San Francisco, California – 1881
A recipe for the cake was first published in London some 134 years ago, but Mrs. Abby Fisher can’t read it. It lives in a book called The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, the cover of which lists the author vaguely as “A Lady.” Behind that generic and presumably self-ascribed honorific stood Hannah Glasse, whose guidelines called for 12 eggs, and a pound each of butter, flour, and sugar. To the resulting batter, a baker of the adventurous sort might add a fourth pound of currants “cleaned, wash’d and pick’d.” The most celebrated cookery writer of her day, Glasse’s style is marked by simple, straightforward language, her intention being to “instruct the lower sort” – that is, servants.
Mrs. Mary Randolph offered another iteration in 1824, but Abby can’t read that one either. Aromatic and fortified, this version includes lemon zest, nutmeg, and “a gill of brandy” among its longer list of ingredients. It is but one of many recipes in The Virginia House-Wife, which has been called the most influential book on housekeeping and cooking produced this century. But while a casual reader might overlook this detail in its pages, closer examination reveals that the Randolph family lived on a plantation just outside of Richmond. Mary fancied herself a “proverbially good” manager not just of her (first cousin, once-removed) husband and four children, but also of a group not unlike that referred to by Mrs. Glasse – slaves. In other words, while Randolph was responsible for codifying the recipes, whether or not she was the one hovering over the stove is debatable.
As it turns out, Abby Fisher can’t read anything. Both she and her husband Alexander are illiterate because they, like many other former slaves, have “been without the advantages of an education.” So today, she is dictating the instructions not for a single cake but for thirteen different ones. In the coming months, she will outline, word by word, 160 recipes as her patient “lady friends and patrons in San Francisco and Oakland” play stenographer and the collection is prepared for publication at the Women’s Co-Operative Printing Office. While Abby does not hail from the Bay Area, she and her husband have clearly found a home here.
Yet even Abby’s closest personal connections know relatively little about her past. Her father was French and her mother, a slave in South Carolina – that much is for sure. Next to her name in an old census was scribbled the abbreviation “Mu.” for mulatto. She moved, under unknown circumstances, from South Carolina to Mobile, Alabama; then to Missouri and finally, California. Along the way, she met her husband and gained her freedom. Abby also bore eleven children, less than a handful of whom survived into adulthood. Most noticeably to her current audience, she parlayed her experience in what one could only logically assume to have been plantation kitchens into famously formidable skills. So when she says that her book “will be found a complete instructor, so that a child can understand it and learn the art of cooking,” people believe her.
San Francisco directories list her budding catering business as “Mrs. Abby Fisher, Pickle Manufacturer,” but recipes number 60 and 61 in What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking will be for what she calls Gold and Silver Cakes, respectively. Both mimic, to a point, those provided by Glasse and Randolph for a treat that has come to be commonly referred to as pound cake. Yet both are leavened with what Fisher calls yeast powder (two parts cream of tartar and one part baking soda), the former brightened with lemon juice, and the latter enriched with almond or peach extract. These two rich but now decidedly airier takes on the classic will proliferate across the United States and around the world, and Mrs. Fisher’s cookbook will be counted among the first ever published by African-Americans. But when it comes to proper attribution, every truth needs a steward, and it will be up to the writers of history to continue telling her story.