Freda DeKnight: A 'Hidden Figure' And Titan Of African-American Cuisine
"It is not an accident that there is a blackout on the Black man's contributions in America."
Dr. Melvin Chapman (1928-2015), educator, Detroit, Mich.
Inside the dark theater, during a recent showing of Hidden Figures, the pioneering food journalist and cookbook writer Freda DeKnight came to mind several times. The Oscar-nominated film highlights the lives of three African-American women whose brilliant mathematical contributions to NASA and the Apollo program were left out of most magazines, news reports and books that covered the U.S. space program.
As a Baby Boomer, born the decade following their amazing accomplishments, I felt betrayed by national media when I first discovered that their brilliance had been concealed from me during a time when I needed it most. I grew up during a decade my parents described as the "tough, but necessary path of integration" in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
Later, when my friend referred to the purposeful leaving out of African-American accomplishments as a "separate and unequal" approach to American history, she mentioned a plan. "Our job isn't done until we pull every 'hidden figure' out of the American history closet," she said, adding that we should each dig deeper into our field of expertise. Which is why, as an African-American food journalist, I am concerned about culinary "hidden figures." So I'll begin with this question: What do you know about Freda DeKnight?
Born in 1909, DeKnight spent much of her 54 years collecting, protecting and celebrating African-American culture and traditions in the years after World War II up to the civil rights movement. Yet her name has been all but forgotten – she doesn't even have that most basic of 21st century acknowledgements, a Wikipedia page.
As the first food editor for Ebony magazine, DeKnight wrote a photo-driven monthly column that offered her home economist's tips, as well as regional recipes from the "Negro community" of home cooks, professional chefs, caterers, restaurateurs and celebrities.
The column in Ebony's 1947 February issue, for instance, featured the singer and actress Lena Horne wearing a prim, Swiss-dotted, ruffled apron and preparing what DeKnight described as "an exotic Oriental dish ... East Indian chicken." The dish was actually a taste of the broader African diaspora: It was from Trinidad, whose melting pot cuisine reflects a population that includes both descendants of African slaves and of Indians brought over as indentured servants.
Instead of the traditional recipe format, directions appeared as photo captions. "Lena adds a dash more curry to suit her taste," read one caption, for a photo showing Horne taking a test sip from a spoon above a large pot. (It also included a plug for her film Till the Clouds Roll By.)
This was one of the many ways in which DeKnight presented a more nuanced and often glamorous image of African-American cooking and culture — not just to African-American readers, but to the broader world.
"Freda DeKnight was one of the first who brought international attention to African-American food. ... She was a trailblazer," says Jessica Harris – herself a respected trailblazer: an educator, culinary historian and author of a dozen books about African-American culture.
Ebony was read not just in the United States but also in Europe, Africa and the Caribbean — "especially as the Civil Rights movement burgeoned and grew with international repute," says Harris.
DeKnight's "work with Ebony brought our dishes to a larger world, and their dishes to us," she says.
In 1948, DeKnight published her only cookbook, A Date With A Dish: A Cookbook of American Negro Recipes. It is considered the first major cookbook written by an African-American for an African-American audience. It showcased a wide variety of recipes from "Negro households," from Tamale Pie — which DeKnight described as "fitting in these days when California and Mexico are in the spotlight" – to filet mignon; from Shortnin' Bread to Key Lime Pie.
By documenting the breadth and depth of African-American culinary know-how, DeKnight challenged the stereotypes of what black cooking could be. Published seven years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, and 16 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, A Date With A Dish was a powerful affirmation of black culture. As DeKnight wrote in the preface:
"It is a fallacy, long disproved, that Negro cooks, chefs, caterers and homemakers can adapt themselves only to the standard Southern dishes, such as fried chicken, greens, corn pone and hot breads. 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, whether it is Spanish, Italian, French, Balinese or East Indian in origin."
The book became a national best-seller.
I grew up in the 1950s and '60s in a family of black physicians and educators. DeKnight knew both of my grandmothers socially. And both my Granny and Gran used to say that, compared to other black cookbooks, which they described as a folksy approach for white households employing black cooks, A Date With a Dish was the first to "represent the race with dignity ... deliciously."
DeKnight's culinary ambitions were rooted in her upbringing. She was born in Kansas, a generation after a great wave of African-Americans known as the Exodusters left the South post-Civil War and migrated into Kansas. Her father, a Topeka, Kansas-based Pullman steward, died when she was 2. Her mother, a traveling nurse, moved DeKnight and her sister to Mitchell, S.D., to live with family. DeKnight grew up in the farm home of Paul and Mamie Scott, a couple who ran a successful catering company in town. DeKnight later credited the Scotts with setting her down her future career path.
"The Scotts were the inspiration for my early cooking aspirations, which gave me every opportunity to absorb all of their fine recipes and rudiments of cooking, preparing food and catering," DeKnight wrote in The Collector's Corner, a section of the cookbook that showcased recipes curated from "Negroes all over the country" – from caterers in Philadelphia to home cooks in Arkansas and celebrity cooks in California. Each recipe was accompanied by a short biography of the cook. (The Scotts were among those featured.)
The Collector's Corner showcased recipes from many regions of the U.S., such as Mama Scott's Bechamel Sauce, Effie Jenkins' Mexican Shrimp, Fred Knight's Lobster Newburg and Charlie Saunder's Hot Water Cornbread. (Indeed, the cookbook includes no less than 15 different recipes for cornbread – a reflection, perhaps, of DeKnight's upbringing in a town where corn was a critical part of the local economy.) But, as DeKnight wrote, all the dishes included were stirred with "Negro culture."
Sadly, only the 1948 edition of A Date With A Dish included The Collector's Corner. The section was left out of the subsequent 1962, 1973 and 1978 editions of the cookbook, which was rebranded as The Ebony Cookbook. It's the 1948 edition that remains the most significant, becoming an heirloom, passed down through generations of black families and described by today's black food writers and historians as among the most transformative recipe collections published in the 20th century.
"Freda DeKnight was a pioneer in translating the Ebony message of middle-class education, intelligence and dignity to the recipes she shared in her columns and cookbook," says Charlotte Lyons, who was an Ebony food editor for 25 years, from 1985 to 2010.
DeKnight didn't limit her celebration of African-American culture to the culinary world. She rose to the position of home service director at Johnson Publishing, home of Ebony. And in 1957, she staged the first Ebony Fashion Fair, "stirring Negro culture" into international haute couture.
She appeared frequently on television, demonstrating recipes like violet-petal cake, and scouted the country for models for the pages of Ebony. (Among her discoveries: a young Diahann Carroll.) In 1960, she underwent surgery for cancer. Still, she continued to travel with the fashion fair until 1962, when advancing illness left her increasingly weakened. She died in January 1963 at age 54.
DeKnight's obituary appeared in the August 1963 issue of Negro Digest. It was titled "Tribute To A Lady Titan." Noting her role in revamping the image of African-Americans in the public sphere, the writer called DeKnight "a familiar figure at professional food and fashion gatherings where Negroes had been seen before only as servants." She opened the door to career choices for future generations.
Because she wasn't a hidden figure for me, I'm certain childhood memories of DeKnight's A Date With A Dish column and cookbook – my own copy passed down from my grandmother -- had much to do with me choosing a career in writing about the importance of saving family recipes, and my deep appreciation of Black American foodways in particular.
Donna Battle Pierce is a journalist and food columnist based in Chicago. She is currently writing a book on Freda DeKnight.
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