Wake County

Black History Month celebration shines spotlight on first African-American cookbook author

Food historian Clarissa Clifton Lynch could be seen walking the halls of the N.C. History Museum on Saturday sporting a red-and-white button that proclaimed: “Ask me about Malinda Russell.”

If you had asked her, or if you had attended Lynch’s talk Saturday afternoon, you would have learned that Russell was the first African-American to write a cookbook.

Lynch said Russell is important for a couple of reasons. First, her story, as well as the cookbook she self-published in 1866, were forgotten until it was discovered at the the dawn of this century. Second, her cookbook shatters the stereotypes of African-American cooks of her era.

Instead of “Southern poverty food” such as cornbread and vegetables cooked in pork fat, the 265 recipes in Russell’s cookbook are more refined.

“Instead of fried catfish, she does a catfish fricassee,” said Lynch. “Instead of a pound cake, it’s a lemon cake. ... She cooks on a higher level.”

Shining a spotlight on such forgotten figures was part of the mission of the 16th African American Cultural Celebration at the museum, which was held Saturday as a kickoff to Black History Month in February. This year’s event featured a cultural melange that included more than 75 performers and artists, as well as presenters who gave educational and historical talks.

Gov. Roy Cooper, in brief opening remarks to the crowd packed into the museum’s lobby, noted that the African-American experience is remarkable because it has been “a struggle over the years but it also has been an incredible triumph.” It is important for young people, Cooper added, to know about both the tribulations and the successes.

That’s why Steven Corzine, 44, a chef who lives in Raleigh, dragged his 13-year-old daughter Zola Cofield to the event.

“I think it’s important for every child to know their heritage, know their culture,” he said.

Moreover, he noted, some pieces of African-American history have been ignored.

“It’s important to learn the little tidbits that are kept out of the history books,” he said. “We have made great contributions that have gone unnoticed.”

The struggles of African-Americans were uppermost in the mind of Brenda S. Williamson, 65, a retired substitute teacher who lives in Raleigh, as she quietly sang along with a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by vocalist Sandra Dubose.

“I have sung that song often. I have known the words to that song since I was 10 or 11 years old,” Williamson said. “And it moved me to tears.

“Maybe,” she continued, “it’s because of the climate we live in today. The possibility, the probability, (that we are) going back from where we have come – not just for black people but the nation.”

Williamson said that, given developments at the state and national levels, she fears a return to “the hatred I knew as a kid” when people had “the boldness to say, we have come to put you in your place.”

The theme of Saturday’s event was “The Shoulders We Stand On.”

“It represents the continuity of our heritage,” said Valerie Ann Johnson, chair of the N.C. African American Heritage Commission. “We stand on the shoulders of people who came before us, and we become the shoulders that others stand upon.”

David Ranii: 919-829-4877, @dranii