Oldest known African American cookbooks

melindarussell cookbook
Malinda Russell’s 1866 cookbook.

For many decades it was thought that former slave, Abby Fisher, had written the first cookbook by an African-American, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, was published in 1881. In 2001 it was learned that a free black woman named Malinda Russell had published Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen in 1866.

Much of the food America loves has its roots in the poverty enslaved blacks endured for centuries in the American South. Known today as soul food it made use of those food stuffs the white slave masters saw little value in. Protein came from beans and legumes and the occasional lesser cuts of pork and poultry. If you could still find a small traditional grocery serving a mostly black population in today’s South you’d likely see coolers stacked with ox tail, pig knuckles, tails, ears and feet, salted fat back, chicken feet, necks and rooster combs. Add to that large bags of rice, red beans, and corn meal you’d have the basis for countless recipes that still keep people moving and enjoying comfort today.

To pay respect to all those African-American cooks who created what makes us all so happy I’ve decided to include a couple of recipes from the aforementioned women. Here’s Abby Fisher’s recipe for Corn Egg Bread. As originally written in her book the instructions were:

“Two eggs, one pint of meal, half pint of sour milk, one teaspoonful of soda, – beat eggs very light, – one tablespoonful of melted lard or butter, mix all together, well stirred or beaten.  Bake in an ordinary pan.”

In the parlance of today it would appear as:


  • 1 cup + 2 teaspoons sour milk (vinegar and milk combined)
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 tablespoon melted butter
  • 2 cup corn meal
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda


    • Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
    • To make sour milk, add 2 teaspoons vinegar to 1 cup milk. Set the sour milk aside for a few minutes.
    • Combine and stir all the ingredients with a wooden spoon in a bowl until well mixed.
    • Generously spray an 8×8 square baking dish with non-stick spray.
    • Pour the batter into the baking dish. Bake for 15-17 minutes until the bread is set and does not jiggle in the center.

From Malinda Russell’s book is a recipe for:

Malinda Russell’s Washington Cake, Adapted by Amanda Moniz


  • 1 ½ c. all-purpose flour
  • ½ tsp. baking soda
  • Pinch of salt
  • ½ c. unsalted butter (4 oz. or 1 stick)
  • 1 ½ c. sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • ½ c. buttermilk
  • Zest and juice of one lemon


  • Preheat the oven to 325 on a convection oven or 350 on a conventional oven.
  • Grease two 9 x 2” round cake pans.  Put a parchment paper circle in each pan and grease the pan again and flour it.
  • Sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt.
  • Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
  • Add the eggs one at a time, scraping down after each addition.
  • Add the lemon juice and zest to the buttermilk.
  • Alternately, add the flour and buttermilk, starting and ending with the flour and mixing only until the ingredients are incorporated.  You should add the flour in three additions and the buttermilk in two additions.  Scrape down after each addition.
  • Scrape the batter into the cake pans.
  • Bake about 25 minutes.  About halfway through the baking time (after about 15 minutes), rotate the cake pans for even baking.  Bake until the cakes are golden and a wooden toothpick or metal cake tester comes out clean.  The cakes should spring back when pressed gently.
  • Cool in the pans for about 10 minutes and then turn out onto a metal rack to cool completely.
  • Enjoy.

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