14. Abby Fisher (1831-1915) published the first cookbook on Southern cooking by an African American: What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking (1881). Malinda Russell’s 1866 cookbook is older, but has few distinctly southern recipes.
In contrast to Malinda Russell, Abby appears in a number of records. She was born in South Carolina. In the 1900 Census, her birth date is reported as July 1831. An 1867 Freedman’s Bank record for her husband says that her maiden name was Clifton.
Census records report that her mother was also born in South Carolina. I suspect that her mother was Jennie Anderson, b.c.1810, who was living with the Fishers at the time of the 1870 Census. The Census also reports that her father was from France. My guess is that “France” probably just means that he was of French origin. During the colonial period, from 1680 onward, South Carolina attracted a significant number of French Huguenots, many of whom owned plantations in the Low Country region. Abby’s maiden name may reflect some connection to the Clifton Plantation near Georgetown, SC.
In any case, in the Census records, both Abby and her husband, Alexander, were listed as mulattos (in 1900, they were listed as white!). If her father was “French,” i.e., white, and she was a mulatto, that implies that Abby was born enslaved. We don’t know Step B, i.e., when or how Abby got from South Carolina to Alabama; whether she was “sold down the river,” or brought there with her owner. In any case, in Mobile she had the opportunity to add Creole dishes to her plantation repertoire from South Carolina.
According to the 1900 and 1910 Censuses, Abby married Alexander C. Fisher in 1860 or 1861. Fisher was from Alabama. He registered to vote in 1867, and opened several Freedman Bank accounts for himself and his children. He was also the pastor of the State Street Methodist Church.
The family was still in Mobile in 1876 (Alexander’s name appears in the 1876 Mobile city directory). Then they made their way to San Francisco by way of Missouri, where daughter Millie was born (1900 Census dates it January 1878). Shortly thereafter, the family was in San Francisco. In the 1878 city directory, Abby is listed as a cooking teacher. By May 1879, Abby had started a pickles, preserves, and vinegar business. From the multiple listings in the city directories, it appears that Abby was canning everything she could lay her hands on.
Abby’s personal and business listing in the 1880 San Francisco City Directory
There must have been personal tragedies along the way. The Fishers had eight children, but only three of them were still alive in 1900, but in other ways, the Fishers seem to have thrived in California. Abby promptly started winning awards. At the 1879 State Fair in Sacramento, for instance, she won a diploma for her blackberry brandy.
Her reputation among the upper crust, her “lady friends and patrons,” led to the publication of her 1881 cookbook, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, printed by the Women’s Co-operative Printing Union. (The WCPU is worth a story in its own right in women’s history.)
Her cookbook stands out in its amount of detail. Most recipes from that era are fuzzy on measurements and techniques, and assume that the reader is already a good cook. Abby wrote “so that a child can understand it and learn the art of cooking.” Indeed, most of the 160 recipes are still quite usable.
Abby was illiterate, and the book was dictated. It’s assumed that her “patrons” did the writing. My pet theory is that she dictated it to her 13-year old daughter Jennie, who was in school at the time). In any case, some recipes have curious names. For instance, Jambalaya is called “Jumberlie.” In the recipe shown here, it’s obvious that “Circuit Hash” is succotash.
Abby and Alexander both survived the great 1906 earthquake, and appear in the 1910 Census. Abby died January 9, 1915. Alexander’s age is a little fuzzy in the Census records. He was younger than Abby, and survived her by several years. One fascinating detail is that he was very diligent about exercising his voting rights. His name consistently appears over the years in the California voter registration lists. He was a widow in the 1920 Census, and died April 9, 1922, probably in his mid-80s. Apparently, he had fared quite well on Abby’s cooking. 🙂
So, what have we learned? From the standpoint of culinary history, Abby’s mix of plantation and Creole recipes gives us a broad glimpse of southern cooking in the post-war period. But what excites me more is her biography itself: Here we find a woman of color who went from enslavement to freedom, crossed the country, and then used her skills and ambition–not just in the kitchen but in marketing as well–to establish herself as an expert in her field. That’s a great story in any generation.
Several websites attach this photo to their stories on Abby. I’m pretty sure that’s not her, but it’s still a very good photo showing what old-time kitchens with open-hearth cooking were like.