History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers

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!

22 thoughts on “Seeking Malinda Russell

  1. And the smells! I don’t know why, but I’m kind of obsessed with historical smells. Go figure.

    Also: have you spent much time of genealogy websites? They’re useful for finding people who didn’t leave much of a paper trail.

  2. Hi! I saw your post on the MoTH site. I’ve never thought about studying history through the culinary arts. This sounds like an awesome project. As a Black woman fighting my “traditional” culture of eating, I would love to know more about my history through food. I’m moving to Capitol Hill next month. I’m not sure if I can attend the actual event, but I will keep following your blog for more info. Thanks so much!

    • First off, welcome to the neighborhood! It’s a wonderful community. I’m so gratified by your enthusiasm for this project. I do plan to offer the class again and hope to meet you in one of my classes sometime.

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