REBECCA PENOVICH is a freelance pr professional who writes about food and entertaining at Corks & Cake (www.corksandcake.com). When she’s not in her vintage kitchen, she works with television and film clients (Chefs A’Field, National Geographic Entertainment) to match them with brands and promote their partnerships
Who is Mrs. Fisher? A former slave who came from Mobile, Alabama and began cooking for San Francisco society in the late 1870s.
According to culinary historian Karen Hess, who writes in the Afterword: “Neither she nor her husband could read or write, and she had been cooking for over 35 years when this book was written down, presumably by another person. Not only is this a collection of authentic and tasty recipes of the old South, but more importantly, it is the oldest known Black cookbook published in America.”
What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc. was originally published in San Francisco in 1881 by the Women’s Cooperative Printing Office and reprinted by Applewood Books, Bedford, MA, in 1995.
Ms. Hess painstakingly researched U.S. Census Records for details of Mrs. Abby Fisher’s provenance and life. With the help of Dan Strehl, a colleague from the Los Angeles Public Library, she was able to deduce that Abby Fisher (maiden name unknown) was born in South Carolina in 1832 (or thereabouts) of a mother who was also born in South Carolina and a father who was born in France. She would have been about 33 years old at the end of the Civil War.
Her race (in a Census report of 1880) was listed as “mu.,” that is “mulatto” and Ms. Hess concludes that “In 1832 or thereabouts when Abby Fisher was born, any relationship involving a man born in France and producing a child designated as mulatto was almost certainly that of slaveowner and slave.” At some point Abby married Alexander C. Fisher of Mobile, AL and they lived at 207 1/2 Second Street, San Francisco in 1880. She had 11 children.
She was a talented and prolific cook and appears to have been highly sought after for her cooking skill and knowledge. Mrs. Fisher was awarded two medals at the San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute Fair, 1880, for best Pickles and Sauces and best assortment of Jellies and Preserves. Mrs. Fisher says in her Preface and Apology:
“The publication of a book on my knowledge and experience of Southern Cooking, Pickle and Jelly Making, has been frequently asked of me by my lady friends and patrons in San Francisco and Oakland, and also by ladies of Sacramento during the State Fair in 1879.”
There are 160 authentic old Southern recipes in the collection, from Soups, Gumbos, Terrapin Stews, Meat Stews, Baked and Roast Meats, Pastries, Pies and Biscuits, Jellies, Pickles, Sauces, Ice Creams and Jams, and Miscellany including some gems to intrigue the hand-crafted cocktail crowd like this one:
A Southern Remedy for Invalids
Take one ounce of cardamom seed, one ounce of Peruvian bark bruised, two ounces of Gentian root bruised, half ounce of dry orange peel, one ounce of aloes, and the whole into half a gallon of best whiskey or brandy; let it come to a boil, then strain or filter it through a fine cloth or filtering paper.
Dose half wineglassful three times a day before meals. Will strengthen and produce an appetite.
Karen Hess, culinary historian, writes “Mrs. Fisher’s legacy lay neglected for over a century, all but unknown, not even listed in the bibliography of some of our more serious works on Southern Cookery. The work is exceedingly rare. I first actually saw it at Sotheby’s in 1984, when the great Marcus and Elizabeth Crahan culinary collection was put on the auction block, but the prices were prohibitive.”
Mrs. Fisher has a section devoted to croquettes with eight recipes. Her crab croquettes intrigued and I set about to make them with modern-day ingredients.
Mrs. Fisher’s Original Recipe
Have crabs well boiled in salt and water, then pick them clean from the shell; chop fine; take the large end of a piece of celery and grate into the crab; chop with crab a small piece of onion fine; mix half a teacup of fine powdered cracker into crab; season with pepper and salt, also the least bit of fine red pepper, as crabs should be seasoned high to be nice. Have your lard hot, and fry just before wanted at table. Beat two eggs, dip croquettes in the egg, roll in powdered crackers before frying; make them oblong shaped.
- 1 cup backfin blue crabmeat (pick out and discard any shells and/or cartilage)
- 1 T. finely chopped celery
- 1 T. grated yellow onion
- 1 T. mayonnaise
- 1 tsp. dijon mustard
- 1/4 tsp. creole seasoning
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- Dash of Tabasco
- 1 sleeve Saltine crackers, crushed finely. Reserve 2 T. crushed crackers.
- 2 cups vegetable oil, for frying
With a spatula, gently add the celery and onion to the crab. Fold in the mayonnaise, dijon, and creole seasoning. Fold in 2 T. of crushed saltines to bind. Add the dash of Tabasco to the beaten eggs and add the eggs to the crabmeat mixture.
Gently stir to combine, being careful not to break up any lumps of crabmeat.
Form the crab into 10-12 ovals (about 1 and 1/2 Tablespoons each). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and carefully place each crab oval on baking sheet. Allow to chill 1-3 hours in the refrigerator. (NOTE: This will help firm them up and make easier to bread with the crushed saltines.)
Heat the 2 cups of vegetable oil in deep saucepan until hot (a piece of bread will sizzle in the oil.)
Place the finely crushed crackers in a shallow bowl and roll each chilled crab oval in the crumbs to cover. When oil is hot, lower crab croquettes in the hot oil and fry until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes, turning once. Do not crowd the croquettes in the hot oil. Remove cooked croquettes with slotted spoon or mesh spider and drain on paper towels. Repeat with remaining crab ovals.
Serve with a spicy, classic remoulade sauce.
Delicious! Thank you, Mrs. Fisher!
What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc.
Originally published in 1881 by the Women’s Cooperative Printing Office in San Francisco.
Reprinted in facsimile form by Applewood Books, Bedford, MA, 1995. With historical notes by Karen Hess.