Abby Fisher, the unbeaten cook of San Francisco who made history publishing a cookbook in 1880s

Stephen Nartey January 13, 2023
Image via Racing Nellie Bly

The secret to her success as an award-winning Southern chef lies in her recipes. Her meals were tasty and had their own uniqueness. Many wanted to know what made Abby Fisher’s meals extraordinary.

The requests and questions were what led Fisher to become the second Black woman in America to publish a cookbook in the 1880s. Her name became a household brand in the 1970s in San Francisco.

Fisher was an enslaved African American who spent her formative years on a South Carolina plantation. Born in 1831 to an enslaved woman and a white farmer, she never had the opportunity to access formal education, therefore, she could not read or write, according to kqed.

But, when the time came for Fisher to write about her recipe, her illiteracy never became a hurdle. She dictated her recipe to nine friends and associates who drafted everything she said. When her book ‘What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Souther Cooking’ was published in 1881 by the Women’s Cooperative Printing Office, what she dictated was no different from what was printed.

Historical accounts say that Fisher worked in the plantation kitchen and rose to become an expert in Southern cooking. She eked out a living from her cooking skills and raised her family from the money she made from her meals.

It is uncertain when she gained her freedom but she was married to Alexander Fisher in Mobile, Alabama in the late 1850s before the Civil War started. Alexander was also raised as an enslaved African American on a plantation. Like his wife, he never had formal education and was also mixed race. They had four children and with time relocated to Missouri and ended up in California.

Before Fisher published her cookbook, she and Alexander had more children in addition. Fisher’s recipes earned her many laurels. In 1879, the Sacramento State Fair awarded her their “Diploma”. She won two medals – “Best Pickles and Sauces” and “Best Assortment of Jellies and Preserves” – at the San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute Fair in 1880.

It was uncertain when Fisher died but little was heard of her meals after the 1906 earthquake and the fire disaster that razed parts of San Francisco. She emerged again in the public spotlight when a copy of her cookbook came up for an auction in Sotheby’s in 1984. It was reprinted the following year and in 1995 again.

Fisher’s legacy, according to historians, goes beyond publishing “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking”. They say she prevailed against challenges and rose to become a significant personality in the South.

One hundred and forty years on, her recipe continues to represent the ideals of determination and unbridled talent.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: January 13, 2023


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