As some of my readers will know, occasionally I have published essays about people I call “Unlikely Heroes or Heroines in the Gastronomic Trenches.” Some who come to mind are New Yorker writers Calvin Trillin and A. J. Liebling, celebrated St. Francis Hotel celebrity chef Victor Hirtzler, my father, Joseph Beyl (a Hirtzler protégé), Gertrude Stein’s buddy Alice B. Toklas, and Gael Greene, the restaurant critic I call “The Insatiable Gourmet.”
WHAT MRS. ABBY FISHER KNEW
This month I want to direct your attention to another heroine — an African-American freed slave from Alabama, Mrs. Abby Fisher, who journeyed west to San Francisco after the Civil War. She became a well-known cook and caterer to prominent San Francisco families and a manufacturer of her own pickles and preserves. As the author of a popular cookbook of the time, she wound up influencing San Francisco cookery in those early days.
Her cookbook was called What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking: Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc. Mrs. Fisher obviously knew a lot about old Southern cooking because she was awarded a diploma at the Sacramento State Fair in 1879, and in 1880, she was awarded two medals (best Pickles and Sauces and best Assortment of Jellies and Preserves) at the San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute Fair. In 1881, the San Francisco Women’s Co-Operative Printing Office on Montgomery Street printed her cookbook.
A FOUNDER OF AMERICAN CUISINE
Although I am a cookbook devotee with many old and new volumes cluttering up my small kitchen, I only recently discovered — and in an unusual way — Mrs. Fisher’s cookbook. Perhaps not so unusual if you’re a writer and want to keep up with what people are saying about your work. I Googled my name and up jumped the book The Founders of American Cuisine: Seven Cookbook Authors with Historical Recipes by Harry Haff, a chef instructor at le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Atlanta. In Haff’s book were references to articles I had written about my father and his relationship with chef Victor Hirtzler. And that’s how I found Mrs. Abby Fisher.
For many years, although the original book was out of print, there was brisk trading for Mrs. Fisher’s original book. For example, the Harvard University Library has a copy. Then in 1995, Applewood Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reprinted it. And if you’re interested, you can find it on Amazon.
SOUTHERN COOKING, PICKLES, AND JAMS
Who was this African-American cook and cookbook author who rose to culinary prominence in San Francisco? Some snippets about Mrs. Fisher can be gleaned from what she called the “Preface and Apology” for her book. She writes:
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.
FROM SLAVERY TO SAN FRANCISCO
Born sometime in the 1830s into slavery in South Carolina, and later taken to Alabama, Abby Fisher’s father was a Frenchman, her mother, an African slave. She was what was termed in the parlance of the time, a “kitchen slave,” occupied by cooking and general household work. As such she was taught old Southern plantation recipes. She states in her cookbook, “I gave birth to 11 children and raised them all.” That is really all we know about her children. Her phrase “raised them all” is interesting because the children of slave women were usually taken from them and sold. And we are told in Harry Haff’s book that all of these children were brought to San Francisco when Mrs. Fisher and her husband moved here in 1877.
Apparently a highly energized and ambitious woman, Mrs. Fisher soon became in great demand as a cook and a caterer — and of course, a maker of pickles and jams. The U.S. Census of 1880 listed Mr. Fisher as a pickle and preserve manufacturer and Mrs. Fisher as a cook.
AN UNLIKELY GASTRONOMICAL HEROINE
In the 1900 U.S. Census she is listed as 68 years old, her husband, 66. Both were able to read and write by that time, and Abby Fisher had no occupation listed. Her husband, Alexander, was listed as a janitor. Certainly they were prosperous, as they owned a mortgage-free house on 27th Street in San Francisco.
And that is where we leave the story of Mrs. Abby Fisher and her cookbook — in my list of “Unlikely Heroines in the Gastronomic Trenches.”