I was a pastry chef. I became a historian. The two fields, baking and history, seemed so separate, totally unrelated, until I recently had the idea of teaching a hands-on family baking class based on recipes from the first-known cookbook by an African American, Malinda Russell’s 1866 A Domestic Cookbook.
Mrs. Russell had been a pastry chef for several years in her native Tennessee. During the Civil War, she was harassed for supporting the Union and forced to flee to Michigan. Once the war was over, she wanted to return home and published her cookbook to raise the necessary funds. I could, I thought, explore and honor the life of my fellow pastry chef by teaching baking skills based a few of her best cake and cookie recipes.
Teaching and learning go hand-in-hand, and I figured as I prepared for the class, I would learn new things about the life of Mrs. Russell and the experiences of free African Americans in the mid-1800s more generally. I would also learn more about baking in the past. Little did I imagine I would find myself reading up on Civil War heroine Anne Etheridge Hooks.
Where could I teach my historic baking class? Washington, DC’s new Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital seemed like the obvious place. The building dates to the Civil War when more hospital space was needed to care for “seamen serving on the Potomac River and its tributaries.” Construction began in 1864 and was completed in 1866, and in June 1866, the hospital took its first patient, 24-year old African American seamen Benjamin Drummond. Until 1911, the hospital cared for Civil War and Spanish American War veterans. Then, for about a decade, it became the Hospital Corps Training School. Between 1922 and 1963, it was the private Temporary Home for Old Soldiers and Sailors. For the next few decades, the building housed social service organizations, but then fell into disrepair and disuse. In recent years, Capitol Hill residents restored the building to use as a cultural center. Baking 1866 recipes in a beautifully renovated 1866 building seemed perfect.
I made the arrangements and went to check out the Hill Center’s Demonstration Kitchen. The kitchen is named for one Annie Etheridge Hooks. Who was she, I wondered.
It turns out Annie Etheridge Hooks (pictured here) is one of two women awarded the prestigious Kearny Cross during the Civil War. Born Anna Blair in Wayne County, Michigan, in 1839, the recently-married Annie joined the 2nd Michigan Infantry regiment as a vivandiere, or a woman who provisioned and aided the troops. Her husband James Etheridge had joined too, but he soon deserted and Annie transferred to the 3rd Michigan. Later, she served with the 5th Michigan regiment. At times during her service, she cooked and performed other chores for soldiers, but her fame came from her courage and dedication as a battlefield nurse. June 22, 1864, saw the “good-looking young woman” on a battlefield near Petersburg, Virginia, caring for wounded soldiers in the midst of fierce fighting. About two years earlier, in August 1862, at the Second Battle of Bull Run, “Gentle Annie” faced enemy fire as she helped lead wounded soldiers to shelter. Soldiers repeatedly mentioned her in their diaries and letters home. “[A] braver soul cannot be found,” wrote one after Etheridge’s skirt was blown off by a bombshell at Chancellorsville in 1863. In May of that year, she received the Kearny Cross, an award for “meritorious and distinguished non-commissioned officers and privates.” After the war, she remarried and came to live on Capitol Hill. When Annie Hooks died in 1913, she was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full honors.
Malinda Russell, meet Annie Hooks. Your lives differed in many ways, but you shared the fortitude to make your own ways in a time of crisis. Your stories are inspirations.