Ladies of the Pen and the Cookpot: The Other Mrs. (Abby) Fisher

Before M. F. K. Fisher, sometimes known as plain Mrs. Fisher, there was Mrs. Abby Fisher.

And Abby Fisher’s personage couldn’t be more different from M. F. K. Fisher than if a novelist like Flannery O’Connor dreamed her up.

what-mrs-fisher-knowsThe author of what food historians long believed to be the first African-American cookbook,* Abby Fisher counted on others to actually write What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking in 1881.** As a former slave from South Carolina she went through life illiterate, thanks to Southern plantation owners’ general reluctance to educate their slaves.

Census information in 1870, the first time African-Americans figured into the census record, shows Abby living in Mobile, Alabama with her husband Alexander Fisher. According to the census information, she stated that her father was French and her mother a slave in South Carolina, no doubt a case of a plantation owner fathering a child with a female slave. Many Huguenots owned vast plantations in South Carolina. And the census taker described Abby as “mu.,” for “mulatto.”

As for who taught Abby to cook, nothing exists in writing to clear up that question. Various hints dropped throughout the book (Blackberry Syrup — For Dysentery in Children “is an old Southern plantation remedy among colored people”) make it quite clear that she once cooked in a plantation house kitchen.

By 1879, after a brief sojourn in Missouri where she bore the last of her eleven children, Abby took her family to San Francisco. In San Francisco, she and her husband developed a thriving catering business, as well as a unique pickles and preserves operation, reflected in the subtitle of her cookbook, “”Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc.” Only three of her children apparently lived to adulthood, and the unanswered question lingers over whether or not she lost some of her children to slave sales when she lived in South Carolina.

vtfwc-plantation-tour-7Most of the information about Abby Fisher came from meticulous work carried out by Karen Hess, who basically spearheaded the movement to find and print a copy of Abby Fisher’s book. Hess first saw the book at an auction at Sotheby’s 1984, where the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library at Harvard University purchased the book. (Hess later edited and annotated a version of the cookbook under the imprint of Applewood Press in 1995.)

Although mystery still surrounds this woman who ran a successful San Francisco catering company called “Mrs. Abby Fisher & Company,” her recipes fortunately leave no doubt about her culinary skills. Ranging from breads and cakes to meats of all kinds, Abby Fisher’s 160 recipes can still entice cooks to tie on that apron and get the water boiling.

corn-pudding135    Corn Pudding

Take one dozen ears of corn and grate from the cob. Beat four eggs light and add a pint of sweet milk and a tablespoonful of butter, salting and peppering to taste. Beat lightly, place in a deep dish and bake in a hot oven. Ten minutes will bake it. Grease the dish with butter before putting the pudding into it, and send to the table in the dish it is baked in.

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*The honor for first African-American cookbook goes to Malinda Russell’s A Domestic Cookbook: Containing A Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen. First printed in Paw Paw, Michigan in 1866 by the author, in 2007 the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan reprinted it in facsimile, thanks to the efforts of Jan B. Longone.

**The link goes to a full-text version of What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking.

© 2009, 2010 C. Bertelsen

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4 comments

  1. theladyofthelake

    Thanks for this post and for the link to msu where there are other cookbooks that I did not know about. Keep up the good work.

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