With February being National Black History Month, five more-than-century-old cookbooks by African-Americans from The Feeding America Project of Michigan State University Libraries will be featured.

This week’s featured book is The House Servant’s Directory, by Robert Roberts, printed in 1827.

The author is apparently well-educated; a dictionary would be handy to have nearby. From the book’s foreword - "The publishers have in some sort amended the orthography and punctuation; otherwise the book is printed from the author’s notes, ‘verbatim et literatim.’ No apology is necessary for thus presenting it, as the perceptions of some of its intended readers are a little obtuse…"

It appears several terms have dropped away from the general lexicon. "Esquimaux" was tracked down, but "Kamschadale" has defied a clear answer; anyone with a good description is invited to share it.

The book’s introduction at the Feeding America Project Website, best describes this first-of-its-kind book, which could be a manual for life rather than a source of household information. The URL for the Feeding America Project is:


Quoted information is from the Feeding America Project and essays by Jan Longone, Curator of American Culinary History, Clements Library, University of Michigan.

"Feeding America project is an online collection of some of the most important and influential American cookbooks from the late 18th to early 20th century. The digital archive includes page images of 76 cookbooks from the MSU Library’s collection as well as searchable full-text transcriptions. This site also features a glossary of cookery terms and multidimensional images of antique cooking implements from the collections of the MSU Museum."

"[The House Servant’s Directory] is an American milestone. It is the first book of any kind written by an African-American to have been published in the United States by a major publisher.

"It was first published in Boston in 1827 and had two additional printings, one in 1828 and another in 1843. It is a fascinating work, more a household manual than a cookbook, although it contains recipes…

"Roberts was butler and major domo in the household of the Honorable Christopher Gore, Senator and Governor of Massachusetts.

"The book in no way reflects African-American cooking; it is a solid New England work - proper management of an upper-class New England household.

"It gives advice to servants on how to behave, how to perform their work, and how to utilize the variety of new household utensils and equipment then becoming increasingly available.

"Roberts comments on the responsibilities of the employer but is generally more interested in teaching servants how to act. His work is one of the first to help encourage young Black men to become the finest of professional house servants. He offers specific and detailed suggestions to them to ensure their advancement and tenure."

I found the book to be a good read even without looking for recipes; Roberts’ instructions often have the ring of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes:

"If you hope to gain the esteem and respect of others, and the approbation of your own heart, be respectful and faithful to your superiors, obliging and good-natured to your fellow-servants, and charitable to all."

"Let your character be remarkable for industry and moderation; your manners and deportment, for modesty and humility; and your dress distinguished for simplicity, frugality and neatness; if you outshine your companions in finery, you will most inevitably excite their envy, and make them your enemies."

"Do every thing at the proper time."

"Keep every thing in its proper place."

"Use every thing for its proper purpose."

"Never think any part of your business too trifling to be well done."

"A rolling stone never gathers moss."

"Honesty is the best policy."

"A still tongue makes a wise head."

"Saucy answers are highly aggravating, and serve no good purpose…

"Muttering on leaving the room, or slamming the door after you, is as bad as an impertinent reply; it is, in fact, showing that you would be impertinent if you dared."

Two of the featured cookbooks are available for purchase from MSU as reprints:

Good Things to Eat, 1911, by Rufus Estes - http://amzn.to/1nwus0y

What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old South Cooking, 1878, - http://amzn.to/1ihoKwb


Some selections from The House Servant’s Directory:

A MOST DELICIOUS SALAD SAUCE, BY J.R.W. - Take the yolks of four hard-boiled eggs, rub them through a sieve, and add to them one teaspoonful of salt, mix well up, then add two tablespoonful of made mustard, stir well up, then add by one spoonful at each time, six spoonfuls of salad oil; mix this well together until it becomes as smooth as mustard, then put in one teaspoonful of anchovy sauce, and one gill of cream or new milk, and stir well together; and last of all put in by degrees some good vinegar; I don’t state the quantity of this, as some is much stronger than others, this must lay in your own taste. Should you make it too sharp with vinegar, add one tablespoonful of fine white sugar in powder, this will soften it, and give it an excellent flavour. Bottle it for use. This will keep for any length of time, in the hottest weather; and is excellent with any kind of salad or boiled slaw, and is a fine relish with fish. Shake it well up before you put it on your salad.

A MOST DELICIOUS LEMONADE, TO BE MADE THE DAY BEFORE WANTED – Take and pare two dozen of good sized lemons as thin as you possibly can; put eight of the rinds into three quarts of hot water, but not boiling, cover it close over for four hours, then rub some sugar to the rinds to attract the essence, and put it into a bowl, and into which squeeze the juice of the lemons; to which add one pound and a half of fine sugar, then put the water to the above, and three quarts of boiling milk, mix and run through a jelly bag until clear; bottle it, if you choose, and cork close; this will be most excellent, and will keep.

ANOTHER EXCELLENT LEMONADE, BY R.R., THE AUTHOR OF THIS BOOK – Take one gallon of water, put to it the juice of ten good lemons, and the zeasts of six of them likewise, then add to this one pound of sugar, and mix it well together, strain it through a fine strainer, and put it in ice to cool; this will be a most delicious and fine lemonade.

TO CURE THOSE THAT ARE GIVEN TO DRINK - Put, in a sufficient quantity of rum, brandy, gin, or whatever liquor the person is in the habit of drinking, three large live eels, which leave until quite dead, give this liquor unawares to those you wish to reform, and they will get so disgusted against it, that, though they formerly liked it, they will now have quite an aversion to it afterwards; this I have seen tried and have the good effect on the person who drank it.

A COOLING CINNAMON WATER IN HOT WEATHER – Boil one gallon of water, pour it into a gallon demijohn, set this before the fire, then put into it twelve cloves, two ounces of whole cinnamon, then stop up your bottle and put it in a cool place; when you want to mix your liquor, put half a pint into two quarts of water, with one quarter of a pound of sugar; cool it in ice before you serve it, and it is a most wholesome and delicious drink as you can take in hot weather.

[Here is one that I have tried, reduced by half, and got very nice results. Be sure to find more information and precautions before trying to make fermented beverages.]

TO MAKE GINGER BEER, FOR TEN GALLONS – Take ten gallons of water, one quart of molasses, ten good lemons cut in slices, ten ounces of bruised ginger, the whites of eight eggs well beaten, mix all well together, boil it for half an hour, skim it before it boils, add half an ounce of isinglass, and one pint of yeast; add the yeast when milk warm, leave the bung open for it to ferment; when done, stop it tight to keep, or you may bottle it after six days. You must tie the corks with twine, and put it in a cool place.

TO PRESERVE APPLES FOR THE YEAR ROUND - Put them in casks in layers of dry sand; let the sand be perfectly dry, and each layer being covered keeps them from the air, from moisture, from frost, and from perishing, as the sand absorbs their moisture, which generally perishes them; pippins have often been kept in this manner until mid-summer, and were as fresh then as when put in.

TO MAKE A BEAUTIFUL FLAVOURED PUNCH - Take one dessert-spoonful of acid salt of lemon, half a pound of good white sugar, two quarts of real boiling water, one pint of Jamaica rum, and half a pint of brandy, add some lemon peel or some essence of lemon, if agreeable, four drops of the essence is enough; then pour it from one pitcher to another twice or thrice to mix it well. This will be a most delicious and fine flavoured punch.