Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What We Know About Mrs. Fisher

 I've been researching gumbo for my series on Southern food icons for Serious Eats, and in the process spent some time digging into the story of Abby Fisher. She's the author of a fascinating book called What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, which was published in San Francisco in 1881. For a time Fisher's was thought to be the first published cookbook written by an African-American (that changed when scholars discovered an 1866 pamphlet written by Malinda Russell). It remains an invaluable insight into Southern cooking in the era immediately after the Civil War.
Very little is known about Abby Fisher's life beyond what it appears in her book. Culinary historian Karen Hess filled in the gaps as best as she could in the afterword to the Applewood Books facsimile edition, which was published in 1995, drawing mostly on the 1880 census record in which Fisher and her family appear. I was able to do a little more digging and turn up additional census records and city directory entries from the 1870s the flesh out the story a little more.

Abby Fisher was born around 1832 in South Carolina, and we can only assume she was born into slavery. The census records list her as “mulatto” and indicate that her mother was born in South Carolina and her father in France. It seems probable, as Hess has suggested, that Fisher was the daughter of a French-born slaveowner and an South Carolina-born slave. 

At some point before the Civil War, the woman who later became Abby Fisher (we do not know her maiden name) wound up in Alabama, where the first four of her eventual eleven children were
born. By 1869, she was living in Mobile with her husband, Alexander C. Fisher, an Alabama-born mulatto minister. In May of that year, Alexander Fisher made deposit in the Freedman’s Savings & Trust Co. on behalf of his young daughter Eliza.

The Fishers stayed in Mobile until around 1876 when, for reasons unknown, they decided to move westward. They were in Missouri at least long enough for their fifth child, Mary, to be born, in 1877, and by 1880 were living in San Francisco, where Abby Fisher made a living as a cook and she and her husband operated a pickle and preserves business.

In 1880, Mrs. Fisher won two medals at the San Francisco Mechanics' Institute Fair for her pickles, sauces, jellies, and preserves. The next year, apparently due to repeated requests from the customers for whom she cooked, Mrs. Fisher dictated her recipes to a committee of nine residents of San Francisco (her “lady friends and patrons”, as she describes them in her preface.) It was published by the Women's Co-operative Printing Office, which had been founded in 1868 to give female printers a place to work in a male-dominated business.

Notice from San Francisco Bulletin (December 29, 1887)
Not much more is known about Mrs. Fisher's life after her cookbook's publication. City directories and newspapers show that she continued her cooking business at least through the 1890s.
She and her husband appear in the 1900, with his occupation noted as "janitor" and none noted for her. In the 1910 census, by which point both are in their 70s, no occupation is listed for them, though two of their daughter, both in their 30s, are living with them and working as a manicurist and as masseur at a doctor's office. I've not been able to turn up an obituary or death notice for Abby Fisher nor for her husband.

What makes What Mrs. Fisher Knows doubly valuable to culinary historians is that it is one of the earliest cookbooks written by an African-American and, paradoxically, that its author could neither read nor write, a fact she freely admits in the book’s preface.

A great many 19th cookbook authors borrowed recipes from any and all sources, so the fact that a recipe appears in a book published in, say, Kentucky, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an old Kentucky recipe. The author may very well have borrowed it from an English cookbook, and there’s not even a guarantee that he or she had actually tried cooking it.

In Abby Fisher’s case, it is much more likely that a recipe that appears in her book is something she learned to cook during her years in Alabama and South Carolina and that she actually cooked it from memory on a regular basis. And that gives us a very unique and valuable perspective on Southern cooking in the middle part of the 19th century.


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