I’m on a quest to uncover more about Malinda Russell, the little-known author of the first African America cookbook, published in 1866. Diligent historian that I am, I’m slogging through archival sources like census records and newspapers, local histories and nineteenth-century organizational records, and more. Former pastry chef, that I am (as was Mrs. Russell), I’m trying another approach too. I’m working my way through her recipes in hopes that I’ll get a feel for her palate and her experience of our shared craft.
Some of her recipes are familiar. Some sound peculiar (grated bread cake, anyone?) And some, like Washington Cake, are intriguing. Does the Washington Cake have any real connection to George Washington, I wondered? Last week I went to Mount Vernon to see what I could find out.
I learned a lot about Washington’s sweet tooth. Fruit desserts, cookies, gingerbread, and ice cream were eaten year-round, while at Christmastime, Martha Washington oversaw enslaved cooks Hercules, Nathan, and Lucy, and hired workers in the making of a “Great Cake.” Great it was with no fewer than 40 eggs.
But there was no word on Washington Cake. And nothing called a Washington Cake turns up in the earliest American cookbooks, those published – starting with Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery in 1796 – in the United States’s first few decades. The first cookbook reference to a Washington Cake, says culinary historian Gil Marks, isn’t until 1830. Newspapers, I’ve found, start mentioning Washington Cakes in the late 1830s.
“This cake derives its name,” asserted a August 9, 1842, piece in the Schenectady (New York) Cabinet, picked up by other newspapers throughout the country, “from the fact that it was a great favorite at the table of General Washington; the last two years of his life, it always formed one of the delicacies of his breakfast table.”
Another story goes that a New York shopkeeper named Mary Simpson sold slices of cake each February 22 to honor Washington’s birthday. She was, she claimed with no corroborating evidence, a devoted former slave of Washington’s. An enterprising businesswoman seems more likely to me.
Malinda Russell was an enterprising businesswoman too. As the many newspaper ads for them suggest, cakes named for the first president sold, and bakers termed a variety of baked goodies – some with fruit, some without, some made with yeast, some with other leaveners – Washington Cakes. Mrs. Russell’s Washington Cake recipe is simple, made with butter and sour milk and flavored with lemon. Check back in the next couple days for the recipe.