Early TV cooks without a pedigree
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    Auction Finds

    Reader asks about early black TV cooks

    Friday at Auction Finds is readers’ questions day. I try to guide readers to resources to help them determine the value of their items. I’m not able to appraise their treasures, but I can do some preliminary research to get them started. So, these are market values based on prices I find on the web, not appraisal for insurance purposes that I suggest for items that have been determined to be of great value.

    A question about early African American TV cooks spurred me to find out if there were any during the 1950s.

    African American cooks/chefs

    Four African American cooks who should have had their own TV shows. Clockwise, Sylvia Woods, Leah Chase, Edna Lewis, Freda DeKnight.

    Question:

    I’m curious. Are there any African American cooks mentioned in this book?

    Answer:

    The reader was referring to a book about early TV cooks that was the subject of a blog post I wrote two years ago. The 1955 book was titled “Cooking with the Experts: Over 400 simple, easy-to-follow, taste-tempting recipes selected by television’s best cooks.” It offered recipes from and bios about a handful of local TV cooks in cities and towns across the country. The only one who seemed to have had a restaurant was Mama Weiss, who owned a Hungarian restaurant in Los Angeles.

    All of the women were white, and most had backgrounds in home economics. Several were homemakers, another was a newspaper food editor, one was a restaurant chef, and another was an artist.

    I replied to the reader – who is a soul food historian with a book on the subject – that none of the women were African American. I doubted that there were any TV cooks of color at that time.

     

    TV cooks featured in 1955 book

    Two of the TV cooks featured in the book. At right is restaurateur Mama Weiss and at left is artist Rachel Van Cleve of Cleveland, OH.

    A little while later, I got to wondering about when the first African American TV cook – or chefs as they are called now – first appeared. In fact, when did the first person of color appear? I distinctly remember seeing Ming Tsai years ago on the Food Network show “East Meets West with Ming Tsai,” which first appeared in 1998.Was he the first person of color?

    There have always been black women in their own kitchens, in the kitchens of their own restaurants and in somebody else’s kitchen turning out dishes that were so good they’d make you want to shout. Unfortunately, these women were invisible to people like the editor and publisher of “Cooking with the Experts.” But I came across several who should’ve been included in the book (or a decade later).

    Edna Lewis was one of those culinary greats whose southern-style cooking was popular enough to warrant her a TV show. Lewis opened her Café Nicholson in New York in 1948, and it attracted such celebrities as Truman Capote, Gloria Vanderbilt, Richard Avedon (she had once been a seamstress and had made Christian Dior knockoff dresses for his wife Dorcas) and Marlene Dietrich. Lewis went on to write several cookbooks and earn top awards, including the James Beard Living Legend Award. She died in 2006 at age 89.

    During the intervening years, Lewis became a legend, and her reputation eclipsed all of the women featured in the book. I have her cookbook “”In Pursuit of Flavor” and pull it out very often.

    African American cooks/chefs

    Freda DeKnight and her cookbook of recipes and more from Ebony magazine. Photo from lizziyoungbookseller.wordpress.com; book cover photo from librarything.com.

    Another who could have carried her own TV show was Freda DeKnight, whose “A Date With a Dish” column was a staple in Ebony magazine. The column first appeared in the magazine in 1948, three years after John H. and Eunice Johnson started Ebony to highlight black people and their lives. A few years later, DeKnight published a cookbook of her recipes and columns, along with recipes from Louis Armstrong and other celebrities.

    Born in North Dakota, DeKnight learned how to cook from her mother Mama Scott – whose “education was limited, she could measure and estimate to perfection without any modern aids” – and other cooks in the family. Her column and her cookbook put African American cooks and southern cooking into a positive light.

    Leah Chase of Dooky Chase’s restaurant in New Orleans was another. I had dinner at the restaurant for the first time in 1990 when family members and I scouted out the city for a family reunion. I had read about Dooky Chase’s and knew we had to meet Mrs. Chase and try out her food. The food was delicious and she was graceful, even autographing a copy of her cookbook for me.

    African American cooks/chefs

    Leah Chase and her cookbook, which she autographed for me. Photo from dookychaserestaurant.com.

    Chase got into the restaurant business in 1946 after marrying musician Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr. whose father had opened the place a couple years earlier. The two of them took over and it took off. Leah Chase developed an interest in food while waiting tables in the French Quarter. They collected African American art and hung it on the walls of the restaurant.

    The restaurant was a gathering spot for civil rights strategy meetings during the 1960s and other political sessions, with Chase cooking for the participants, according to a bio on the restaurant’s website. Like Lewis, Chase received a number of awards for her cooking prowess and other efforts.

    Sylvia Woods came a little later, in 1962, when she opened her first restaurant Sylvia’s in Harlem. In the decade before, she had been a waitress at Johnson’s Luncheonette in Harlem, the first time this South Carolina girl had set foot in a real restaurant. She authored two cookbooks.

    I’m still not sure when the first African American cook/chef appeared in their own TV show and not as a guest. The closest I could find was “B. Smith with Style,” which premiered in 1997 on NBC.

    I’m still looking for the correct answer and the names of other familiar African American cooks from the 1950s. Do you know of others?

    African American cooks/chefs

    Sylvia Woods of Sylvia’s restaurant in Harlem and one of her cookbooks. Photo from eatocracy.cnn.com.

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    3 Comments

    1. My Church group have eaten at Sylvia’s in New York many times over the years, after taking in a Broadway show. The food is down home delicious!

      I have heard of Leah Chase in New Orleans and hope to visit there one day. I had not heard of the others.

      I use to watch B.Smith’s cooking show. I was saddened to learn she now has Alzheimer.

      Thanks for writing this story. I share a lot of your stories with friends.

      • Hi Barbara, if you love to cook, you should definitely pick up one of Edna Lewis’ cookbooks. I hope I’ll come across DeKnight’s original book at auction (there have been some reprints). She was the only one of the four whom I was not familiar with, altho I do remember the Date with a Dish columns in Ebony.

        Thanks for sharing my blog posts with friends. I appreciate that, and I’m very glad that you enjoy reading the stories as much as I do writing them.

        Sherry

        • Thanks Sherry for the suggestion. I will try to find her book on Amazon. I love to cook, and I’m a great cook, especially Sweet Potato Pie.

          Oops! I just took my “The EBONY Cookbook” out and see that the author is Freda DeKnight.” I’ve had that book for years, in search of a Potato Salad like my Aunts use to make down home (I never learned from them when I was young). Unfortunately, Ms. DeKnight’s potato salad didn’t please me. So, I’ll try the others.

          Thanks again.

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