Food History

Freda DeKnight Was a Pioneer for African-American Cooking

June 14, 2017
Photo by Toni Tipton-Martin

When journalist and culinary historian Donna Battle Pierce made her first batch of banana bread from A Date with a Dish, she could taste her own childhood. It was unlike any other banana bread she had in recent memory, certainly much better than the gracelessly sweet store-bought varieties she was used to. Here, in a cookbook from 1948, Pierce found a banana bread that was tender with a sturdy crumb.

It took her back to her grandmother's kitchen in Mobile, Alabama. Her grandmother told Pierce about the glamorous woman who wrote this recipe, Freda DeKnight. DeKnight, a friend of Pierce’s grandmother, was Ebony’s first food editor in 1944. In 1948, she wrote A Date with a Dish, later renamed The Ebony Cookbook. The book, a compendium of violet-petal cakes and Tamale Pies, is often credited as the first cookbook by an African-American author written with an African-American audience in mind. Though the book remains in print, DeKnight's name has slipped out of the accepted chronicles of American culinary history.

Freda DeKnight's Banana Bread. Photo by Donna Battle Pierce

Pierce has been hard at work on a book about DeKnight’s life for the past few years. A few weeks back, she wrote a piece for NPR’s Food vertical, the Salt, writing about this “hidden figure” of America’s culinary history. The phrase was a nod to the 2016 film about three trailblazing NASA scientists, all black women, who are only now getting their due.

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“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,” Pierce wrote. She was talking about the women from Hidden Figures, to be sure. But she was also talking about DeKnight.


Freda DeKnight was born in 1909. She spent a thoroughly Midwestern childhood split between Kansas, her birthplace; Missouri; and South Dakota. After she studied home economics at South Dakota Wesleyan College, she moved to New York on a whim and began her tenure at Ebony in 1944.

Freda DeKnight. Photo by Donna Battle Pierce

This trajectory created a blueprint for Pierce’s own life: As a young girl, Pierce grew up hearing stories about DeKnight from her grandmothers, both of whom knew DeKnight personally. Where her parents stressed a career in education or medicine, Pierce was attracted to journalism, fashion, and examining black cultural history through its food. DeKnight gave Pierce early courage to pursue these passions of her own.

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“I moved to the Southeast and have recently asked to join my culinary mentors in the kitchen to (finally) continue my education. Your article reminded me of the importance of that commitment.”
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“To me, Freda will always represent a mid-century black woman culinary pioneer and international traveler,” Pierce tells me. She describes how Date with a Dish became an essential text for black Baby Boomers like her growing up in the thick of the Civil Rights era. It was a comforting recipe library during a time when the absence of black faces in media instilled in her a conflicting understanding of her own black identity and its place in an America whose schools were just starting to integrate.

Donna Battle Pierce. Photo by Donna Battle Pierce

When we speak, Pierce stresses how forcefully DeKnight challenged prevailing stereotypes about black cooking in a period when imaginings of black female cooks were steeped in the residue of slave-era America. “Four years ago, the first line in the historical piece I wrote about DeKnight for Repast, a quarterly published by the Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor, says it all for me: Goodbye Mammy, Hello Mom,” Pierce remembers. “This phrase refers to an Ebony headline printed in a 1947 issue describing a “kitchen revolution,” examining racist images and stereotypes such as broad-breasted mammies and adult chefs with child-like grins.”

In this context, the arrival of DeKnight’s A Date With A Dish was a tonic for families like Pierce's. It spoke a confident, intimate vernacular they could relate to. Her mother would consult DeKnight’s book for the recipes she couldn’t find in The Joy of Cooking or one of Betty Crocker’s books, leafing through its pages for gumbos and oven-fried oysters.

DeKnight's recipes were passed among the women of Pierce's family like heirlooms. Pierce got the idea for a book on DeKnight from her Aunt Lya, who sent Pierce all the hand-written and passed-down clippings of DeKnight's recipes she had, making Pierce swear to share them with the next generation. “Aunt Lya has always been fond of reminding me that good cooks don’t die,” Pierce says to me. “Through the family dishes they pass down, they live forever.”

Pierce remembers standing tippy-toed near her mother’s elbow in the kitchen helping her cook from A Date with a Dish. This became something of a routine mother-daughter activity, and they ended with the same refrain: “You can tell by the recipes that this is a cookbook by a someone who looks like us. Mrs. DeKnight is a well-educated woman,” Pierce's mother would tell her, before her voice lowered into a whisper. “And she’s also a friend of the family.”


Photo by Toni Tipton-Martin

DeKnight died in 1963, 15 years after publishing her cookbook, following a three-year battle with cancer. She was 54. DeKnight now joins the ever-swelling list of black women whose contributions to the culinary sphere are, at long last, being reevaluated and situated more firmly in their eras. This is due almost entirely to the work of scholars like Pierce.

Still, most people don't know DeKnight's name. This is the more disquieting truth Pierce has encountered in the course of her research: As she has travelled to South Dakota and other locations where DeKnight lived and worked, she’s often been surprised by how few people are aware of DeKnight’s significance. When I ask her about the challenges she’s encountered so far, she tells me she’s glad that she began this project when she did. Most of the people who knew DeKnight are no longer alive today. She’s also been saddened by how little was written about her in national cooking magazines and columns outside of black-owned media, for white readers to note while she was alive.

Photo by Donna Battle Pierce

“A framed clipping with DeKnight’s photograph sits next to my computer every day as I write,” she says. “I say thank you daily to that picture.” She hopes her book, once she sees it to fruition later this year, will have a tangible impact and introduce DeKnight's work to a new audience entirely. When she wrote her piece, Pierce pointed out that DeKnight didn’t even have a Wikipedia page, "that most basic of 21st century acknowledgements." Days after the article went live, though, DeKnight finally got one.

This article was originally published in March.

Read more about Pierce's scholarship on Freda DeKnight here. Copies of A Date with a Dish can be found on Amazon.

19 Comments

Tony Q. July 18, 2017
I love cooking different dishes as a hobby and I also love the history and evolution of food and how reflexes the changes in our culture, this article is great and I will add this good book to my collection. Thanks
 
Cassandra B. June 15, 2017
I'm looking forward to finding these books!
 
XenaB March 20, 2017
Thanks for these thoughtful pieces that shed light on American history and food.
 
Brittany March 4, 2017
I really enjoyed this article and am so appreciative of the thought and care placed into writing it. Keep up the great work!
 
Lynn D. March 3, 2017
I am a 70 year old white woman who grew up on the East Coast, Chicago, and St. Paul, Minnesota. I distinctly remember the original 1948 edition of A Date with a Dish in my mothers breakfast nook bookshelf in St. Paul. I'm curious now as to how she acquired the book. My father worked in advertising on the East Coast (he was a real Don Draper) and may have gotten the book through connections he made placing ads in Ebony Magazine. The year we lived in Chicago, we had a black woman named Pearl help in the house. Could she have given it to us? Or was it just the general Midwestern connection? I would never have remembered all this except for your article. I'm going to order the reprint!
 
Ben M. March 3, 2017
I love these type of articles. Keep up the good work.
 
La'Chia March 2, 2017
Articles like this have been such a great addition to Food52!
 
freshbread June 19, 2017
Yes! I couldn't agree more -- with you and Ben McCulloch (above). Food isn't just tasty: it's a fascinating and useful lens through which to rediscover the past, and Mayukh's articles are wonderful demonstrations of this. In addition to this piece, I appreciated his recent ones on Princess Pamela and the colonial roots of French cuisine.
 
Barney S. March 2, 2017
Far from being out of print, Dover Publications has at least a 2014 printing... http://store.doverpublications.com/0486492761.html
 
Author Comment
Mayukh S. March 3, 2017
Barney, you're right! And I'm silly. I'll clarify that in the text.
 
monkeymom March 2, 2017
So interesting! Possible to get that banana bread recipe?
 
Author Comment
Mayukh S. March 2, 2017
Good news, monkeymom—it's on Google Books! https://books.google.com/books?id=YrrFAgAAQBAJ&pg=PA249&lpg=PA249&dq=banana+bread+freda+deknight&source=bl&ots=U6tt5rOHLS&sig=OIZyIufoqIrWPk0xsCrrmT8mmGk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiYv9X2vrjSAhVHxFQKHcesAdEQ6AEIODAF#v=onepage&q=banana%20bread%20freda%20deknight&f=false
 
monkeymom March 2, 2017
Thank you!!!! I have mushy bananas ready to go!
 
Effie March 2, 2017
Thank you for this article. and I appreciate your writing. <br />Years ago when I was a newlywed, I invested it Ms. Delight's book. Although it is my culture, I didn't know how to prepare soul food. Ms. Delight's book was a wonderful introduction. I'm sad to say I lost the book and I'm still not an expert in soul food preparation, despite mastering other cuisines. <br />I moved to the Southeast and have recently asked to join my culinary mentors in the kitchen to (finally) continue my education. Your article reminded me of the importance of that commitment.
 
Effie March 2, 2017
Correction- Ms DeKnight....Autocorrect is evil.
 
Author Comment
Mayukh S. March 2, 2017
Thanks for sharing this memory, Effie.
 
Whiteantlers March 2, 2017
Thank you for another outstanding article.
 
Author Comment
Mayukh S. March 2, 2017
Thanks as always, Whiteantlers! :)
 
C.Underhill June 18, 2017
Mayukh Sen,<br />You have been added to my hero crew👍🏾.<br />Thank you for showcasing Ms. Freda DeKnight. Our great chefs, cooks and what we call down home " throw cooks" don't receive a lot of acknowledgment from other cook communities. Bless you and I bet you can cook, too.<br />Go head on with your bad self. 😊