History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers

A Free Black Cook in the Antebellum South

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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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One thought on “A Free Black Cook in the Antebellum South

  1. Pingback: Acknowledging, and Slighting, “The Virginia Housewife” | History's Just Desserts

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