in Food History to Remember
Four Women Notes
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, turns his attention to four women who may not be the most widely remembered, but whose contribution to food history is incalculable. From a woman without whom we might not have gin, to the author of the first known cookbook by an African American woman.
So if you want to know about the origins of distillation, why the author of one of the biggest selling cookbooks of all time died almost penniless, how a recently-discovered cookbook changed what we know about African American cookery, and why mothers ruled French cooking, come and join us on this episode of Eat My Globe.
EAT MY GLOBE
4 WOMEN IN FOOD HISTORY TO REMEMBER
Did I tell you that my mother and I once bought an Italian restaurant but we. . . we never opened it.
We had gnocchi.
Oh my god. No.
We had gnocchi. That’s great.
Definitely, one day. We’re going to do an episode that’s all just food jokes. That’s it. It’s gonna be all food jokes. Wall to wall.
It’ll be our biggest ever episode.
Okay, let’s do this.
Hi everyone, I’m Simon Majumdar, and welcome to a brand new episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
And on this episode, we’re going to take a look at the lives of four women who I believe do not always receive the appreciation they deserve for their contribution to food history. Now those of you who have been listening to Eat My Globe since the very beginning will know that the aspect of researching these episodes that I enjoy most is finding out about the people involved.
Sometimes these can be, in commas, “the great” women and men, kings, queens, emperors, sultans. These tend to be easier to research, as they are often the ones who either were at the heart of great historical decisions or indeed often commissioned histories to be written about themselves and their exploits. Or, they could be everyday folk just getting on with their lives in the midst of extraordinary historical circumstances, and whose lives are noted in art, legal records, tax documents, or even through the remains we find during archeological digs.
Or, like today, they can be people who may well have been very well-known or even famous in their day, and recognized and admired by their contemporaries, but have since become forgotten in time or under-appreciated, and whose lives are definitely deserving of some re-examination.
In the case of women, this can be doubly the case, as they were so often excluded from historical records. So today, we’re going to focus on four women who I believe should be given a doff of the cap for their contribution to the fabric that is our food history.
So if you like this episode, and it’s a slightly unusual one, let us know and we’ll definitely do it again.
So let’s get to it.
MARIA THE JEWESS
To say that Maria the Jewess – or Maria Habreat or Maria the Hebrew or Maria the Prophetess or Miriam the Prophetess, as she is sometimes known – contributed a great deal to food history, is not only an understatement, but perhaps misunderstanding just how important her contribution is to history in general, quite apart from food.
In fact, she is also recognized as
the “founding mother of alchemy.”
Alchemy is that mystical ancient practice which promulgated the notion that metals were alive, could grow inside the earth and whose properties could be refined. Its primary aim was to turn lead into gold, which alchemists believe is a conversion to heaven.
The alchemic devices Maria devised would be used by scientists for centuries after her death. For our purposes here on a food history podcast, she also, as we shall see, made two vital contributions.
Now, unfortunately, we don’t have any record of her life from Maria herself. Which, as I said earlier, is too often the case with women in history. Although it is believed that she lived in ancient Egypt in the 1st Century C.E., what information we do have primarily comes from later writers who quoted her works, which included her most famous, the “Maria Practica.”
Primarily, her works have been cited by Zozimos of Panopolis, a Gnostic writer who lived in Alexandria, Egypt around the 3rd or 4th century and is himself considered one of the greatest of the alchemical scholars of the age. Again, his works are not to be found in one place but were later collated by compiling their appearance as “members disjecta” or “scattered fragments” in other Greek texts on alchemy. For example, he references Maria’s work on “Peri Kaminon Kai Organon” or “On Furnaces and Apparatuses.”
His discussions and quotations about Maria refer to her as “Maria” or “the divine Maria.” He also touches on the fact that he – influenced by her – believed that the Jewish people were the repositories of alchemical wisdom, which had been given to them by God.
It’s also almost impossible to be sure exactly when Mary lived. However, from the references made to her by Zozimos, scholars believe she may have lived between the 1st and 3rd centuries. She probably lived in Alexandria, Egypt, where she likely had a school where she taught alchemy. As well as Zozimos, a number of other writers also attribute quotes to her, including the much quoted, “Axiom of Maria,” which has her declaring in a famous if slightly confusing line,
“One becomes two, two becomes three, and by means of the third and fourth achieves unity; this two are but one.”
This was a quote that Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Jung would later use to support his theory of “individuation” or discovering one’s complete self through dreams. I have to say it’s all a little complicated for a simple soul like me, but we will add a link to the annotated transcript in the event that you would like to go and read more about it. Good luck.
Another piece containing Maria’s teachings is found in a 16th century work called, “Artis Auriferae Quam Chemiam Vocant,” where it contains a treatise called the “Dialogue of Maria and Aros,” which shows her importance in the world of alchemy. In it, Maria is said to discuss with a fictitious philosopher, Aros, the basic precepts of alchemy. As translated by noted scholar, Raphael Patai in his excellent book, “The Jewish Alchemists: A History and Source Book,” Maria is said to have told Aros,
“Preserve the fume and take care lest any of it escape. And the measure of the small fire [must be] like the measure of the heat of the sun in the month of June or July.”
I mention this to show that in the period for many years after she was alive, Maria the Jewess was considered one of the great sages of the philosophical and mystical world, and her teachings were important to science throughout the ages.
“But,” I can hear you shout, “what does any of this have to do with food history?”
Well, thanks for your patience. The reason I wanted to add Maria the Jewess to my pantheon of culinary heroes is not because of her writings, but because of the processes she developed and the devices she created to achieve her aims.
Those of you who have been with us since Season 1 will know that I have mentioned Maria the Jewess before in a very early episode on the history of my favorite alcoholic beverage, Gin.” If you have not yet had chance to go and listen to it, go and check it out.
Maria believed that at the heart of alchemy was the notion of distillation. Distillation is the process of separating mixtures and purifying liquids by the application of heat so that they can be split into their different compounds. It was a process that was described in the “Emerald Tablet of Hermes,” another sacred text of alchemy, as
“It rises from Earth to Heaven and descends again to Earth, thereby combining within Itself the powers of both the Above and the Below.”
The notion of the heavenly result of the notion of distillation is something that any gin drinker, like myself, would understand.
Zozimos credits Maria for inventing two devices that are the reason, I believe, she should be received into the culinary pantheon with applause, bells and whistles.
The first is a still – the sort of thing that we now think of for distilling whiskey or gin. It was known as a “Tribikos.” This device comprised an earthenware container into which liquid could be decanted and heated. As the liquid heated, it was passed to another container where it could be cooled. As it travelled between the two containers as a steam and condensed once more into a liquid, it ran through three copper spouts – hence the name tribikos – where the results could be collected in containers.
It may not have been the first still ever built, but tribikos were a form of still that is remarkably close to the alembic stills we still see in use today. The instructions Maria gave for its construction – including the way to make the copper outlets and how to seal the pot using a paste made of flour and water – influenced those who used stills over the next centuries, such as scientists in today’s chemistry labs, and of course, for our purposes, the distillers who still make hard spirits like moonshine in West Virginia and Kentucky or those who make brandy in alembic stills.
Another important creation attributed to Maria is something that is still used to this day in science labs and in different forms in kitchens. Maria created a form of double boiler in which there is a large outer container and a smaller inner container. The space between the two containers was filled with water, and the inner container was filled with the substance that needed to be moderated. Once placed on the heat, the water bath allowed for the slow heating of the substance in the inner container, with a greater ability to regulate its temperature.
That might all seem terribly scientific until you realize that the same principle is used in kitchens all over the world every day and actually is still named in honor of its creator. It’s known as “Mary’s bath” or a “Bain Marie.” Anyone who has made a custard or a savoury mousse or a hollandaise sauce or melted chocolate over a saucepan of simmering water will have used the techniques that Maria first conceived some 2,000 years ago.
So, I hope, that convinces you that Maria the Jewess should never – never ever be forgotten and always appreciated. Because not only did she create techniques that we are still using centuries later in the kitchen, in the bar, and in other places, but also, without her, I think distillation would not have progressed to the point where my beloved gin would’ve been enjoyed by yours truly. And we all know that just won’t do.
Our next contender to enter the culinary pantheon is a woman whose contributions to the way we cook today is immeasurable, and one whom journalist, Rose Prince, described in the Independent newspaper in London as,
“the first domestic goddess.”
So, who could the woman be to earn such a formidable title?
In this case, Rose Prince is referring to the 18th century cookbook author, Hannah Glasse. A woman responsible for writing one of the first great cookbooks. Not only was it a cookbook that was to prove immensely popular for almost a century after it was first published, but it is also one that contains some of the very first examples of recipes of some very famous dishes.
Now, if you are interested in food history – which I certainly hope you are if you’re listening to this podcast on a regular basis – you may well know the name of Hannah Glasse. Indeed, we’ve talked about her recipes on our episodes on “The True Story of Fish & Chips,” and “The History of Sugar,” amongst others. So make sure you check them out.
But, you may not be aware of some of the truly hard struggles of her personal life, and the shameful lack of recognition she received for her work in her own time.
We don’t know terribly much about the personal life of Hannah Glasse, but, certainly more than we know about, say, Maria the Jewess. And much of what we do know about Hannah Glasse comes to us from a series of extant letters from a regular correspondence she had with her father’s youngest sister, Margaret Widdrington. These give us a unique insight into her life.
She was born in London in 1708. Hers was an illegitimate birth. Her paternal grandfather, Reverend Major Allgood, was a priest. Her father, Isaac Allgood, was a substantial landowner in the North of England. Her maternal grandfather, Isaac Clark, was a London wine seller. And her mother, Hannah Reynolds, is believed to have been a local widow.
Allgood had recently married another woman by the name of Hannah Clark – there’s a lot of Hannah’s going on here. So. I’ve seen conflicting reports where she was raised – either on the land that Allgood owned at Simonburn, near Hexham, which is a small market town in the county of Northumberland, as I mentioned, in the north of England, or in London.
In any event, her relatively elevated status did give her some advantages. While many women in the 18th century could read, to be able to write was less common, and this ability was to prove, as we shall see, of enormous use to her in later life.
She also had a half-brother, Lancelot Allgood – now there’s a name that needs to make a comeback. Lancelot was a successful man of the day and became Sherriff of Northumberland in the mid-1740s, and later a member of parliament for the county of Northumberland from 1748 to 1754. In 1782, King George III knighted him to become Sir Lancelot Allgood and he was considered, according to The History of Parliament website,
“one of the most influential men in mid-Georgian Northumberland.”
Hannah’s father and stepmother passed away to illnesses by 1725. And we also know that at the tender age of 16, Glasse married a half Irish, half Scottish soldier of fortune by the name of John Glasse.
Together, they had 11 children, although, 6 died in infancy and one died later while at sea. We again know from her letters that, between 1728 and 1732, she and her husband worked in the household of the 4th Earl of Donegall, before subsequently moving to London. I’m not certain of her role in this household, although given what her future had in store for her, it might be a defensible suggestion to argue that she was both a seamstress or had a part in running the kitchen.
Her husband, John, passed away in 1747. And, in the same year she opened up a dressmaking shop in Tavistock Street, which is near Covent Garden in the center of London. She ran it with her oldest daughter, Margaret, and advertised herself as
“Habit maker to Her Royal Highness, the Princess of Wales, in Tavistock Street, Covent Garden.”
Much more importantly for our story, it was also in this year that she first published the work that would cement her place in the culinary firmament – “The Art of Cookery Made PLAIN and EASY; Which Far Exceeds Any THING of the Kind Ever Yet Published.”
The motivation to write “The Art of Cookery” was primarily a financial one. The Glasses had previously tried to earn money by peddling a “cure all” known as “Daffy’s Elixir.” However, this had not been successful, and Hannah Glasse had turned her attention to writing culinary guides, and cookbooks and guides to “Housewifery” being a popular strand of publishing at the time.
She was obviously quite savvy at this new venture. For “The Art of Cookery,” not only did she manage to attract 202 subscribers for the first edition, but she also recognized very early that there was a rapid growth of the middle classes in 18th century Britain. This meant there was a gap in the market for a guide for housewives who needed to run their households and to instruct servants.
As she says in the introduction to the book – we have a link to the 5th edition published in 1755 in the annotated transcript –
“TO THE READER. I Believe I have attempted a Branch of Cookery, which Nobody has yet thought worth their while to write upon: But as I have both seen, and found by Experience that the Generality of Servants are greatly wanting in that Point, therefore I have taken upon me to instruct them in the best Manner I am capable; and, I dare say, that every Servant who can but read will be capable of making a tolerable good Cook, and those who have the least Notion of Cookery, can’t miss of being very good ones.”
The book’s title page also lists where it is to be sold,
“and sold at Mrs Ashburn’s, a China-Shop, the Corner of Fleet-Ditch,”
which some believe is another sign of her marketing savvy.
The book was an immediate hit and went on to have 10 reprints during her lifetime, and a further 16 reprints after she passed away in 1770. This was not just because of the recipes included. There are some indeed that are worthy of merit, and we’ll come to those in a moment. However, over 300 of the 972 recipes in the book were taken from existing printed sources quote, “word for word.” This would be unforgiveable now, but at the time, copyright laws were less well-established or enforced.
Now, what really made “The Art of Cooking” such a success was its accessibility and clear writing. It was also structured thematically and contained a full index to help search for guidance and recipes. Something that we find commonplace today. And, just as importantly, the style and natural language in which “The Art of Cookery” was written appealed particularly to its target audience of domestic helpers. She said
“If I have not wrote in the high, polite Stile, I hope I shall be forgiven; for my intension is to instruct the lower Sort, and therefore must treat them in their own Way.”
She then continues and emphasizes that her aim is to
“improve the Servants, and save the Ladies a great deal of Trouble.”
As well as the recipes, there are guides to making wine in Chapter 17, distilling in Chapter 20, as well as advice as to how to keep one’s house bedbug and vermin free in Chapter 22. Although her remedy for bugs, which involves a concoction of lit charcoal, brimstone and India pepper might not pass modern regulations.
And, one would hope that the need to have
“A certain Cure for the bite of a Mad Dog”
“Receipt against the Plague”
might not be as necessary now as they were in the mid-18th century.
As for the food recipes themselves, they tell us a lot about her and the times in which she lived. There is a chapter of recipes – Chapter 11, in fact – is
for the “Captain of ships.”
These include, amongst others, making catchup that keeps for 20 years, and fish sauces that last a year, or pickling mushrooms that would also last for a while at sea.
She’s also rather dismissive of the trend towards the love of French food during her life. She says in the introduction to her book,
“I have indeed given some of my Dishes French Names to distinguish them, because they are known by those Names; And where there is great Variety of Dishes and a large Table to cover, so there must be Variety of Names for them; and it matters not whether they be called by a French, Dutch, or English Name, so they are good, and done with as little Expence as the Dish will allow of.”
She also titles Chapter 3,
“Read this CHAPTER, and you will see how expensive a French Cook’s Sauce is.”
This antipathy towards French cooking perhaps echoes the mutual dislike that existed between the English and the French at the time when Hannah Glasse was writing. This stemmed both from the fact that the two countries had been at war with each other almost constantly during the 18th century, and even perhaps to the different cultural approaches of each country because of their religious beliefs, England being quite staunchly Protestant, and France just as dedicated to its Roman Catholic faiths.
However, she is not afraid to offer up recipes from outside the norm, or to use ingredients that were only just being introduced to Britain following its trading and colonial successes. She offers a recipe for “Bolognia Sausages.” And in later editions, she also offers “Haddocks after the Spanish Way,” which historian Karen Hess says is a novel recipe in England at the time as it involves
“tomatoes, which dates from the 1750s.”
Glasse also includes the ever-essential instructions
“to preserve Tripe to go to the East Indies.”
What is most interesting to me, however, is that amongst the recipes that are very much of their time, there are also recipes for dishes that are very much still with us today. In some cases they are the first mentions of such recipes. For example, “The Art of Cookery” contains what is generally believed to be the very first recipe for curry.
“To make a Currey the Indian Way. TAKE two small Chickens, skin them and cut them as for a Fricasey, wash them clean, and stew them in about a Quart of Water, for about five Minutes, then strain off the Liquor and put the Chickens in a clean Dish; take three large Onions, chop them small and fry them in about two Ounces of Butter, then put in the Chickens and fry them together till they are Brown, take a Quarter of an Ounce of Turmerick, a large Spoonful of Ginger and beaten Pepper together, and a little Salt to your Palate; strew all these Ingredients over the Chickens whilst it is frying, then pour in the Liquor, and let it stew about Half an Hour, then put in a Quarter of a Pint of Cream, and the Juice of two Lemons, and serve it up. The Ginger, Pepper and Turmerick must be beat very fine.”
This inclusion, I think, represents the influx of ideas and ingredients from the growing British Empire, particularly that of spices from India.
She also offers an early recipe for one of my childhood favorites, Yorkshire Puddings, and was certainly the first to give it this name. Previously they had been known as “dripping puddings.”
“TAKE a Quart of Milk, four Eggs, and a little Salt, make it up into a thick Batter with Flour, like a Pancake Batter. You must have a good Piece of Meat at the Fire, take a Stew-pan and put some Dripping in, set it on the Fire; when it boils, pour in your Pudding; let it bake on the Fire till you think it is nigh enough, then turn a Plate upside-down in the Dripping-pan, that the Dripping may not be blacked; set your Stew-pan on it under your Meat, and let the Dripping drop on the Pudding, and the Heat of the Fire come to it, to make it of a fine Brown. When your Meat is done and sent to Table, drain all the Fat from your Pudding, and set it on the Fire again to dry a little; then slide it as dry as you can into a Dish, melt some Butter, and pour into a Cup, and set it in the Middle of the Pudding. It is an exceeding good Pudding; the Gravy of the Meat eats well with it.”
I must say this is still the best way to make Yorkshire puddings – with beef drippings. Wonderful stuff. Give it a try. Fabulous stuff.
Successful as the book was, it was not without its critics, some of whom, found its down to earth language to be rather crude compared to previous cookbooks written by professionals, and accused its author of being uneducated. Even the third edition of Alan Davidson’s “The Oxford Companion to Food,” published in 2014, disapproves of “The Art of Cookery’s” success noting that it was owed,
“in part, to chance; in great part, unscrupulous plagiarism; in almost no part, to innovations in the style and organization of recipes, for which she claimed credit; and to a small but significant extent, to her marketing abilities.”
Despite this, the book was, as I said earlier, an astonishing success. It went through many editions both before and after the death of Hannah Glasse. The book was also a huge success in the American colonies with both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owning copies. In fact, George Washington requested Glasse’s cookbook as one of the English goods he would like to have, and the Washingtons’ copy dates back to the early 1770s.
One would think, and hope on the back of such success, Hannah Glasse would have been both secure financially and in receipt of some much-deserved contemporary reverence. Unfortunately, neither were the case for Glasse.
The first reason is that in 1754 she had to file for bankruptcy. She was forced to sell off the best asset she had to her name, which was the copyright to “The Art of Cookery,” to Andrew Miller, a bookseller. It did not help in the long run because she was still forced to enter debtor prison in 1757.
The second reason is the fact that, at the time, no one knew she wrote “The Art of Cookery.” When first published, the author of “The Art of Cookery” was quoted as being written,
“By a Lady.”
The primary reason being that it was unseemly for a woman to be seen as the author of a book. By the fourth edition, she was able to have herself mentioned on the title page as “H.Glasse.” And, it was not until 1788, some 18 years after her death in 1770 at the age of 62, that she was fully accredited on the title page.
Despite that, there were still many who did not believe that she was really the author. And some were downright sexist in their reasoning. Writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson once said at a book publisher’s party at the time,
“Women can spin very well; but they cannot make a good book of cookery.”
Vile and ignorant sentiments to be sure and I am glad Johnson is definitely on the wrong side of history on this one.
Finally, in 1938, a British historian, Madeline Hope Dodds, discovered paperwork showing that “The Art of Cookery” was undoubtedly Glasse’s work, and that settled the matter.
All of which is a terrible shame for a woman who contributed so much to our culinary world. But, I hope that this episode of Eat My Globe goes someway to redressing the balance.
Yes, indeed. Wonderful woman.
Ah, this is a fun one.
LA MÈRE BRAZIER
Our third entry in the list is a woman whose reputation is already revered in the world of French dining and is often referred to as, “The mother of modern French cooking.” And yet, despite such local acclaim, she is perhaps not given the recognition she deserves in the wider world.
Eugénie Brazier, or as she was later known, La Mère Brazier, was born on June the 12th 1895 near Bourg-en-Bresse, France and passed away in 1977 at the very respectable age of 81 years old.
During that full life, she had not only become the first woman to earn a coveted 3 Michelin stars for her restaurant, but also the first chef of either gender to win six Michelin stars across her two restaurants – the eponymous “La Mère Brazier” in Lyon, and another restaurant of the same name in Col de La Luère in the Alpine foothills.
During that time, she not only created dishes and restaurants that persuaded celebrities and aristocrats to travel from around the world to eat her famed food – and we shall talk about some of those in a minute – but she also promoted the development of Lyonnaise cuisine. And, along the way, she nurtured some of the finest chefs to have come out of that world, including the world renowned and revered, Chef Paul Bocuse.
Brazier was born to farming parents, and it was from her mother that she began to develop her love of food. She learned to make a dish which, despite all her later associations, she described as,
“Never eaten better.”
It was a simple soup of
“leeks and vegetables cooked in milk and water, enriched with eggs, and poured over stale bread.”
I have to say, I think that sounds rather lovely.
Brazier’s mother died when she was only 10 years old, and she was literally farmed out by being sent to work and be supported on another farm. It was in this other farm where she began to develop more of an understanding of rustic French cooking. She remained largely uneducated, only attending school on occasions.
Quite whether she was ready for the arrival of a child at the age of 19 and as an unwed mother, I am not sure. I can’t find too much references to the father of her son other than French articles which we had to get an online translation for, which say that he was a married man. It was enough for her to be disowned by her father, which forced her to head for the city of Lyon in search of work.
Her first job was as a nanny. Before very long, she was working in the kitchens as the family cook. However, she needed more income than being a domestic servant provided and around 1918, towards the end of the Great War – that’s the First World War – she entered an apprenticeship at a famed Lyonnaise restaurant, “La Mère Filloux.”
At this point of time in Lyon, there were many restaurants that were run by an assembly of women who were dubbed “Grande Mères.” The term “Mère” strictly means mother in French, and were based on the fact that the restaurants in Lyon were headed by female chefs. It was a title that originated when the first of these amazing cooks, La Mère Guy, opened a restaurant in 1759, which was famous for serving a hearty soup made of eels.
Again, that sounds rather lovely.
These “Mères” were women who had opened their own small restaurants known as “Porte Pots.” These were simple restaurants serving classic Lyonnaise food enjoyed by the working class, travelers and anyone who enjoyed good meals.
It was at “La Mère Filloux” restaurant that Brazier really began to hone her culinary craft and learned some of the dishes that she was going to take on to her own restaurant. In 1921, at the age of only 26, she purchased a local grocery store at 12 Rue Royale in Lyon for 12,000 francs, and converted it to become “La Mère Brazier,” where she served lunch for 5 francs. There, she began to offer food that was simple yet elegant, and drew from her time at “La Mère Filloux.”
Over the next years, she began to develop her menu serving courses for which she would become justly famous. Plates of local sausages, artichoke hearts with foie gras, Langouste Aurora, game birds stuffed with goose liver, fish courses of quenelles of pike and her most celebrated dish – and one that I was recently fortunate enough to sample at Paul Bocuse’s Restaurant – volaille demi-deuil or Chicken in Half Mourning – that is, the famous chicken from the town of Bresse layered with truffles and then simmered in a light broth inside a pig’s bladder. Incredibly rich and delicious, but definitely not one to tell your cardiologist about.
She was also notoriously picky about her ingredients, and determinedly anti-waste. She found any ingredients that were left to feed her pigs. So I bet those pigs ate some pretty good quality food.
She opened another restaurant under the same name at Col de la Luère. Brazier transformed it from a wooden bungalow to a restaurant. The Lyon and the Col de la Luère restaurants carried the same menu.
Both became hugely successful, and attracted famous celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich, and French political heavyweights such as Charles De Gaulle and Valèry Giscard d’Estaing. She also received hugely lucrative offers from restaurants such as the Waldorf Astoria in New York City to up sticks and move her skills elsewhere. However, she remained true to Lyon.
In 1933, the prestigious Michelin guidebook awarded both of her restaurants three stars. It was an unparalleled achievement and one not equaled until Chef Alain Ducasse replicated the feat in 1998. She maintained that incredible standard of culinary excellence until 1968, when Michelin demoted her restaurant to 2-stars. Hurt by the snub, she retired just four years later.
Over those years of success, La Mère Brazier was able to bring through her kitchens chefs who would go on to earn considerable renown in their own right, and in the case of one chef, to become the most revered chef in the world.
At the age of 20, just after the end of World War II, Paul Bocuse, came to work for Eugénie Brazier at the restaurant at Col de la Luère. It was here that he was to learn the skills that would see him rise to such an elevated position later in life. He also learned the basics of the hard work of kitchen life. In the forward to her book, he shared stories about the tasks he was given when he first arrived.
“Work was the rule of the house. First to rise, last to sleep, nothing passed her eagle eye. Above all, she wanted everything to be done à la maison, even the electricity—no mean feat, that. So I learned to milk cows, chop wood, garden, do the washing, ironing, look after the wine cellar…the menus hardly ever changed, but were always perfectly executed.”
Oddly, despite his obvious debt to Brazier, Bocuse was to have a rather challenging view towards diversity in his own kitchen, and did not take on a female executive chef until 2013. He once hugely disagreeably declared,
“I’d rather have them in my bed than in my kitchen.”
Despite her success, La Mère Brazier remained modest at heart and turned down the highest French civilian award, “La Legion D’Honneur,” saying it
“should be given out for doing more things than cooking well and doing the job as you’re supposed to.”
A very magnanimous sentiment. But she will always be remembered as a member of “La Legion d’Honneur” in my mind.
Eugénie Brazier had begun to work on a memoir and recipe book before she passed away in 1977. It is then rather shameful, given her contribution, that it was not until 2009 that her family were able to complete the lovely book, “La Secrats de la Mère Brazier,” and it is not until 2014 before the book was translated into English as, “La Mère Brazier: The Mother of Modern French Cooking.”
So if this segment of the episode has intrigued you enough, do think about checking that book out and let’s see if we can return La Mère Brazier to the place in the culinary hierarchy she so richly deserves.
Hi everybody, this is Simon Majumdar, the creator and host of the Eat My Globe food history podcast. Now, those of you have been listening to the podcast since we began almost two years ago – nearly 50 episodes so far – will know that we have never sought out sponsorship for the podcast. It’s very much been a labor of love. However, along the way, a large number of people have approached us suggesting they would like to support the podcast. And so, we have opened up a page on Patreon dot com to allow those of you who listen regularly to do just that. Any support we will get will allow us to purchase research materials, buy ingredients for recipes, and maybe, when we can, get out and about to bring you some very special in-the-field reporting. But, and this is really important. This is not just a one-way street. For varying levels of membership of our Patreon club, there will be access to fantastic Eat My Globe swag, including that incredible chopping board so many of you have written to me about, recipes based on the historical periods about which we chat each week, video shout outs, signed pictures, and even along the way, some very special episodes just for members. So, if you’ve enjoyed the episodes of Eat My Globe you’ve listened to so far, and would like us to make many more into the future, do head over to www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe and consider taking out a membership. Any support will be much appreciated. Remember, that’s www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe. So thank you very much, and keep listening.
For this final entry, I’m going to talk about Malinda Russell, a woman who, after very diligent research at the turn of this new millennium, is now believed to have written the first cookbook by an African American woman.
Until that point, it was believed that Abby Fisher’s very important, “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Soups Pickles, Preserves etc,” published in 1881, was the first cookbook written by an African American woman. That is, until Jan Longone, adjunct curator of the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive in the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Michigan Library, discovered Malinda Russell’s 1866 self-published work, “A Domestic Cookbook Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen.” Russell’s book preceded Fisher’s book by some fifteen years.
Russell and Fisher’s were not the first books authored by African Americans that included recipes. For example, in 1827, a book entitled, “The House Servant’s Directory or A Monitor for Private Families,” authored by Robert Roberts was published. And in 1848, a book called, “Hotel Keepers, Head Waiters, and Housekeepers’ Guide,” authored by one Tunis G. Campbell, was published. However, as I said, Malinda Russell was the first African American to write a dedicated cookbook, and consequently, her importance in culinary history is enormous.
As I mentioned, most of the information on Russell’s life was put together by Jan and Don Longone. It is, to be honest, not a great amount. And, much of it begins with Russell’s own short recounting of her own life in the introduction of her book. It gives us a fascinating look at the situation of the time.
Russell was born in Washington County and raised in Green County, Eastern Tennessee. Russell does not specify the date in her introduction, so we don’t really have a clear picture of her life. Russell’s grandmother,
“was a member of one of the first families set free by Mr. Noddie, of Virginia.”
And Russell adds proudly,
“My mother being born after the emancipation of my grandmother, her children are by law free.”
This gave no doubt to the reader about her status as a free woman of colour.
Russell’s mother died when she was young. At 19, Russell set out to travel to Liberia. Located on the west coast of Africa, Liberia holds the distinction as the continent’s oldest republic, one of a few countries that has never been colonized. In 1821, the American Colonization Society – an organization whose goal was to send emancipated slaves and free African Americans to Africa – established a colony in present day Monrovia, the now capital of Liberia. Around 10,000 African Americans and a few thousand more people from intercepted slave ships coming out of Africa resettled in this area from 1821 to 1867. Liberia proclaimed its independence in 1847.
Unfortunately for Russell, she never made it to Liberia because someone in her traveling party robbed her. Instead, she ended up in Lynchburg, Virginia, which is where she began cooking and acting as a nurse. She faced even more challenges when the husband she met there, Anderson Vaughan, lived only four years after they were wed, leaving her with a child who
“a son, who is crippled; he has the use of but one hand.”
She later returned to Tennessee where she kept a boarding house and ran a pastry shop on Chuckey Mountain, which was, by her own accounts, successful enough to earn her a significant amount of money. Unfortunately, again, this money was stolen from her by, what she calls, a “guerilla party,” who took her money and forced her to leave her home.
Finally, she headed to Paw Paw, Michigan where she published, “A Domestic Cookbook,” in 1866, in part, as she states,
“hoping to receive enough from the sale of it to enable me to return home. I know my book will sell well where I have cooked, and I am sure those using my receipts will be well satisfied.”
It has to be said that Malinda Russell appeared to lead quite a blighted life, as later, in 1866, the town of Paw Paw was largely destroyed in a fire. A fire which is said to have destroyed most copies of her book, after which we have no further record of her life.
We do, however, have her book – 39-pages in all, in which she offers over 200 recipes, which she says
“I learned my trade of FANNY SEWARD, a colored cook, of Virginia, and have since learned many new things in the art of Cooking.
I cook after the plan of ‘The Virginia Housewife.’”
The latter is a reference, no doubt, to the hugely popular and influential cookbook, “The Virginia Housewife, or Methodical Cook,” written by Mary Randolph in 1824.
Russell’s book contains no index and begins with “Rules and Regulations Of the Kitchen.” The recipes are primarily about cakes and pastry. This is unsurprising given that she owned a shop selling the same. They are also straight forward with a list of ingredients and an assumption that the reader will be familiar with most culinary techniques.
She does offer some tips, such as one for making cakes that are light.
“As a great many ladies have wished to know how I have such good success in making my cakes so light, I will say, I first heat the oven hot enough for cooking, set in my cake, and open the door; and for a common sized cake leave the door open for about fifteen minutes, and for a large one, about twenty minutes. When the cake begins to raise, close the door.”
Beyond cakes and pastries, she also offers a few savoury dishes. She offers, amongst others, a recipe for “Forced Steak,” which sounds to me like an early version of a burger.
“Grind the steak through the mill, then put it out into rolls; put into a saucepan one tablespoon lard, seasoning the steak with pepper and salt; add a very little water. Simmer until done, turning often; chop onions fine, laying over the meat; baste the meat with the liquid and onions. When done, make a butter and cream gravy, and serve hot.”
That actually sounds delicious. So if you do try it, let me know.
Russell’s “A Domestic Cookbook” was unearthed in the collection of a California food writer Helen Evans Brown. In 2007, Longone published a short run facsimile of Russell’s work. It was met with considerable interest, in part, because it represented a view of an American society that had not received much attention – that of a free woman of colour in the mid-19th century – and in part, because it was seen by many culinary scholars of African American history as giving a more nuanced look at African American cuisine. It is a cuisine that, to this point, had been viewed almost universally through the lens of “Southern poverty cooking” and the plantation kitchen recipes that were seen in later books, such as the one I mentioned earlier, Abby Fisher’s “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc.” published in 1881.
In a 2007 New York Times article – the same year of the publication of Longone’s facsimile – award-winning food journalist, Toni Tipton Martin, declared it
“an Emancipation Proclamation for black cooks.”
It is unlikely that Malinda Russell had such lofty ambitions for her cookbook in 1866, looking at the time only to earn enough money to return with her son to Tennessee. However, I suspect given her pride at being a free woman of colour, she might have been quietly pleased to see future scholars of African American cuisine considering her work so important.
And that seems like a good place to leave Eat My Globe this week. I hope you liked this episode as a way for us to remember and honor a few incredible and extraordinary trailblazing women who should never be forgotten. If you enjoyed this episode, please do let us know. And if you have any suggestions of other people in the culinary world who should never be forgotten, please also let us know about them too and perhaps we will do this kind of episode again soon.
But for now, I will sip my martini – thanks to Maria the Jewess for her invention that allowed the distillation of gin – while I fondly remember Chicken in Half Mourning, the dish I ate at Paul Bocuse’s restaurant – which was made possible by the huge influence of La Mère Brazier. After that, I’ll have another martini as I ponder on my next meal. Perhaps Hannah Glasse’s Yorkshire pudding, or maybe Malinda Russell’s Forced Steak. The possibilities are endless, thanks to all these amazing women. See you next time folks.
Do make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at www dot Eat My Globe dot com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode, along with the references and resources we used putting the episodes together, in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There is also a contact button, so please do let us know if there are any subjects that you would like us to cover.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
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and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: December 14, 2020
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.