First Monday Library Chat: The David Walker Lupton African American Cookbook Collection

Welcome to the September 2018 edition of the First Monday Library Chat. This month we travel to Tuscaloosa and speak with Kate Matheny, Reference Services & Outreach Coordinator for Special Collections at University of Alabama Libraries.

Ruth Jackson's Soulfood Cookbook, 1978. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries
Ruth Jackson’s Soulfood Cookbook, 1978. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries

 

The Lupton Collection is a key holding at the University of Alabama Libraries. Could you give us an overview of the collection?

The Lupton Collection documents African American foodways writing, a spectrum that ranges from professionally published cookbooks and food memoirs to recipe collections self-published by community groups or families. The earliest volume is The House Servant’s Directory, published in 1827, and the latest are from the twenty-first century. It’s a collection of over 450 books—which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it very much is. Consider the factors that might prevent such books from being written, especially in the nineteenth century: low literacy rates, a historically improvisational method taught person-to-person, or the pragmatic need for someone working as a cook to safeguard his or her livelihood. That’s to say nothing of barriers to publishing cookbooks by black authors and the reality that some early works may have simply been lost over time.

Mother Africa's Table, 1999. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries
Mother Africa’s Table, 1999. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries

The collection contains some cookbooks authored by whites, including corporate collections featuring figures like Aunt Jemima and nostalgic works by Southerners purporting to share the recipes of family servants. Including these in the collection may seem strange, but for a time these were the only works attempting to set down African American food culture, all while typifying stereotypical portrayals that black cookbook authors were working to combat. But the bulk of the collection is from the mid to late twentieth century, written by African Americans or on their behalf. It’s hard to sum up all the themes that run through the collection, but in many ways they reflect the currents of modern black history. For example, you can see the consequences of the Great Migration as well as the paradigm shift of the Black Pride movement. Two of the biggest recent trends are adjusting traditional soul food to combat health problems like heart disease and diabetes and highlighting the connection to African foodways and diaspora cuisines like Caribbean and Afro-Brazilian.

For those of us interested in the history of archives, can you tell us a bit about the Collection founder David Lupton?

Freda DeKnight, The Ebony Cookbook, 1962. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries
Freda DeKnight, The Ebony Cookbook, 1962. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries

David Lupton was an academic librarian who became a diligent bibliographer of early African American cookbooks, even after his retirement. According to his wife, Dorothy, his interest in the subject sprang from his purchase of a black-authored cookbook at a flea market and subsequent realization that such items were rare and hard to find. He became passionate about finding a way to document—as well as collect and preserve—these artifacts of African American culture.

I think knowing the rationale behind the collection is actually important in understanding how to use it. The Lupton collection is historical and academic, which is a different thing entirely from a personal collection accumulated by a cook. For example, we recently catalogued a large donation of cookbooks belonging to Viola Pearson Ragland, an African American woman from north Alabama. Some of those items overlap with Lupton, but not as many as one might think. Since they are books she owned and used, the selection tends to be more eclectic, and it’s possible she didn’t need or perhaps want very many works on African American cooking. An academic collection will naturally be more focused, as it is curated for posterity and for study, but it is not as reflective of actual use.

Can you highlight one or two of your favourite items?

These may not be the most “important,” but they are certainly favorites, and they’re pretty representative of what’s compelling about the collection.

Cooking with Coolio, 2009. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries
Cooking with Coolio, 2009. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries

When I teach, I often bring out Cookin’ with Coolio (2009). People don’t expect a rapper to have anything to say about cooking, but that’s precisely why I like it. Coolio did collaborate with a chef, but the aim of the cookbook and the tone are all his. He talks about growing up poor in inner city Los Angeles and learning to improvise with the ingredients he could find, including things as simple as canned tuna and white bread. It leads to pragmatic recipes with funny names, like, “Your Ribs Is Too Short to Box with God” and “Really? Corn Salad?” The book looks like a joke—on the cover, he calls himself the “Ghetto Gourmet”—but it’s a real cookbook with its own unique personal and cultural perspective. As a teaching tool, it asks us to evaluate kneejerk assumptions and provides a good entry point for a discussion about food and class.

Introduction from Ruth Jackson's Soulfood Cookbook, 1978. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries
Introduction from Ruth Jackson’s Soulfood Cookbook, 1978. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries

I also like Ruth Jackson’s Soulfood Cookbook (1978). It’s a self-published, spiral-bound volume put together on Jackson’s behalf by someone who clearly knows and loves her. Though the text is written in the third person, it asserts that “Ruth Jackson wrote this book.” After all, the recipes and all the intangible things that helped shape them — her small Georgia hometown, her church, her family — are hers. Interspersed are sketches and candid photographs, and there’s an essay in the back on the history of the local black community. Recipes are fairly simple, but it’s clear she has put her own spin on things. Two unusual recipes that stand out are “Cornmeal Gingerbread” and “Devil Chicken.”

This month, we are featuring a Teaching Series here at the Recipes Project. Can you tell us about some of the ways that you’ve used the Lupton Collection in the classroom?

Interior from Cooking with Coolio, 2009. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries
Interior image from Cooking with Coolio, 2009. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries

What impresses me about teaching with cookbooks in general is how versatile they are. I didn’t set out to become the “cookbook person” at my archive; I just ended up with frequent instruction requests for the Lupton Collection — from half a dozen departments, including English, Anthropology, and History. There are so many things to analyze in a cookbook. The rhetoric of the text and the iconography of the visuals tell some of the story. The organization reveals a lot about the particular cuisine and the cook’s approach to it. The format and level of detail in the directions changes over time and indicates what kind of kitchen facilities the average cook had and who was doing the cooking. Even the ingredients are revealing, giving insight into the foods available at the time and the socioeconomic class of the audience.

In my experience, cookbooks also level the playing field for student discussion. Everyone eats, and most people have done some cooking at some point, so cookbooks feel very easy to approach. Deceptively so, I think. Students don’t get intimidated, so it’s easier to engage them in analysis and discussion. The instructor can tie them to complex ideas they’ve been discussing in class, and I can help them develop critical thinking and information literacy skills. To address the Lupton Collection specifically, it’s always interesting for students to see how much of traditional Southern cuisine has its roots in African American cuisine. It opens up an interesting dialogue.

Can you offer any tips to help users locate Lupton resources via your catalog, online, or finding aids?

We don’t have a formal finding aid for them as such, but this webpage has a comprehensive alphabetical list. You can also find the cookbooks in a search of our catalogue. If you’re interested Lupton’s bibliography, which also includes items that are not in the collection, it can be found in an appendix to collaborator Doris Witt’s Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of U.S. Identity (Oxford University Press, 1999). However, it is nearly 20 years old, so it doesn’t include one important early work that hadn’t yet been discovered: Malinda Russell‘s Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen (Paw Paw, Mich., 1866).

Teaching Schoolchildren with Historic Recipes

By Amanda Moniz 

Last February, I visited the Washington Middle School for Girls, a Catholic school serving girls from underprivileged backgrounds in Washington, D.C., to make cookies from the first African American cookbook, published by Malinda Russell in 1866.  In this post, I’d like to reflect on what I learned about the challenges and possibilities of teaching history in schools through hands-on cooking programs.

First a little background about Malinda Russell.  Born in Tennessee around 1820, Russell lived most or all of her life as a freewoman.  At age 19, she intended to migrate to Liberia, but her plans were stymied.  She married and had a son, worked as a washerwoman, and, in time, learned to cook.  After her husband’s death, she kept a boarding house and then opened a pastry shop.  During the Civil War, she was attacked and robbed for supporting the Union and fled to Michigan.  In 1866, she published her cookbook to raise funds to return to Tennessee, where she hoped to recover her property.

Malinda Russell cookbook photo

The Washington Middle School invited me to explore the life of this determined woman and make one of her recipes with the school’s 35 fourth and fifth graders.  I chose Russell’s recipe for jumbles – a cookie made with rosewater, mace, and caraway seeds.  The school has no kitchen, so we agreed we would prep, but not bake, the cookie dough in the lunchroom.  So that the students could try the jumbles, I would bake the cookies at home and bring them in.

So on a bitterly cold day at the end of February, I found myself nervously unloading grocery bags at the school.  I had taught children before, but never 35 of them.  I wasn’t sure if I knew how to present either the history or the baking lesson in a school setting.

After I set up, the teachers ushered the kids in.  I started by asking the girls what they knew about slavery. They were able to speak knowledgably about slaves’ experiences.  Then I asked what they knew about the lives of free African Americans in the antebellum era, and the answer was just about nothing.  I explained that Malinda Russell was a free African American who had lived when most African Americans were slaves.  I outlined her story and talked about obstacles she would have faced.

It was time to make the jumbles.  I had students read the recipe aloud and identify ingredients.  Next I assigned tasks.  Then, we got to work and this is where things went somewhat awry.  While waiting for ingredients to be passed around, the kids jostled each other and got a little noisy.  I found it challenging to maintain order with the girls.  We got four batches of the dough made, however, and the kids rolled or shaped it into balls or double rings.  Finally, we sampled the jumbles – and they were a hit.

So what did I learn?  Most important, I recognized that teaching history through recipes to elementary and middle school students (and, surely, high school students too) critically depends on K-12 educators who know how to teach schoolchildren and can anticipate their needs and interests in ways that a visitor like myself could not.  I had thought through every step of the recipe and how to make it work even though we weren’t in a kitchen, but the lack of a kitchen turned out not to be a real issue.  Instead, the fact that some ingredients had to be passed from table to table created downtime for the girls to become antsy.  I wanted the kids to measure out ingredients themselves – this is what cooking is – but I should have put, for instance, some flour into a bowl on each table and let the girls measure from it, rather than have to wait for the 5 pound bag to come to them.  An experienced K-12 teacher would not have made that and similar mistakes.

K-12 teachers are paramount in educating our children about history, but academic historians and institutions such as the American Historical Association (AHA) have key roles in broadening our children’s educational experiences too.  Russell does not find a place in elementary, middle, or high school curricula – although she can be fit into the study of the Civil War – and here is where academics can make a contribution.  Scholarly interest in food history is going gangbusters.  Historians would do well, I think, to collaborate with elementary and secondary school educators to identify usable primary sources that can be related to curricula.  The AHA’s K-12 workshop at the upcoming annual meeting in New York, in January 2015, will do just that: The workshop will explore teaching the history of World War I through food.

What worked?  The students loved the opportunity to cook at school.  They were eager to answer my questions and to read aloud from the cookbook.  But the chance to take ingredients and transform them captivated them.  And it created openings to teach history.  The girls at the Washington Middle School, and likewise, the students at the Oakwood Friends School in Poughkeepsie, New York, who I spoke with by Skype last February, wanted to know more about foods in the past.  The ingredients – something they could relate to but perhaps had not thought about as having pasts – sparked their historical curiosity and imagination.

Did I do everything right?  No.  Can we use historic recipes to teach history?  Absolutely.