If you haven’t heard of A Domestic Cookbook by Malinda Russell, you’re sadly not alone. We do, however, believe that this should change immediately.
A Domestic Cookbook: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen is the first cookbook written by a Black woman in America. Self-published by Malinda Russell in Paw Paw, Michigan in 1866, the book itself contains 39 pages of short and sweet recipes (referred to by their previous title “receipts”) with an emphasis on baked goods like cakes, pastries, and breads. True to the times of the 19th century, it also contains recipes for salves, shampoos, and elixirs.
While first reading this cookbook, you are immediately confronted with two clear truths: The first, that Malinda Russell has (at the very least) just as much experience and prowess as any French pastry chef who’s trained at a prestigious culinary school. And the second, that you can learn so much about a person by simply reviewing the dishes they love making, and seeing the way they choose to share that knowledge with the world.
For Malinda Russell, this sharing of knowledge came about by necessity. In the 1830s, Malinda Russell traveled to Virginia with a character certificate written by a Doctor, with intentions to travel to Liberia. Unfortunately, her plans changed after being robbed by a fellow traveler, leading her to stay in Lynchburg, Virginia and take up work for a local family. Fortunately, this unexpected series of events connected her with Fanny Steward, who taught Malinda how to cook. Eventually, Russell left Virginia and returned to her home state of Tennessee, where she ran a successful pastry shop for 6 years. But in 1864, her home was raided by a traveling guerilla gang of white men, forcing her to flee with her son to Paw Paw, Michigan. It was here in Michigan that Malinda published her cookbook as a source of income for herself and her son. Tragically, after the town of Paw Paw was destroyed by a fire, no further trace of Malinda Russell is known, making A Domestic Cookbook the only written piece of evidence we have for this chapter of her life.
CHRONICLES IN THE KITCHEN
When you imagine a written history of a person — reflecting their values, their beliefs, and a peek into their daily life — you probably aren’t thinking of a cookbook. And yet, isn’t a cookbook the best possible method of preserving someone’s stories? Before the written word became the primary source of sharing information, oral storytelling reigned supreme, and in every culture, this casual passing down of memories and tales from one generation to another is central to participating in and creating community. We all have (or at least, know of someone who has) recipes from our parents, grandmothers, and even great relatives that we cherish as documents of our family history. The story of a community, told through food. Even though it’s not recognized as such, one of the most important, most consistent ways of storytelling has always happened in the kitchen.
You know those long, seemingly irrelevant, rambling anecdotes in digital recipe introductions, where the author explains how they arrived at making this specific dish? This familiar monologue was present in A Domestic Cookbook too. While Malinda Russell was much more direct in her introduction by comparison, her culinary prelude is the place where we’ve learned the majority of Malinda’s life story. Yes, directly from the beginning of a cookbook.
True to the nature of being in the kitchen, A Domestic Cookbook was the place for Malinda Russell to highlight her values both explicitly (on the page “Rules and Regulations of the Kitchen” Malinda where explicitly states that this space should, “always be neat and clean. The tables, pastry boards, pans, and everything pertaining to cookery should be well cleansed.”) and implicitly, through her admission that this cookbook was written with the sole purpose of raising funds for her and her son to reach her hometown of Greenville, Tennessee. Even the recipes themselves tell the story of what dishes her customers enjoyed eating, or she enjoyed making, as well as her personal approach to baking.
THE SHORTER, THE SWEETER
The style with which she writes her recipes teaches us about who Malinda Russell was as well. When looking through almost all of the recipes in A Domestic Cookbook, it’s clear that this book was written with an assumption that the reader has a basic understanding of the science of baking, with every recipe containing little to no explanation regarding how long items should be cooked or the temperature of the cooking apparatus. Underlying each entry is a simple, direct approach: “A cake looks like a cake. Bake the batter until it looks as such.”
Which is certainly not a critique of Malinda’s dictating or baking styles. In this aforementioned “5 scrolls until you reach the ingredients list” cooking landscape we live in, her 2-3 line recipe style is kind of refreshing, even while making it next to impossible to replicate these dishes for most modern bakers. And although there were certainly many reasons Malinda may not have been willing or able to explain these recipes in more detail, it further emphasizes her values and her story. For Malinda, baking was a profession, a way to support her family (and also something she was very good at), but it didn’t need to be anything more than those things. In the 3 lines under “Queen Charlotte’s Cake”, Malinda Russell’s story is being told. These short recipes, that read like a very concise text from your parents, ultimately meet the goal she clearly set forth in the introduction of the book: share what she knows about baking, sell this information to others, and move back to her hometown with her son.
Particularly in marginalized communities, being able to tell your own story on your own terms can be incredibly difficult, if not impossible. For decades, and centuries, and who really knows how long, people in these communities haven’t had much to rely on, but they continually created recipes from their available resources, passed those recipes onto their children or grandchildren, and told their stories the best way they could. So sometimes that was sitting around a bowl of food, or off the side of the road cooking over an open fire, or around the kitchen sink washing vegetables. Through cooking, recipe making, and keeping each other fed, we share our values and tell our stories. In Black History Month especially, this is a truth that can’t be forgotten: that, frankly, it’s always a privilege to even have a history, and that no matter how this history is packaged, it should be shared.
This is why cooking will always be a pillar of community building, and why we firmly believe in the importance of preparing, serving, and listening. Bookmarking a recipe and sending it to a friend or family member is a way of doing this, and so is opening a proper paperback copy of a cookbook to see your mother’s handwritten note about which ingredients to substitute. This is the lesson we take from A Domestic Cookbook and the incredible, underreported story of Malinda Russell. We hope you’ll pass it on, too.
Malinda Russell’s A Domestic Cookbook can be downloaded as a free PDF here. But to do our small part in sharing Malinda’s story even farther, we’ve included the below transcription of a few of her recipes:
French Tea Biscuit.
Two lbs. flour, two ounces butter, half pint sweet milk, one egg, half cup sugar, one cup yeast, half teaspoon soda.
One lb. sugar, 3-4ths lb. butter, one lb. flour, whites of twenty eggs, one lb. citron, sliced thin and rubbed in flour; beat batter and sugar until light; one teaspoon cream tartar and half teaspoon soda mixed in the flour, one gill brandy, one do. rose water; flavor with peach or vanilla.
Best way to Roast Beef.
Wash in warm water your beef, then rub in salt and pepper, and dry flour until a moisture rises on the meat; put it into a dripping pan, setting it on a brick in the oven, keeping the bottom simmering, the top with a quick heat, turning the roast often till done. The juice that flows from the meat will cook it always sweet and tender.