Abby Fisher honed her culinary skills and repertoire of recipes over a lifetime. Talented, ambitious and clever, she built a highly successful pickling business in San Francisco at a time when women could not vote and were still scorned for wearing pants and riding bicycles.
A successful entrepreneur, she earned her reputation as a caterer and chef to the rich and famous. With their help, she published What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking. Her achievements are more profound considering she learned to cook on plantations where she was born into slavery in the 1830s.
#1-If Not For The Re-Discovery Of Her Cookbook, We Would Not Know Abby
What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking was originally printed in 1881. By the 20th century, copies of the slim, dark-blue leather volume were rare. Most food historians were unaware of its existence. Then in 1984, a copy came up for auction at Sotheby’s in New York where famed culinary historian Karen Hess (1918-2007) saw it. She mentioned it to Phil Zuckerman of Applewood Books, a small Massachusetts publisher.
Applewood’s reprint of the book was finally available in 1995 with Hess’s annotations. In it she writes, “…the near mythic quality of Southern cookery is to be attributed to the presence of African-American women cooks.” Hess believed that Southern cuisines were transfigured by the “genius of African women cooks in the kitchens of the wealthy slave owners.”
They left their thumbprint on every dish they cooked. Those women cooks brought their “ancestral ways” with a number of products from Africa in the African Diaspora. “They had known other produce, other fragrances, other flavors.”
It was those were the women who passed down to Abby Fisher her tools to build a better life for herself and her family.
#2-Her Cookbook Offers A Glimpse Into Her Life
The Women’s Co-operative Printing Office published her cookbook, entitled What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, in 1881.
It included 160 recipes in 72 pages. They were divided into thirteen categories. The recipes ranged from sweets to meats and croquettes to soups. She also included pickles, sauces and preserves.
Details from her life are scant. Much of what we know comes from the “Preface And Apology.” Because Fisher could not read or write she dictated her recipes, all known by heart.
“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 of 1879. Not being able to read or write myself, and my husband also being without the advantages of an education — upon whom would devolve the writing of the book at my dictation — caused me to doubt whether I would be able to present a work that would give perfect satisfaction. But, after due consideration, I concluded to bring forth a book of my knowledge — based on an experience of upwards of thirty-five years — in the art of cooking Soups, Gumbos, Terrapin Stews, Meat Stews, Baked and Roast Meats, Pastries, Pies and Biscuits, making Jellies, Pickles, Sauces, Ice Creams and Jams, preserving Fruits, etc. The book will be found a complete instructor, so that a child can understand it and learn the art of cooking.”
Sprinkled through the recipes we gather a few more details.
In her recipe for Blackberry Syrup — For Dysentery in Children she notes that it’s “an old Southern plantation remedy among colored people.” Similarly, Harriett Tubman had a reputation for her natural cures for illnesses including dysentery.
She called her recipe for Tonic Bitters “A Southern Remedy For Invalids” that will strengthen and produce an appetite.
The book’s final recipe, Pap for Infant Diet, she dictated: “I have given birth to eleven children and raised them all, and nursed them with this diet.”
#3- Public Records And Some Directories Offer More Clues
U.S. Census and other Public Records offer a brief chronology of her life:
July 1831-Abby was born in South Carolina. The census also reports that her father was “from France”, although that might have meant he was of French origin. She was listed as mulatto.
1860 or 1861- She married Alexander C. Fisher from Mobile, Alabama.
1867-Her husband registered to vote. He opened several accounts at Freedman Bank for himself and his children. He was pastor of the Sate Street Methodist Church.
1876-The Fisher family is still listed in the Mobile Alabama City directory.
The dates of birth for her eleven children are not all known.
1877- The family moved to San Francisco by way of Missouri.
1878- Daughter Millie was born.
#4-Abby Fisher And Her Family Thrived In San Francisco
In the 1878 city directory, Fisher is listed as a cooking teacher. By 1879 Langley’s San Francisco City directory, lists “Mrs. Abby Fisher & Co.” or Mrs. Abby Fisher, Pickle Manufacturer.” The 1880 Census listed her husband as a “Pickle and Preserve Manufacturer”.
At the 1879 State Fair in Sacramento, she won a highly prestigious diploma for her blackberry brandy.
In her book, African American Women Of The Old West, author Tricia Martineau Wagner writes:
“As word of Mrs. Fisher’s culinary skills got around, she found herself presenting her pickles, sauces, preserves and jellies at the San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute Fair in 1880.”
Fisher won the silver medal for her “assortment of jellies and preserves.” She also won the bronze medal for her Pickles and Sauces.”
The medals were presented in elegant boxes, each with a certificate.
She entered again in 1881. Although she did not win a prize, the fair’s jurors in the Industrial Exhibition Report said: ‘Her pickles and sauces have a piquancy and flavor seldom equaled, and, when once tasted, not soon forgotten.”
Her reputation among the upper crust, her “lady friends and patrons,” led to the publication of What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking. It was printed in 1881 by the Women’s Co-operative Printing Union. Agnes B. Peterson became her enthusiastic publisher.
“The firm was ahead of its time in employing female typesetters and was especially concerned with women’s employment rights.”
Fisher was part of a burgeoning industry of which Fannie Farmer was also a force. Founded in 1879, the Boston School of Cooking promoted the nascent Domestic Science movement. In addition to understanding how to make food flavorful, students studied nutrition, diet and health issues related to the kitchen.
Abby Fisher was ahead of this new trend called Home Economics.
#5 The Fishers Retired In Comfort
According to the U.S. Census of 1900, the Fishers were both able to read and write. They also owned their home outright at 440 Twenty-Seventh Street west of San Francisco Bay in scenic foothills.
For many years Abby Fisher’s cookbook was considered the first by a Black American woman. Later, Malinda Russell’s cookbook printed in 1866 was discovered. They remain in good company together.
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