A woman named Abby Fisher, a former slave from South Carolina, is the author of the first published African American cookbook. Born in 1832, Abby Fisher was freed after the Civil War. After she and her family moved to San Francisco, she entered her food in cooking competitions. Her recipes, especially pickles, jellies and preserves, would become an instant success with friends and the upper class. She would be known around town as “Mrs. Abby Fisher, Pickle Manufacturer.”
Mrs. Abby’s recipes were featured in local competitions. In 1879, she was awarded a “diploma” at the Sacramento State Fair and a year later, she won two medals at the San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute. Her recipes included those like Sweet Watermelon Rind Pickle, Jumble Cake, Green Turtle Soup and Hoe cake. It is also believed that Fisher was the first to present the recipe for fried chicken and waffles.
Though she could not read or write herself, friends of Fisher encouraged her to record her award-winning foods to share. In 1881, Abby Fisher published, “What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking: Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc.,” published by the Women’s Cooperative Printing Office in San Francisco. This is only one of the many businesses that supported Fisher’s work. Abby Fisher’s cookbook was known for its unusual spelling of dishes and ingredients that we know today. It was most likely because of her explanation of the recipes that a second party recorded. For instance, she would call Jambalaya “Jumberlie.” Fisher refers to a dish called Circuit Hash, which was most likely succotash and the milanaise sauce used in her recipe for chicken salad is mayonnaise.
In 1984, a century after the first publication, a volume of the cookbook was put up for auction at Sotheby’s in New York. The book was purchased by the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University.