Cookbooks: How I found Julia Child & Abby Fisher
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    Auction Finds

    Aunt Julia’s Cook Book of African American recipes

    The first thing that caught my eye in the box on the auction table was a small folded sack with the words “Georgia Cured Bacon” in faded print. I don’t consume pork but I am from Georgia, so I decided to take a look.

    I’m glad I did. The sack was hiding a red checkered paperback cookbook titled “Aunt Julia’s Cook Book … for Happy Eating Use These Recipes.” At the bottom were a logo for the Esso gas company and the name “Standard Oil Company of Pennsylvania.”

    I love old cookbooks and am always on the lookout for them. I opened the book and to my surprise and delight, I saw a black and white photo of two African American women in a kitchen holding what looked like a cookbook. Their dresses and headscarves had been colorized.

    Aunt Julia's Cook Book

    A photo on the inside front cover shows two women identified as Aunt Julia and Aunt Leola.

    “Aunt Julia and Aunt Leola Compare Notes,” the caption read.

    I was intrigued by this cookbook and wanted to know more about the two women. The only other African American-authored cookbook I had come across at auction was one considered to be the earliest: “What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc.” It was written by Abby Fisher and published in 1881 by the Women’s Co-Operative Printing Office in San Francisco.

    The Aunt Julia cookbook was used as advertisement for Esso Standard Oil Co., now Exxon, and distributed as a giveaway at its service stations. There was no date on the cookbook, but several websites speculated that it was published in the 1930s. The 2009 book “Classical Southern Cooking” by Damon Fowler guessed the date to be circa 1936, noting that it was one of several “auntie” books. “Auntie” was what Southerners derogatorily called an elderly black woman.

    Aunt Julia's Cook Book

    The front cover of Aunt Julia's Cook Book.

    It’s not surprising that the cookbook could be picked up at Esso stations. The company was about the only one that offered gas-station franchises to African Americans around that time. African American travelers could get the “Negro Motorist Green Book” at Esso stations. The book listed hotels, private homes, restaurants, gas stations and more that were open to them.

    I could find very little about the cookbook itself, although I did find several copies for sale on the web (from $5 to $55). And I could find nothing about the two women.

    Who were they? Where did they live? Who were their families? How did they become associated with Esso? Were these their recipes? Where was the photo taken?

    Aunt Julia's Cook Book

    Recipes and a motor oil ad inside Aunt Julia's Cook Book.

    Their faces were barely distinguishable in the photo, just as their lives were to the society that had shut them out. I suspected that these were their own recipes, and I wondered if they got paid for their use.

    The cookbook had some wear around the edges and the spine, and the first page was detached. Old faded cellophane tape was still holding a few pages together. It was also missing several pages (it was originally a 32-page book) that included information about removing stains, fixing items and house cleaning. I can only assume that the owner wanted those household tips close by.

    It was chocked full of ads for Esso gasoline for cars and airplanes, car polish, motor oil, tires, insect-repellent spray, batteries and furniture polish.

    Aunt Julia's Cook Book

    The index of recipes from Aunt Julia's Cook Book, along with a notice of several other recipes in red.

    It was largely, though, a cookbook, with the normal categories of recipes. These included Hoe Cake, Old Virginia Spoon Bread, Prune Sauce Cake, Meat Sandwich Spread, Brunswick Stew, Pressed Chicken, Green Tomato Pickle, Buttermilk Custard Pie, Apple Betty, Hard Sauce and Hopping John.

    Stamped across the index in red was mention of several recipes that the publisher had come across since the cookbook was printed: Red-Horse Bread (apparently similiar to hush puppies but made with bell peppers) and Pinebark Stew (made with catfish or other fish). Copies could be obtained by dropping by an Esso station.

    Aunt Julia Cook Book

    An advertisment for Atlas tires sold at Esso stations, along with "Rules of the Road."

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    2 Comments

    1. I have a copy of this cookbook that came from an Esso station in Paden City, West Virginia that was owned and operated by Robert Pittman in the 1930’s and 40’s. Robert Pittman was my wife’s grandfather. My wife passed away in February of 2013, so this will be kept in the family as an heirloom.

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