Mrs. Fisher’s “Plantation Corn Bread or Hoe Cake,” Or A Brief Introduction to a Real-Life Black Female Food Figure You Should Know About
The recent decision of the Quaker company to rebrand the Aunt Jemima line of products to remove the name and image on their branding, which they have acknowledged is a racist legacy from slavery and Jim Crow, has caused quite a bit of controversy. One of the criticisms of this decision hinges on the idea that Aunt Jemima – specifically the woman it portrays – has become symbolic of comfort breakfast food in the American mind. Some of those who oppose the decision even argue that erasing Aunt Jemima from these products is akin to erasing the contribution of Black women to American cuisine.
While the former is true despite the racist origins of the whole thing, the latter is arguable and, quite frankly, smoke and mirrors. Like Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima is a fictional character specifically designed to sell a product, yet no one would argue that Betty Crocker alone represents the contribution of white women to American cuisine.
For that we look to real-life women, the likes of Irma S. Rombauer, Julia Child, Alice Waters, Martha Stewart, and, if you are a food history nerd like me, Amelia Simmons.1
I won’t go into the history of the Mammy trope that Aunt Jemima is based on here – which is a significant point of difference between Aunt Jemima and Betty Crocker – , there are plenty of other readings out there, both academic and popular, that do just that in excellent ways.
Instead, I am going to introduce you to a real-life Black American woman who, until the rediscovery of a different book from 1866, was credited with having been the first African-American to publish a cookbook.2
Her name was Abby Fisher and her cookbook is titled What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking.
She published the book in 1881, but it was not rediscovered, as it were, until 1984. Then, Karen Hess, the great culinary historian, republished the original with some notes in the mid 1990s.
The fact these cookbooks by Black women – the first two cookbooks of their kind in the history of this country – were “lost” and rediscovered much later is in itself telling of how American culture has ignored the culinary contributions of Black women, which makes the sudden outrage some people are displaying over the “erasure” of Aunt Jemima all the more performative.
It is not about erasure, not really.
Fisher herself was born, presumably enslaved, in South Carolina in 1832. Like Amelia Simmons, the author of the first cookbook written and published in the United States, she was illiterate and supported herself by cooking in rich white people’s kitchens. This, minus the illiteracy, was the way many black women earned a living until not that long ago, relatively speaking. There is a good body of literature about this out there.3.
Given that this post was inspired by a controversy over a pancake and syrup brand, it seemed only fitting that I should make a breakfast recipe.
Fisher’s book is divided into sections, and breakfast is the first. In that section, there is a recipe called “Plantation Corn Bread or Hoe Cake.”
Hoe cakes today are nothing like the hoe cakes of the 19th century. Whereas today cooks add flour, eggs, sugar, etc., historically hoe cakes have been composed of little more than cornmeal and water.
In fact, that is exactly how Indigenous people, who were eating these corn patties before colonization, prepared them, although they wouldn’t be called hoe cakes until much, much later.
By the 18th century, hoe cakes like these were ubiquitous as food for enslaved people and their enslavers alike. George Washington, lore has it, was quite fond of them.
Mrs. Fisher’s recipe is not quite as stripped down as cornmeal and water, but it’s not far from it:
Plantation Corn Bread or Hoe Cake
Half of a tablespoonful of lard to a pint of meal, one teacup of boiling water; stir well and bake on a hot griddle. Sift in meal one teaspoonful of soda.4
First, the measurements. This really is not an exact science, so I took her amounts literally except for the water, as you’ll see below. Two pints is just about 2 cups. One teacup, which is equal to 5 fluid ounces, however, was not enough.
The consistency of the batter needs to be that of a thick pancake batter, and 5 fl oz barely made the cornmeal wet.
For the cornmeal, I used the finely stone ground yellow kind, but the color doesn’t matter.
Here is the recipe as I made it:
Plantation Corn Bread or Hoe Cake
2 cups stone ground cornmeal
1 tbsp lard, plus more for frying
1 tsp baking soda
2 cups boiling water (may add 1 or 2 more tbsp if too thick)
In a large bowl, combine the cornmeal, 1 tbsp of lard and baking soda. Slowly, add the boiling water while mixing.
The mixture should be the consistency of thick pancake batter.
Heat a cast iron or other heavy skillet over medium heat and add a tablespoon of lard for frying.
When the lard is hot, drop the batter into the skillet by the large spoonful, spreading it as thin as you can, and fry until golden brown at the bottom. Flip the cakes and fry the other side.
Repeat until you have cooked all the batter.
These were good, but do not expect the mouthfeel and consistency of pancakes for pancakes they are not. Instead, it is a bit like eating fried soft polenta.
It is very important that the water be boiling when you start adding it to the cornmeal. The boiling water will make it so that the cornmeal absorbs the water and starts to cook, which is necessary since the skillet time is pretty short.
A note on the lard. The lard that you find in supermarkets today, when you find it, is a hydrogenated version of lard, meant to be solid at room temperature and has trans-fatty acids. Good old fashioned lard, without all the processing, can be found at farmers markets occasionally, but I get mine from Fannie and Flo. The quality is top notch.
And don’t be afraid of lard, it is not the antithesis of health it has come to be seen as, unless it has those pesky trans-fatty acids, anyway.
Historically, people ate these hoe cakes in a variety of ways, including on their own, with soups, with jams, honey, molasses, etc.
George Washington, for instance, liked his hoe cakes swimming in butter and honey.
I chose to eat mine with maple syrup, but you may try them with a fried egg and bacon, or whatever you want, really.
Unlike in most of my other posts, the recipe in this post was incidental to the topic I really want to cover, which is the acknowledgement and recognition of real-life Black women’s contribution to the culinary history of the United States while we, as a society, let go of racialized caricatures of those women that we have collectively accepted as a substitute for the real people.
If you are arguing that the rebranding of Aunt Jemima erases these contributions, turn your anger into learning. Read Fisher’s book and cook from it, do the same with the books of other black women both historical and modern alike; there are many. Learn about the roots of Southern cooking and its enormous African-American influence. Read food writing by Black writers. Eat at Black-owned restaurants.
But don’t insist on living with a Black Mammy on your kitchen shelves.
1. There is some controversy over whether Simmons was a real person or someone’s pseudonym. This is based on the fact that we have yet to find any evidence of her in the historical record aside from her book, American Cookery. However, as every historian knows, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
2. This 1866 book is titled A Domestic Cookbook, written by Malinda Russell.
3. See, for example, Rebecca Sharpless, Cooking in other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010) and Katherine Van Wormer, The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012).
4. Abby Fisher, What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking (San Francisco: Women’s Co-operative Printing Office, 1881), 11.