The day before Thanksgiving, The New York Times had an interesting piece on Malinda Russell, a Tennessee African-American woman who published a cookbook in 1866 entitled Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen.
The cookbook is remarkable for two reasons: first, being published by a black woman just a few years after slavery was abolished, and for the kinds of recipes offered to readers. There’s none of the “soul food” commonly associated with black cooking–collard greens, fried chicken, and chitlins–in this cookbook, which has high class sounding dishes such as rose cake and sweet onion custard.
Photo from The Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive at the
William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
This sounds like a most interesting cookbook, but two things made me sit up straight at the dinner table. Molly O’Neill, the Times writer who wrote the piece, quotes Leni Sorenson of Monticello referring to soul food as “Southern poverty cooking.” Huh? Fried chicken and beaten biscuits aren’t “poverty cooking.” Not in my house.
The second thing was where O’Neill, in writing about Malinda Russell’s life, says “She raised their son, who she said was crippled, while running a laundry in Virginia and, later, a boarding house and pastry shop on Chuckey Mountain in Tennessee.”
Where is Chuckey Mountain? I am familiar with the town of Chuckey, which is just off Highway 11-E between Greeneville and Jonesborough. A look at the Tennessee Atlas and Gazetteer shows Chuckey Mountain as due South of Greeneville approaching the French Broad River. I doubt that Malinda Russell ran a pastry shop on the top of the mountain, so it must have been in the valley.
Wherever it was, she had a hard life. Her savings were robbed from her, and she and her son moved to Paw Paw, Michigan, the last place she could be traced. You can buy a facsimile copy of the Malinda Russell cookbook by going here. It costs $25.