Encyclopedia Womannica

Tastemakers: Malinda Russell

Episode Summary

Malinda Russell (1812-unknown) was the first Black woman to write a cookbook in America.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Our story today takes us back to early 19th century America. This tastemaker was the first African American to publish a cookbook in the United States, and it’s from that very source that we know about her life. We’re talking about Malinda Russell.

Malinda was born around 1812 in Washington Country, Tennessee. Little is known about Matilda’s early life except that her  mother was a freed slave who died when Malinda was a child. 

Around 1830, Malinda hatched a plan to move to the country of Liberia. She headed to Virginia, what was supposed to be just a stopover on her longer journey, but was forced to stay there. She had been robbed en route of all of her possessions and could no longer afford the trip. The only thing of value that she had left was a certificate vouching for her character written by a Doctor More. 

Settling in Lynchburg, Virginia, Malinda worked as a nurse and a traveling companion for a Virginia family. It was there that a friend named Fanny Steward, a former slave, taught Malinda how to cook. Malinda took to cooking and was particularly adept at baking. 

She got married to a man named Anderson Vaughn and had a son, but Malinda’s husband died just four years after their nuptials. 

To support herself and her son, Malinda worked as a laundress, before eventually returning to Tennessee. There she operated a boarding house before opening up her own pastry shop. The shop was successful for more than half a decade before tragedy hit. In 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, Malinda’s home was ransacked by a gang of white marauders.  

After this tragedy, Malinda and her son left the area and moved to Paw Paw, Michigan. In 1866, just two years later, Malinda self-published her very own cookbook, entitled “Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen.” It is the earliest known cookbook written by an African American in the U.S. 

The 39-page book contained around 260 recipes for food and colognes. Malinda also included household tips and included a brief history of her life. She wrote that she hoped money from book sales could help fund her return to Tennessee. Since her specialty was baking, the majority of the book provided instruction for elegant desserts including a floating island and a rose cake. 

It also included main courses such as catfish fricassee and sweet onion custard. Interestingly, Malinda’s cookbook contained few if any recipes that would be traditionally classified as “Southern cooking.” This has led some scholars to believe that 19th century African American cuisine was much more diverse than food historians previously assumed. 

If you didn’t already know how to cook, Malinda’s book probably wouldn’t be much help. Her recipes were sophisticated and complex, yet barebones in terms of step-by-step directions. She must have assumed anyone reading her instructions already got the gist. 

For example, her recipe for a cream cake read: 

“One and a half cup sugar, two cups sour cream, two cups flour, one or two eggs, one teaspoon soda; flavor with lemon."

That’s it. 

She was slightly more verbose in describing a trick she had found to help treat burns. She wrote, “After applying sweet oil, scrape the inside of a raw potato, lay it on the burn. In a short time put on fresh potato; repeat it quite often; it draws out the fire and gives immediate relief.”

It’s unclear if Malinda’s cookbook was successful. Just months after it was published, there was a major fire in Paw Paw, Michigan that likely destroyed most of the copies. After that fire, all traces of Malinda are unfortunately lost to history. 

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another tastemaker. Next time we’re talking about another pioneer, the writer of the very first American cookbook. 

This week of Encyclopedia Womannica is brought to you by Verishop, an e-commerce destination for everyday luxury, where the tastemakers of today can get everything they need to dress, cook, clean, and live. Go to Verishop.com/Encyclopedia that's V-E-R-I-S-H-O-P.COM/encyclopedia for 15% off your first order

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!