Malinda Russell

7. Malinda Russell is credited with writing the first African American cookbook. She seems to have been born c.1828 in Virginia or eastern Tennessee. According to her brief biographical statement in her cookbook, her enslaved grandmother had been freed, and both Malinda and her mother were born free. At 19, she set out to go to Liberia, but was robbed or swindled by a companion, and left stranded in Lynchburg, Virginia. She married Anderson Vaughan, but her husband died three or four years later, leaving her a single mom with a “crippled” son. She ran a laundry house in Abingdon, Virginia, and then went back to Greene County, Tennessee.

The Liberia part of the story should be understood alongside the broader history of the area. Greene County had been a center of abolitionist activity. From the early 1800s on, there had been notable emancipations in the county, including by the local Presbyterian ministers Hezekiah Balch and Samuel Doak, and Valentine Sevier, the county clerk. A Manumission Society had been organized there in 1815, and several others followed. Elihu Embree, a Quaker from adjacent Washington County, started the first abolitionist newspaper in Jonesborough in 1820.


At the same time, from about 1830 onward, Tennessee had enacted increasingly repressive laws restricting free blacks in the state. Thus, along with abolition, there were also colonization organizations, committed to sending free blacks to Liberia. Some whites saw colonization as a benevolent, protective act. Others, especially in west Tennessee, simply wanted free blacks to disappear, believing that their contacts with their enslaved counterparts would encourage escape and revolt.

The Tennessee Colonization Society, founded in 1850, was one of these groups. It has been estimated that from 1830 to 1860, around 700 blacks had been sent to Liberia thanks to the efforts of that group and others connected with Philip Lindsley.


Pamphlet of the American Colonization Society, 1848

It makes sense that Malinda may have understood that she was in a precarious position, and that may have prompted her to join a colonization party.

It’s hard to pin down dates for these events. I suspect that Malinda is the person living with the John Burkey family in the 1850 Census for Greene County:

malinda russell 1850

The census taker opted to omit all racial classifications. It seems safe to assume that she was working as the family’s housekeeper or nanny. My guess at a c.1828 birth date is based on the assumption that the person in the census record is her, but census ages are often wrong. The 22 age here may represent either the census taker’s guess or the household reporter’s guess. In any case, 22 doesn’t quite fit with other biographical elements. I suspect that she was younger, and that her journey to Virginia and marriage happened right after this. Others have assumed she must have been a few years older than this.

Whether that’s her in the census or not, it appears that Malinda did indeed return to Greene County, and ran a boarding house on “Chuckey Mountain, Cold Springs.” Then, in about 1857, she opened a successful pastry shop. But in January 1864, a guerilla gang drove her out and seized her property.

This too is consistent with the broader historical setting. Abolitionism in Tennessee had died down after 1830, but at the time of the Civil War, eastern Tennessee had a large number of Unionists who opposed secession and the Confederacy. The East Tennessee Convention met in Greeneville in June 1861, seeking to form a separate state. Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s Vice President, had settled in Greeneville, the county seat, and started his political career there.

Confederate troops promptly occupied Greeneville. Some pro-Union leaders advocated violence, and there was some sabotage of bridges, resulting in the execution of two of the saboteurs in November 1861. In late 1863, a portion of Longstreet’s army wintered in Greeneville. Under these circumstances, it’s easy to imagine that a free African American woman like Malinda, with some public visibility as a shopkeeper, might be subjected to threats and harassment.

So she made her way to Paw Paw, in far southwestern Michigan. I haven’t been able to come up with an explanation for her landing there. Perhaps she had contacts in the area who had come from Greene County. In 1866, she published A Domestic Cook Book, which emphasized her pastry skills. She intended to use the proceeds to return to Tennessee and reclaim her property.

But from there, she disappears into history. I haven’t picked up any clues from the 1870 census. The village of Paw Paw suffered fires in 1866 and 1868, and it’s possible that Malinda’s business was wiped out in the process, forcing her to move–but where? Further west? Back to Tennessee?

Janice Bluestein Longone, the University of Michigan’s cookbook expert, who discovered the cookbook and published a facsimile in 2007, did extensive research, but has been unable to come up with the kind of documentary evidence that would produce a reliable biography. As genealogists know all too well, some folks just don’t show up in the records we rely on.

malinda russell

The cookbook is interesting for a couple of reasons, apart from its primacy of place as the oldest known cookbook by an African American woman. First, it’s not what we’d think of as a “soul food” collection; i.e., it’s not a collection of uniquely rural southern recipes. The book instead emphasizes her pastry skills. To this day, African American chefs have to combat the stereotype that if you’re black, you may be a god or goddess with “soul food,” but you can’t possibly have the skills needed to cook “white” food, i.e., fancy-schmancy European dishes. Malinda Russell’s example reminds us that the stereotype has never been true.

Second, in her introduction, she says, “I cook after the plan of the Virginia Housewife.” That was one of the best-known cookbooks of the time (1824 & on), by Mary Randolph. But then she said, “I learned my trade of FANNY STEWARD, a colored cook, of Virginia.”

What’s interesting is that she doesn’t mention Mary Randolph by name, but she does mention Fanny’s name. It was customary both before Russell and long after for white Southern wives to claim dishes as their own, without mentioning or crediting the enslaved or underpaid cooks who actually invented and prepared them. In a couple of sentences, Malinda turned the tables. Mary Randolph gets an obscure credit, but it’s Fanny Steward who gets the shout-out.

For me, even though we can’t connect all the dots or find all the missing pieces, that little turn captures the spirit of this strong, independent, resourceful, and talented woman.

Author: Dan Anderson

I'm an Iowa boy by choice. I love cooking and I love history, so I thought I'd put the two together.

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