Abby Fisher (also sometimes referred to as Abbie in early documents) is a sometimes-lesser-known, but still hugely important figure of Southern cuisine that most researchers would consider historically enigmatic. Even among those who’ve studied Southern and African American culinary history tirelessly, still a great deal of mystery remains. While there’s so much that we don’t know about this driven and uniquely talented woman, with what little we do know, it’s impossible to be unimpressed.
We know that Abby was born in 1831 and died sometime between 1910 and 1920; buried in Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in California. We also know that in 1881 Abby became the creator of one of the first cookbooks authored by an African American woman at 49 years old: What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking. A huge personal achievement; especially considering that Abby had received no formal education and was formerly enslaved in South Carolina until sometime after the end of the Civil War in 1865 - just 16 years prior to the release of her book.
In the afterword of Mrs. Fisher’s cookbook, Food Historian Karen Hess writes that, “For many years, all we knew about Abby Fisher was what we could learn from her work, beginning with the fact that she had clearly long been steeped in the best traditions of Southern cookery and was a fine practitioner, so recognized in her day … she composed this lovely cookbook, an achievement under any circumstances, but especially so considering that, by her own admission, Abby could neither read nor write."
Moving from South Carolina to Alabama, then finally to California with her husband and children, Abby quickly came into contact with well-connected folks who became enamored with her award-winning pickles, sauces, and preserves. She actually became somewhat of a celebrity chef, even opening a pickling company in her own name. According to researcher Tricia Martineau Wagner in her book African Women of the Old West, Abby had amassed some of the wealthiest and most influential clients of her time. With the help of these connections, Abby had her book directly dictated by nine friends and associates, and published by the Women’s Co-operative Printing Office in San Francisco.
Precariously, after extensive damage that took place during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, photos and written records of Abby, her recipes, and even her cookbook all but completely vanished. That is, until an extremely rare copy of her book appeared at a Sotheby's auction in New York City in 1984. The Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library at Harvard University bought the book, and Applewood Books reprinted it a year later in 1985.
Again, Hess in her afterword of Abby’s cookbook, “Alas, Mrs. Fisher’s legacy lay neglected for over a century, all but unknown, not even listed in the bibliography of some of our more serious works on Southern cookery. The work is exceedingly rare.” Truly upsetting to consider a reality where we may not have been enlightened about the true impacts of Abby’s work. So, it is with this spirit of preservation and storytelling (a sentiment so beautifully demonstrated by Abby herself) we’re proud to do our small part in remembering a phenomenally talented, extraordinarily determined, and fantastically resilient woman. We’ve also got a recipe for Abby Fisher’s Corn Egg Bread that we adapted right from her cookbook itself. Check it out for a tasty bite of history.