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Vintage California Cuisine: 300 Recipes from the First Cookbooks Published in the Golden State


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Culinary History Section

The Bordello Cookbook
By Jo Foxworth, Jeanne Bauer

A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances

By Laura Schenone

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An Ex-Slave's Award-Winning Cookbook

Abby Fisher couldn’t read or write. But her skills in the kitchen didn’t go unnoticed by the high-society women in post-Civil War San Francisco for whom she worked as a cook. Her concoctions also won raves from food judges at county fairs.

Fisher, a former slave from Mobile, Alabama, was awarded a diploma at the Sacramento State Fair in 1879 and won two medals – for best pickles and sauces and best assortment of jellies and preserves -- at the San Francisco Mechanics Institute Fair in 1880.

Some of her patrons persuaded Fisher to dictate the recipes she carried in her head so that they could be written down and passed on to others. The result was one of the first cookbooks by an African American, "What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking: Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc.," published by the Women’s Cooperative Printing Office in San Francisco in 1881.

You'll find 26 of Mrs. Fisher's recipes, plus more than 250 other early California recipes in Vintage California Cuisine:


What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking: Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc.


It is clear that cheap labor was plentiful in the Old South where Fisher  grew. The pickled watermelon rind recipe reprinted below takes days to complete. In contrast, the watermelon rind recipe in Stocking Up: The Third Edition of the Classic Preserving Guide, calls for much the same ingredients. But it can be completed in under an hour -- with an intervening overnight wait while the blanched rind sits in syrup before being canned and processed in a hot water bath.

Harried gourmets of the present day might find Mrs. Fisher’s jumble cake recipe, also reprinted below, more practical. It can be whipped together in minutes.

Sweet Watermelon
Rind Pickle

Take the melon rind and scrape all the meat from the inside, and then carefully slice all the outside of the rind from the white part of the rind, then lay or cover the white part over with salt. It will have to remain under salt one week before pickling; the rind will keep in salt from year to year. When you want to pickle it, take it from the salt and put into clear water, change the water three times a day –must be changed say every four hours – then take the rind from the water and dry it with a clean cloth. Have your vinegar boiling, and put the rind into it and let it lay in vinegar four days; then take it from the vinegar, drain, and sprinkle sugar thickly over it and let it remain so one day. To make syrup, take the syrup from the rind and add eight pounds more sugar to it, and put to boil; boil till a thick and clear syrup. Weigh ten pounds of rind to 12 pounds of sugar; cover the rind with four pounds of it and make the syrup with the remaining eight pounds. While the syrup is cooking add one teacupful of white ginger root and the peel of three lemons. When the syrup is cooked, then put the rind into the boiling syrup, and let it cook till you can pass a fork through it with ease, then it is done. When cooled, put in jar or bottles with one pint of vinegar to one quart of syrup, thus the pickles are made. See that they be well covered with vinegar and syrup as directed."

Jumble Cake

One teacup of butter, one and one-half teacups of sugar, one and one-half pints of flour; four eggs, two teaspoonfuls of cinnamon, one-half teacup of almonds chopped fine, two teaspoonfuls of yeast powder sifted in the flour. Beat the butter, sugar and eggs together, then add the flour. Put cinnamon and almonds in and work the whole up well, then roll on the board to thickness of half an inch, and cut out a finger’s length and join together at ends, so as to be round. Grease pans with butter and put to bake.

Copyright 2005 Seasonal Chef