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Freda DeKnight, Unsung Hero of the Modern Culinary World

Freda-DeKnightWe equate Southern cuisine with iconic dishes like fried chicken, homemade biscuits, and grits and assume that these foods are distinctly Southern. But in the world of culinary history and foodways, that’s a dangerous assumption. No cuisine evolved in isolation, and Southern food is no exception; it’s been influenced by French, Spanish, West Indian, Chinese, African, Dutch, and German culinary traditions. But history has long ignored these multicultural roots, focusing instead on the fact that Southern food had truly humble beginnings; it emerged as the food of poverty.

One woman made significant strides in shaking the stereotypes of Southern food. Freda DeKnight was raised on a farm in South Dakota, where she learned to appreciate excellent food. She would go on a career as food editor and cookbook writer, using these opportunities to turn contemporary notions of Southern food and African-American cooks on end.

A Childhood Interest Becomes a Lifelong Vocation

Freda DeKnight was born in 1909. Two years later her father passed away, so her mother, a traveling nurse, sent Freda and her sister to live with a South Dakota farming family. The Scotts not only raised livestock and crops, but they also ran the most successful catering business in the area. Young Freda soon developed a strong interest in cooking, which was nurtured by her adoptive family. DeKnight later recalled that the Scotts “were the inspiration for my early cooking aspirations, which gave me every opportunity to absorb all their fine recipes and rudiments of cooking, preparing food, and catering. Although Mama Scott’s education was limited, she could measure and estimate to perfection without any modern aids.”

DeKnight eventually turned her passion for cookery into a living.  First she worked as a recipe developer for food manufacturers. Then in 1946 she took a position as food editor for Ebony magazine, making her the first African-American food editor in the United States. DeKnight published a regular column in the magazine called “A Date with a Dish.” Her husband, noted jazz pianist Rene DeKnight came up with the column’s title.

Culinary historian, author, and editor Toni Tipton Martin points out that DeKnight was among the first “to advocate African-American culinary dignity and ownership.” DeKnight’s column proved an invaluable tool in this regard. Through Ebony, DeKnight reminded readers of the multinational roots of Southern cooking and the ingenuity so often displayed in the cuisine, an ingenuity that transcended the poverty from which traditional Southern cooking had emerged.

A Date with a Dish Challenges Stereotypes

In 1948, DeKnight took her efforts a step further with the publication of A Date with a Dish. This cookbook was much more than a simple collection of DeKnight’s columns and recipes. She traveled all over the country to conduct interviews and Date-Dish-Freda-DeKnightcollect recipes. Her subjects included celebrities like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, along with respected African-American chefs and home cooks. The result? A 400-page “non-regional cookbook that contains recipes, menus, and cooking hints for and by Negroes all over America.”

DeKnight used a model that had long proven a favorite among home cooks: she presented a well-organized selection of explicit recipes, along with plenty of household hints.  She suggested colorful vegetable platers for spring and holiday menus. She gave clear, concise directions for the humane preparation of lobster. And she wove entertaining vignettes into technical instructions. DeKnight shared poignant, humorous moments gleaned from interviews with celebrities, as well as their favorite recipes, such as Louis Armstrong’s beloved ham hocks and red beans.

“No need to make folks think I like fancy foods like quail on toast, chicken and hot biscuits, or steak smothered in mushrooms. Of course they taste good and I can eat them, but have you ever tried ham hocks and red beans?” -Louis Armstrong, as quoted in A Date with a Dish 

Ultimately, DeKnight set her sights not on writing a great cookbook (though she did, and it became a bestseller). She strived to overturn stereotypes about African-American cooks and Southern cooking.  She states in the preface of A Date with a Dish, “It is a fallacy, long disproved, that Negro cooks, chefs, caterers and homemakers can adapt themselves only to the standard Southern dishes….Like other Americans living in various sections of the country, they have naturally shown a desire to become versatile in the preparation of any dish.”

Transcending these stereotypes was quite the lofty goal in 1948; Ebony had existed only three years, and while it gave African-Americans a place to take pride in their culture, the country was still ensconced in both the institutionalized racism of Jim Crow laws in the South and tacit discrimination all over the country. 1948 saw President Truman submit a civil rights plan to Congress, but public schools would not be desegregated until seven years later. Yet DeKnight’s efforts helped people across the country to see Southern cooking as phenomenon of cultural assimilation, and to see food as a potential means for climbing out of poverty.

Freda-DeKnight-Richard-Nixon

Freda DeKnight meets Vice President Richard Nixon at the National Food Conference.

Ebony would republish A Date with a Dish again in 1962 under a new title, The Ebony Cookbook. Unfortunately the new edition did not include DeKnight’s “Collector’s Corner,” the very section of the cookbook that had, as Martin puts it, “[galvanized DeKnight’s] mission to honor invisible African-American expertise.” The updated edition did, however, include whimsical illustrations by Herbert Temple. The book was revised and reissued again in 1973 and 1978 before falling out of print.

Related Books

Dreams Come True! 

Dreams-Come-TrueDreams Come True!: Picture Stories of Famous People & How to Tell What Dreams Mean is illustrated by George L. Lee, prominent African-American Chicago newspaper cartoonist. The book presents stories of famous African-Americans like Booker T. Washington, Dr. George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass, and many more, along with pages on “What Dreams Mean.” The book also includes advertisements for beautifying products produced by the Black and White Co., such as skin lightener, hair straighteners, and vanishing creams. New York, Black and White Company. 1940′s. unpaginated. 17 x 12 cm.  Minor toning. Orig. illustrated wraps. Near fine. Staplebound Wraps.

A Good Heart and a Light Hand

Good-Heart-Light-Hand-Ruth-Gaskill“Every good Negro cook starts with two basic ingredients: a good heart and a light hand,” says Ruth L Gaskins in her preface to A Good Heart and a Light Hand. The cookbook was published by both The Fund for Alexandria and Simon and Schuster in 1968. Gaskin explains “There is something special that every Negro knows that I can only call ‘the Negro Welcome’…The Welcome come from back in the days when we were slaves…The only real comfort came at the end of the day, when we took either the food that we were given, or the food that we raised, or the food that we had caught, and we put in the pot, and we sat with our own kind and talked and sang and ate.” Gaskin continues to share the stories of “Mama Rice,” her special, close friend, whose love of food and family helped fill these pages with true home cooking. Tape residue on title page, otherwise clean and crisp. Spiral bound black and white pictorial covers. Near fine. Spiral bound.

The Negro Chef Cookbook

Negro-Chef-Cookbook-Leonard-RobertsWorking his way up the ladder in kitchens, Leonard E Roberts led a life filled with amazing twists and turns. After being accepted as the head chef for the Panama Canal Zone, he entered the Army, spent two weeks on a GI recreation stint and studied at the Cordon Bleu in France. He then was sent to Tokyo to cook for the State Department, eventually ending up at the Foreign Correspondents Club of the Far East. Back in the states after war, Roberts entered the Edison Technical School in Seattle to learn about the special diet needed in hospitals. Roberts ended his career heading up the kitchen at the Veterans Administrations Hospital in Boston. All of these travel experiences show up in the recipes he shares in The Negro Chef Cookbook. This volume is signed by the author: “Oct. 25, 1969 to: Miss Sally Booker with Best Wishes Leonard E. Roberts.”  Inlaid is the original ordering pamphlet from Vantage press. Light soiling to cover, interior clean. Orig. pictorial wraps, plastic spiral-ring spine. Very good. Spiral bound wraps.

 

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One comment on “Freda DeKnight, Unsung Hero of the Modern Culinary World

  1. Pingback: Reader asks about early black TV cooks | Auction Finds

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This entry was posted on October 30, 2013 by in Food and Literature, History and tagged , , .
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