History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers

Business or Charity? Why Publish a Cookbook in 1866?

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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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