Chapter 3: Southern Culinary Know How

Most of the earliest California cookbooks included recipes for gumbo and cornbread. No wonder. One of the largest contingents of American immigrants to California in the first decades after statehood hailed from the South.

Southerners were especially prevalent in Southern California.Their continuing allegiance to Dixie was apparent not only in cookbooks but at the ballot box. In the U.S. presidential election of 1860 on the eve of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln got just 25 percent of the vote in Los Angeles. The leading vote getter was John Breckenridge, the pro-slavery candidate of the Southern faction of the Democratic Party.

Though many of the southerners who moved to California after the Civil War would have been Confederate sympathizers, others were black, as several cookbooks recognized. Two early California cookbooks showing southern influences explicitly acknowledged the regional cuisine’s African American roots. One of the first two cookbooks published in the state, the California Recipe Book, published in 1872, noted that its recipe for corn bread was “from a colored book.” One other early California cookbook that focused entirely on Southern cuisine was written by a black woman, Abby Fisher, a former slave from Mobile, Alabama. Her book, What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking: Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc., was published in 1881 in San Francisco, where she was living by then.

San Francisco in the 1880s

San Francisco in the 1880s

Excerpted from Vintage California Cuisine. The book includes this and 10 other chapters, and a selection of 300 recipes from 13 of the first cookbooks published in California. Buy the book. 

Mrs. Fisher stated in the “preface and apology” that she couldn’t read or write. But her skills in the kitchen didn’t go unnoticed by the high-society women in post-Civil War San Francisco for whom she worked as a cook and caterer. Her culinary creations also won raves from judges at county fairs. Fisher was awarded a diploma at the Sacramento State Fair in 1879 and won two medals – for best pickles and sauces, and for best assortment of jellies and preserves – at the San Francisco Mechanics Institute Fair in 1880.

Some of her patrons persuaded Fisher to dictate the recipes she carried in her head so that they could be written down and passed on to others. The result, published in San Francisco by the Women’s Cooperative Printing Office, was one of the first cookbooks by an African American published anywhere in the nation.

Two recipes from the book:

Oyster Croquettes

Chop the quantity of oysters you want for the dinner in the following manner: Chop very fine one dozen oysters, take one boiled potato and mash hot into the fine oysters; take the yelk of one egg only, mix well into the oysters and season with pepper and salt to taste; then roll them, after making into oblong cakes, in powdered crackers; have your fat very hot, and fry quick and send to table.

Jumble Cake

One teacup of butter, one and one-half teacups of sugar, one and one-half pints of flour; four eggs, two teaspoonfuls of cinnamon, one-half teacup of almonds chopped fine, two teaspoonfuls of yeast powder sifted in the flour. Beat the butter, sugar and eggs together, then add the flour. Put cinnamon and almonds in and work the whole up well, then roll on the board to thickness of half an inch, and cut out a finger’s length and join together at ends, so as to be round. Grease pans with butter and put to bake

More the 20 other recipes from Abby Fisher’s cookbook are reprinted in Vintage California Cuisine, among a total of 300 original recipes from 13 early California cookbooks.

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