relationship between [Dora] Charles and [Paula] Deen is a complex one, laced with history and affection, whose roots can be traced back to the antebellum South,” reports the New York Times.  In its discussion of this history, the article implicitly portrays black cooks in the South as toiling for white masters and indeed many, many did.  But not all.  Cookshops, explains historian Ira Berlin, were the most common business among free African Americans in the antebellum South.  Customers – free or enslaved – could buy groceries or snacks, enjoy a drink, or play a game of cards.  Most of all, they and the shops’ owners could escape, for a time, pervasive white oversight.  Malinda Russell, author of the first-known African American cookbook (published in 1866), too sought autonomy.  She was born free, she is quick to tell us in her short autobiography to her book.  And she kept, not a grocery, but a pastry shop that enabled the widow to save “a considerable sum of money for the support” of herself and her son.  She worked hard to be her own mistress, she wants us to know.  Her pursuit of independence is part of the long history behind today’s unhappy news.


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Where’s the Chocolate?

There is no chocolate in Malinda Russell’s 1866 A Domestic Cookbook.  None.  Mrs. Russell, author of the first known African American cookbook, explains that she had had a pastry shop in Tennessee for several years, and her cookbook includes dozens of recipes for cakes and cookies.  But not one uses chocolate.  Pastry chefs today may like chocolate well enough, but can feel that chocolate desserts are their least interesting creations, that a molten chocolate cake is obligatory.  (As an avowed chocolate lover, I don’t have a problem with this obligation.)  But that’s not why Mrs. Russell left chocolate out of her recently-discovered cookbook.  In her day, it was still a relatively new ingredient for baking.  Chocolate had been long known in the United States, but mainly as the key ingredient in a rich, hot drink.  When Spaniards had arrived in what’s now Mexico, they discovered a drink made of roasted and pounded cacao beans mixed with water and often spices.  (So, chocolate recipes today that use cinnamon, pepper, and other spices aren’t trendy, they’re as traditional as could be.)  Europeans and Americans soon took to the beverage and in the 1600s and 1700s, they drank, not ate, chocolate.  Even before chocolate came into common use as an ingredient in cakes, however, there were “chocolate cakes” – cakes meant to be eaten with hot chocolate, just as coffee cakes contain none of their namesake ingredient but make perfect accompaniments to that morning cup of joe.  In the 1800s, as clever (and highly commendable) people developed new methods of processing and manufacturing chocolate, Americans increasingly added chocolate to puddings, custards, and, more gradually, cakes.  Not Mrs. Russell.  Check back for more on her recipes.  They may surprise you.


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The Right Dessert on the Arrival of a Royal Baby?

Fellow Americans, you may be wondering what dessert we, citizens of a republic, should eat to mark the arrival of a royal baby overseas.  Can our history be of any help as we ponder this important question?  As luck has it, the very people who “dissolve[d] the political bands which [had] connected them” to a monarchy celebrated a royal birth.  The Revolutionary generation can be our guides.

The royal bundle of joy, Louis-Joseph, heir to the French throne, had been born in October 1781, during the American Revolutionary War.  In its struggle to win independence from Great Britain, the United States had no closer ally than Britain’s great rival, France.  By 1782, however, the war was over and the United States and Britain were in peace talks.  A party in honor of Louis-Joseph’s birth, thought the French minister to the United States, would strengthen Americans’ bonds with the French.

The celebration was held in Philadelphia in July 1782.  1100 guests were invited: Many ladies had to have their hair done between four and six in the morning.  When evening came, the streets clanged with carriages “rattling” to the party.  One guest, Dr. Benjamin Rush, described a scene of lights throughout the garden, a splendid room, a band, and hundreds of people in beautiful attire.

Dr. Rush enjoyed himself, but he had signed the Declaration of Independence, asserting that “all men were created equal,” and a party in honor of a royal baby hardly said that!  So good republican that Rush was, he found some meaning in the festivities that would affirm Revolutionary ideals.  The American guests, who were predominantly Protestants and had long been hostile to Catholics, “rejoice[d]” at the birth of the little Catholic prince, Rush told a friend.  Love of liberty, he explained, trumped old prejudices.

All well and good, you’re thinking, but what about the dessert?  Dr. Rush didn’t let us down.  The “simple, frugal, and elegant” dinner was followed by “cakes and all the fruits of the season.”  So cake and seasonal fruit it is to welcome the arrival of Britain’s future king.


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Seeking Malinda Russell

I’ve been seized by a mission to find Malinda Russell.  Her Domestic Cookbook, published in 1866, was discovered about a decade ago in California and acquired by Janice Bluestein Longone, now curator of American culinary history at the University of Michigan Special Collections Library.  Mrs. Russell explained in a short introduction to her recipe book that she was a free-born African American from Tennessee.  She was a cook and had had her own pastry shop for a time.  During the Civil War, she had to flee the South because of her “Union principles” and had wound up in Paw Paw, Michigan.  With the war over, she wanted to return to her family in the South and published the cookbook to raise money to get home.

Malinda Russell’s story became an obsession for Jan Longone.  She logged long hours in archives in the South searching for Mrs. Russell, to no avail.  In 2007, Mrs. Longone published a facsimile of the cookbook to widespread excitement among culinary historians.  My generous mother-in-law sent me a copy.  A former pastry chef and history grad student, I was fascinated, but busy (see: grad student).  I put the cookbook on the shelf and there it sat.  Recently, I took it down and started thinking about using it to do history differently — differently for me anyhow.  A number of historians have been exploring the sounds of the past lately.  I could work on the tastes.

But I was also confident I could find out more about Malinda Russell, and pretty quickly.  After all, I uncovered all sorts of great material for my dissertation and first book manuscript.  Since the discovery of A Domestic Cookbook, little new has turned up about Mrs. Russell.  Surely, I could find something.  Well, I was wrong.  Turns out it’s easier to find sources about well-known figures than about historically-marginalized people.  The search for documentary evidence about my fellow pastry chef will take longer than I thought, but I’m keeping at it.  Meanwhile, thanks to the recipes she left us, I – we – can discover a taste of her world.  Check back later this week for one of Malinda Russell’s recipes!