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Mrs. Fisher Pens a Cookbook

Shows a red book cover bearing the title "What Mrs. Fisher knows About Old Southern Cooking"
Front Cover of “What Mrs. Fisher Knows.” Courtesy of California State Library.

Alexander and Abby Clifton Fisher come to San Francisco in 1877.

In 1879, Abby Fisher is presented the highest award at the State Fair in Sacramento for her pickles, sauces and preserves. One year later at the Mechanics Institute Fair, she wins a a bronze medal for best pickles and sauces, and a silver medal for best assortment of jellies and preserves. 

In 1881, with a little help from her San Francisco friends, Abby Fisher publishes the first known cookbook by a Black woman west of the Mississippi.

(The  Domestic Cook Book by Malinda Russell is published in Michigan in 1866.)

Born into slavery in South Carolina in or around 1831, Abby Clifton Fisher is the daughter of Abbie Clifton, an enslaved woman, and Andrew James, a white farmer. While living in Mobile, Alabama in the 1850s she meets her husband, Alexander Fisher.

After migrating to California, Abby finds work as a cook and caterer for San Francisco’s Gold Rush- minted upper crust. 

In 1880, the mother of 11 children is listed in Langley’s San Francisco Business Directory as Mrs. Abbie Fisher, pickle manufacturer, at 202 Dupont Street. (After the 1906 earthquake, Dupont is renamed Grant Avenue).

Central scene of San Francisco surrounded by 22 vignettes of buildings with captions below each building. Central scene shows a panorama of San Francisco from a position west of Powell Street between Sacramento and California Streets looking towards the bay; strolling couples and lush vegetation in foreground.
San Francisco, 1874 [2002-0279] California State Library

Fisher is urged by her friends and clients to publish a cookbook.

“Not being able to read or write myself … caused me to doubt whether I would be able to present a work that would give perfect satisfaction,” Fisher says in the “Preface and Apology” of her cookbook.

“But after due consideration, I concluded to bring forward a book of my knowledge based on an experience of upwards of 35 years in the art of cooking soups, gumbos, terrapin stews, meat stews, baked and roast meats, pastries, pies and biscuits, making jellies, pickles, sauces, ice creams and jams, preserving fruits, etc. The book will be found a complete instructor so that a child can understand it and learn the art of cooking.”

Respectfully – Abby C. Fisher

Fisher dictates her recipes to her female friends among San Francisco’s social elite. What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking is published in 1881 by the Women’s Co-operative Printing Union of San Francisco, an entity fostered by suffragist and publisher Emily Pitts Stevens.

Page One; Recipe One, California State Library

The 72-page book’s 160 recipes range from pickled peaches and plantation corn bread to oyster croquettes and wild duck.

Says the Smithsonian, Mrs. Fisher creates “the canonical early cookbook by a black author.”

A few sample recipes:


TOP PHOTO: Front Cover of “What Mrs. Fisher Knows.” Courtesy of California State Library.