The Book That Helped Define Soul Food

In 1955, a black woman couldn’t get a cheese sandwich at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. But if she had the book that would come to be known as The Ebony Cookbook, she could go home and make the ham-and-gravy Poor Boy sandwich beloved by the Delta Rhythm Boys, stars in the African-American music scene of the era.

Ebony magazine launched in 1945, from the offices of Johnson Publishing Co. in Chicago. Its mix of glamour, celebrity, and high-minded journalism took hold with readers living through Jim Crow laws in the South, or the less organized discrimination that ruled the rest of the nation. In Ebony’s pages you could take pride in Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, and Isaac Hayes, both for their art and for the very fact of being black. That included what they liked to eat.

Credit for that goes to Ebony’s first food editor (and as far as I know, the first black food editor in America), Freda DeKnight. In 1948, Ebony sponsored DeKnight’s cookbook of “American negro recipes,” A Date with a Dish. In 1962—a year before DeKnight’s death—an expanded and revised edition was published as The Ebony Cookbook. It was revised again in 1973 (the edition shown here), and once more in 1978. It’s now out of print.

DeKnight wrote from the persona of the Little Brown Chef, shown in Herbert Temple’s drawings as a scrappy, agile cartoon cook. Whether juggling waffles on a spatula or dropping a crab into the gumbo pot, the Little Brown Chef has Duke Ellington's cool, a suave corrective to the white cliché of the Southern black cook as some long-skirted mammy with a do-rag, dripping country patois like sorghum syrup. The Ebony Cookbook laid out African-American food as a cultural treasure for the country at large: black and white, North and South, East and West. The Jemima Code’s Toni Tipton Martin calls the brand of cooking Ebony pioneered “non-regional Southern”—eventually, soul food—and credits DeKnight for taking the food of backwoods Georgia and Louisiana “beyond the limits of poverty food."

That must have resonated with Ebony’s middle-class subscribers, who though they lived in Detroit or Oakland, still felt a deep connection to the South. DeKnight gave it to them, in recipes both genteel (Lobster for Your Best Bridge) and down-home (Mrs. C. Tinkchell’s Neckbones).

The 1962 edition has been criticized for scrapping a lot of DeKnight’s personal and anecdotal material that made the 1948 original cool—maybe that’s inevitable with a book so successful it can stand multiple revisions (see: Joy of Cooking). Still, enough of the charm survives, in recipes such as Opposum and Sweet Potatoes, Mrs. Zenobia Posey’s Two-Egg Spice Cake, Jenny Jeter’s Ham Loaf, and yeah, even Louis Armstrong’s Ham Hocks and Red Beans.

“No need to make folk think I like fancy foods like quail on toast, chicken and hot biscuits, or steak smothered in mushrooms,” Armstrong told DeKnight. “Of course they taste good and I can eat them, but have you ever tried ham hocks and red beans?” It was a question The Ebony Cookbook was asking the nation at large.

See also: This Book Is Cool: Patience Gray’s “Honey from a Weed”

Photos by Chris Rochelle / CHOW.com

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