“So, I don’t think this is going the way it’s supposed to,” Abena said to me as we peered into the open oven at my house in Nashville, Tennessee. A slab of beef sat in a pool of thick, custardy batter. Both looked exactly the same as they did an hour ago. We had chosen this recipe from the Historical Cookbook of the American Negro, a 1950s cookbook that was compiled, edited, and dedicated to Black Americans by the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). The “Mugwump in a Hole” recipe, celebrating iconic abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass and his chosen February 14 birthday, was supposed to be both a history project and dinner. But, alas, we stood, bewildered, looking at the disaster of a dish with no idea how to rectify the situation.

We decided to call my grandmother, an 85-year-old white woman in Florida to ask her advice. This was the fourth or fifth time that we called her to consult on this recipe: what cut of meat should we buy? How big should it be? Should we bake the meat before adding the batter? What oven temperature should we use? And now, why in the heck wouldn’t this thing be cooking? Bo, as we call her, ever steady and reassuring, recommended that we increase the oven temperature.

An obscure recipe expedition is perhaps an unusual entry point for an exploration of the value of cookbooks as historical sources. But this interracial, intergenerational, interregional episode, we’d like to think, captures the spirit of the Historical Cookbook of the American Negro, edited by Black activist Sue Bailey Thurman. In this one moment, my tiny kitchen was transformed into a classroom as we laughed through our cooking blunders and discussed the life of Frederick Douglass.

Now, as academic historians, our expected sites of learning can be pretty narrow. Our biggest adventures are often among folders and collections in archives, which is where this project began. While doing research for my dissertation on Sue Bailey Thurman, I stumbled across the cookbook. I flicked through the old pages, meeting vaguely familiar Black historical figures and much less familiar dish recipes. Captivated by the uniqueness of the cookbook’s Black history-centered organization, I called Abena as soon as I could. As a fellow Black women’s historian, I knew she would find it just as intriguing, particularly with her 19th-century focus on many of the figures the cookbook honors. Our conversation darted in every direction: Should we try some of these recipes? Why do they honor the people they honor? Who are some of these people? What a novel tool to teach and learn Black history.

That last bit stuck: a novel tool to teach and learn Black history. Beginning in 2022, we decided that we would get together every week to make one of the recipes from the book. After we made the recipe, we would write about the experience, which often proved to be more comical than successful, and share our knowledge of the historical figure the recipe honored. Here our (ongoing) project was born — Plating the Past: A Year in the NCNW Cookbook. As a digital history project in which our writing can be read by anyone interested, we’re building on the tradition set forth by Thurman and the NCNW in the cookbook.

An Alternative Vision for Black History

The cookbook, a culinary approach to Black history, was published as a fundraiser for the NCNW in 1958. Founded in 1935 by Black educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune, the national organization sought to empower Black women to engage in racial and women’s justice efforts locally and nationally, including voter registration drives, support for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and advocacy for Black women in the military. The cookbook features a crowd-sourced collection of classic and eclectic recipes, but the most unique aspect of the cookbook is that it is built around a calendar of Black history. These include everything from the birthdays of significant figures like Harriet Tubman (March 10, 1822), to the establishment of Black colleges like Howard University (March 2, 1867), and Ghana’s Independence Day (March 6, 1957).

Moving in chronological order from January 1 to December 31, with recipes for a selection of birthdays, anniversaries, and founder’s days, the cookbook set a course for women in the kitchen. After working on a recipe for her family, a woman could sit down with them at the dinner table and discuss the events and people that the recipe honored. Perhaps this was someone familiar to the family, like Bethune, or other lesser-known figures like the founders of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. This not only affirmed Black women’s roles as intergenerational history keepers but also captured the particular intimacy of how we learn about the past.

For many of us, an interest in history is born of a curiosity about ourselves or the stories we’ve heard over and over again at the family dinner table or special events. Who were the people who came before us and how do they help us understand our world? Sue Bailey Thurman and the contributors to the cookbook understood this and captured it by using individual voices to tell these stories.

Intergenerational Learning

To us, some of the recipes appear to be random, with no specific tie to the honoree, but many others were submitted by those who knew that person and perhaps had once shared the dish with them. For example, the recipe in celebration of Harriet Tubman’s March 6 birthday is titled “Our ‘Aunt Harriet’s’ Cornbread.” It is prefaced with reflections from former NCNW President Vivian Carter Mason, who shared the “wonderful privilege it was to have known the famed freedom fighter.” Mason reminisces how Tubman would draw her “to her side,” to tell “hair-raising stories” of escape and rescue. After reaching the happy ending of a successful escape, Mason’s mother would call them to the kitchen where they met a table of “steaming bowls of soup” and “crisp cornbread piled high.” This recipe, an unusually dry cornbread with chunks of “salt pork” (we used bacon) was far from random. It was a passed-on artifact that could be made and remade by anyone to connect them to the iconic Harriet Tubman.

This sustained format throughout the book makes Thurman’s mission as the editor clear: to encourage intergenerational teaching and learning of Black history. The connections between those who submitted recipes, and the historical figures, institutions, and events commemorated, are the clearest examples of this. Mason and others who sent recipes for the cookbook, did not just pass on culinary experiences or expertise, they passed on an opportunity to maintain historical connection with those long gone. Places and people that these women had learned from in their youth, become sage wisdom passed on to yet another generation in their kitchens and around dining tables. This transforms owners of the cookbook into history keepers, tasked with the responsibility of educating the next generation.

Mason’s vignette about Tubman not only brings Black history close, making it deeply personal and making almost mythic figures human, but it also reveals the intimacy and intergenerational connection to history through recipes remembered and shared. Cornbread was intrinsically tied to Mason’s memories of the famed Tubman, and by sharing it in the cookbook, she offers those using it an opportunity to connect with both her and Tubman.

These recipes feel like invitations to an intergenerational dialogue in which we can listen to the stories of those long gone. The very act of making the cornbread Mason remembers reinvigorates the memory and continues this long-passed connection. Despite sourcing ingredients and baking in a completely different context, the cookbook foregrounds an intimate history and allows us to learn more than factoids about Tubman; it allows us to connect with her life and the world she inhabited.

On the other side of this intimacy is the honor and esteem at the center of the historical lesson the authors seek to teach. In the same submission, Mason shares that her parents “loved and revered Harriet Tubman and taught their children to do the same.” This same reverence marks the whole book, with recipe titles being: “In Salutation to Two Distinguished Women’s Colleges,” or “In Honor of … .” Many read like simple toasts: “To Dred Scott,” transforming a simple recipe into a means to offer both honor and celebration to each individual. Thus, not only do Thurman and the women of the NCNW establish a pantheon of “greats” for us to learn about, but they also give us a clear and relational pathway to do so. In a way, making the recipes becomes an ode to the honoree.

For example, when cooking a “scripture cake” to “honor Richard Allen,” the cookbook did not offer a biography of the esteemed founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1794). Instead, each of the ingredients was accompanied by a corresponding Bible verse, a traditional format for a scripture cake. But, reading each verse aloud as we added each ingredient, the baking process became an act of worship that honored both God and the faith legacy of Allen.

In doing so we learned more about Allen than a short biography could offer. Baking transported us into the world of his faith as we flicked through pages of a Bible in the same way he had. This recipe allowed us to engage an artifact of his without entering an archive, and consider the very place Allen learned of the liberationist gospel that saved him, and led him to purchase his freedom and found a multigenerational church that still exists today.

Interracial, Interregional Black History

A special feature of Thurman’s vision of Black freedom, to us, is that it is definitively centered on both internationalism and an interracial coalition. This is reflected in the cookbook as it honors both Black freedom builders as well as their white supporters. There is a section “To honor Lincoln,” featuring a reprint of a section of the Gettysburg Address, as well as “Hartford Specialties Honoring Prudence Crandall,” a white Quaker abolitionist, and a pound cake to honor white abolitionist Lucretia Mott.

While it feels somewhat jarring for the 21st-century reader, we see that Thurman’s vision for Black liberation emphasized this common narrative — a reconciliation of “great spirits” across time. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the inclusion of American presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom were enslavers, yet both recognized in the book. We were surprised to find these figures in a book celebrating Black history, and had to wrestle with it. As we have talked while cooking, we have not entirely squared this circle. But their inclusion has pushed us to consider a different formulation of Black history, one broad enough to encompass the liberatory ideas of those who actively worked against Black liberation. In another way, it fits well with the claims of the Civil Rights Movement, which drew on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to assert rights for Black people in America.

The cookbook is also full of events and contributors that spanned the globe from India to Haiti to Liberia. This global coverage gives us a sense of the women’s understanding of themselves as part of a collective global identity, and the freedom and uplift mission as global, too. Placing this international history alongside the efforts of white abolitionists and achievements of former slaveholding presidents in the 19th century, broadens the scope of collective meaning-making and demonstrates the inextricable nature of Black history and American history. While a modern reader may be distracted by the inclusion of certain figures, the women of the NCNW are making profound claims to a deep and shared history.  A revolutionary argument then and now.

tastes of people and culture

At its core, history and food are the stories of people. Bringing these Black historical figures into conversations taking place in our homes, over generations of cooked dishes, challenges us to recast historical knowledge as something that is fully integrated into our daily lives. It creates an opportunity to reconcile ourselves to those around us by creating an understanding of one’s past and placing our respective pasts into a common narrative. So, the experience of three women, a Black British immigrant (Abena), a white Floridian (Kayleigh), and a white grandmother (Bo) was perhaps exactly what Thurman and the NCNW women had in mind over 60 years ago.

In a cultural moment where Black history is under attack in public school systems across the nation, with over 3,500 book bans in the first half of 2023 alone, this cookbook has shown us another type of classroom: the kitchen. As we continue to reflect on our year with the NCNW cookbook, we are struck by the ways that the project has transformed our own understanding of the ways that we can learn history. Cooking together in this space has given us a more intimate understanding of Black history and also of one another.

And in case you were wondering, the mugwump never cooked.