Michigan State University

Fisher, Abby

What little factual evidence exists regarding the life of Abby Fisher has been gleaned from the U.S. Census Report of 1880, San Francisco city directories, and her cookbook, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking. According to the census, Abby C. Fisher was 48 years old in 1880, living at 2071/2 Second Street in San Francisco. Her race is listed as "mu." , for mulatto, and her place of birth is listed as South Carolina. Her mother was from South Carolina and her father was from France. Her profession is listed as "cook." Food historian Karen Hess, responsible for first reporting these facts in her afterword to the 1995 reprint, surmises that Abby Fisher was born a slave, of a slave mother and a slaveowner father. This is supported by Mrs. Fisher's own references to plantation life in her cookbook. In recipe #102 -- Blackberry Syrup For Dysentery in Children, she states, "This recipe is an old Southern plantation remedy among colored people." And the final recipe in the book, #160 -- Pap for Infant Diet, concludes, "I have given birth to eleven children and raised them all, and nursed them with this diet. It is a Southern plantation preparation." As one commentator, Rafia Zafar, points out, it is intriguing that Fisher ends her cookbook with a burst of personal information. At the time, even among affluent white citizens, raising eleven children with no infant mortality was a remarkable achievement. As Fisher lost none of her children to either disease or slavery, perhaps Fisher was, Zafar conjectures, a "favored slave." With her light mulatto skin and her presumably white French father, perhaps she was treated with more consideration, and allowed to keep her children.

At some point Fisher moved from South Carolina to Mobile, Alabama, for she signs her preface, "Mrs. Abby Fisher - Late of Mobile Alabama." According to the census, three of her four youngest children were born in Alabama, the last in 1870. Her youngest child was born in Missouri sometime after 1870. Her husband is listed as Alexander C. Fisher, 46 years old, a mulatto born in Alabama of an Alabama father and a North Carolina mother. The older seven children, (probably no longer at home at the time of the 1880 Census), remain unknown and unnamed to us. By 1879 (at the latest) Mrs. Fisher was in California, for she was awarded a "diploma" at the Sacramento State Fair of 1879, and two medals at the San Francisco Mechanics' Institute Fair in 1880 "for best Pickles and Sauces and best assortment of Jellies and Preserves", according to the title page of her book. In her preface she refers to "lady friends and patrons in San Francisco and Oakland," and lists them at the end. City directories of the time describe these figures as stockbrokers, businessmen, and the wives of such -- an indication of the respect and support Abby Fisher garnered in her day. The directories also list the Fishers as pickle manufacturers; it is apparent, according to Hess, that Abby Fisher was "the guiding force in the family enterprise" despite the fact Abby Fisher could not read or write.

Her work, a true cookbook, is probably the oldest cookbook published by an African-American after Malinda Russell's A Domestic Cookbook: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Recipes for the Kitchen (1866), discovered by Jan Longone in 2001. The two earlier works included in this collection -- by Robert Roberts in 1827 and by Tunis Campbell in 1848 -- are primarily guides for waiters and butlers, and contain few recipes. Interestingly, Fisher's book differs from these other works in that she adopts a folksier tone rather than the managerial style of Campbell, Roberts and Russell. It is as if she (or those to whom she recounted her recipes), in a small way, were capitalizing on the nostalgia for the Old South that marked the post-Reconstruction era. This possibility makes the largely unknown story of Mrs. Fisher's journey from the plantation to independence and success in California even more fascinating.

Sources

  • Fisher, Abby, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc. San Francisco: Women's Co-operative Printing Office, 1881.

     

  • -----What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc. Facsimile edition, with historical notes by Karen Hess. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1995.

     

  • Longone, Janice B., "Early Black-Authored American Cookbooks," Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture (February 2001).

     

  • Zafar, Rafia, "What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking," Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture (Fall 2001).

If you encounter accessibility issues with items on this page, please contact our remediation service.
X