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Freda DeKnight Was a Pioneer for African-American Cooking

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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.
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.

“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.
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.

“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.
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.

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Tags: Books, Black History