I do want to celebrate Malinda Russell, because she had an incredible life, and was the first black woman to publish a cookbook in America. However, her cook book is definitely not the equal of the others I have reviewed here. Her post-Civil War cookbook(1866), A Domestic Cook Book, leaves quite a bit to the imagination.
*If you come here for the recipes, rather than the history–skip down to Soft Gingerbread.
Malinda Russell’s Life
Her family was set free from the plantation where her grandmother had been enslaved and at nineteen she traveled to Liberia. That did not work out and she returned to work for a family in Virginia, where she married. After four years of marriage, her husband died, leaving her with a crippled child. She moved to Tennessee where she ran a boarding house and later started a pastry shop. She fled Tennessee in 1864 when a gang of guerrilla rebels raided her home and took all her accumulated wealth.
Living in PawPaw Michigan apparently did not suit her. She yearned to return to Tennessee and self-published a cookbook to try to raise money. Shortly after the publication, however, the town of PawPaw burned and no one knows what happened to Malinda.
The lack of specifics in the recipes may be explained by her comment in the introduction that “I cook according to the plan of Mary Randolph (Virginia Housewife)” Therefore, the cooks using Malinda’s book had better have Randolph’s book at hand as well.
The very short book includes some home cures as well as recipes–in fact mixed in with the recipes, since there are no chapters or headings to separate things. I found her recipe for Magnetie Oil (apparently not a typo for magnetic, although there are connections) in a book of quack medicine published in 1863 with more details about how to use it. But would you like to experiment with this formula? I would not.
This formula, which disturbingly comes right after Roast Pig, might confuse you until you figure out that do. stands for ditto. Laudanum is opium. Colchicum, a plant that yields an alternative medicine still used for gout. Capsicum is pepper. Castor oil was commonly used to keep one regular–made from the castor beans, whose hull is the poisonous ricin you may have heard of.
Russell gives no clue as to how if this oil should be rubbed on or swallowed. However, the “Dr.” whose book I discovered on Google Books recommends rubbing it on sore teeth and gums, and on other aches and pains and claims to have cured a stomach ache by having a woman swallow a small amount diluted in water.
Desserts dominate the list of 265 brief recipes. I decided to try out her recipe for “soft gingerbread”. Although the word cookie popped up in earlier American cook books, Malinda sticks with the term cake.
Since Malinda mixes recipes for what we think of as pancakes, which are not always a dessert, with the other cakes she bakes, I thought perhaps the cookie evolved slowly from full-sized cake, to smaller cake baked on a sheet instead of in a pan. That does not take a large leap since many books talk about baking hoops–circles of metal on a flat pan to contain cake batter rather than a pan.
This gingerbread surprised me by changing colors as it baked. Instead of getting darker like most baked goods, these little cakes got lighter, as you can see below.
Today when we say gingerbread we are generally referring to a loaf cake. If we mean cookie–we say cookie. As for soft–gingerbread evolved from very hard and crispy slabs that were highly decorated starting in the middle ages. The evolution to “soft” or cake gingerbread happened in America.
As usual, the Domestic Cook Book gives scant guidance on numerous things that it would be nice to know. In trying to replicate her soft gingerbread, I believe I got it mostly right, but added too much flour. Therefore the recipe below (following Amanda Russell’s recipe with my comments) reflects a more reasonable amount.
Malinda Russell’s Recipe for Soft Gingerbread
One quart molasses, one cup sugar, 1/4 pound lard, 3 eggs. [Sounds like a lot of molasses!] Beat sugar and eggs together. [But what about the lard? Since I did not have lard, I used butter.] 1 gill sour milk [1/2 cup. I could have soured milk with vinegar, but I had buttermilk on hand so used that.] 1 tablespoon soda dissolved in warm water. 1 tablespoons of ginger. [That is a lot of ginger compared to other recipes of the time, but I thought it was about right for modern tastes.] Flour enough to make a soft dough. [Oh boy–how vague can you get?] Knead well, roll and bake in quick oven. [So the soft dough must be at least firm enough to roll. No clue as to how thick to cut the pieces, assuming she is thinking of small round cakes. No clue as to how long to bake.] [Experts vary on what a quick oven is. Probably 375 to 400. I used 375 successfully.
I don’t buy molasses by the barrel, so had to make do with a pint instead of a quart. That amount in the adjusted recipe made a good-sized batch of cakes (more than two dozen). Here is my recipe.
See the other cookbook authors we have celebrated during Women’s History Month.
Thanks for reading and Happy Cooking.