A series of weekends with May Day and Mother’s Day has kept Mrs. Hindle very busy and off the blog, but I’m back now and today I’m joined by Mrs. Fisher, a fascinating woman who has sadly vanished almost completely into the mists of history.
According to scetchy census logs, Abby Fisher was born around 1832 in South Carolina. Listed as the daughter of an African-American mother and a French father, it’s fairly safe to assume that she was born a slave. From what I’ve been able to gather her parents’ names are not given, since Abby Fisher’s maiden name is nowhere to be found. Sometime in the 1860s she married Alabama native Alexander C. Fisher, and she gave birth to eleven children – the 160th and final recipe in her book is for “Pap for Infant Diet”, with which Fisher says she nursed all her children. Whether Abby Fisher was emancipated before or after the civil war, and whether her husband was ever a slave at all, is unclear, but certainly after the civil war ended the family chose to move West. In the late 1870s Abby gave birth to one of her children in Missouri, and in a census in 1880 the Fisher family was living in San Francisco. Abby Fisher was still alive for the 1910 census, but in 1920 her husband is listed as a widower. These are dry facts, but there’s so much one could speculate about. How did the family travel West? Train was an available option, but may have been too expensive. Covered wagons?
In any case, once in San Fransisco Abby Fisher started a business selling pickles, preserves &c. She received medals for her products at the Sacramento State Fair of 1879 and the San Fransisco Mechanics’ Institute Fair of 1880, which encouraged her to publish her best recipes the next year. She seems to have been somewhat hesitant since, according to her own preface, Abby Fisher could neither read nor write. Her husband had also been “without the advantages of an education”, but it’s still implied that he wrote the book at Abby Fisher’s dictation. The resulting work, “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking”, is a slim and concise collection of 160 recipes covering “an experience of upwards of thirty-five years – in the art of cooking Soups, Gumbos, Terrapin [turtle] Stews, Meat Stews, Baked and Roast Meats, Pastries, Pies and Biscuits, making Jellies, Pickles, Sauces, Ice-Creams and Jams, preserving Fruits”.
I’m not quite brave enough for jellies or jams yet, let alone turtle stew, so my first recipe from Mrs. Fisher’s little book is “Old-Time Ginger Cake”. The recipes don’t list the required ingredients at the beginning, so careful study of the recipe is necessary right from the start.
I make that:
1 pint or 4,7 dl molasses
1 quart or 1,1 liters flour
½ teacup or 5 tblsp brown sugar
1 teacup or 1½dl or 130 g butter
1 tblsp cinnamon
2 tblsp ginger
1 teacup or 1½ dl sour milk
1 tsp soda
In other words, this.
Molasses are available in Finland, but only at very specialised stores and I just didn’t have a chance to obtain any, but I did some research and decided dark syrup was an adequate replacement. Dark sugar comes in many shapes and forms, too, so I don’t know which type Fisher would have used. I opted for very slightly refined dry dark sugar. The sour milk in the recipe probably refers to milk that has spoiled a bit, whereas I used fermented milk. Shouldn’t make much of a difference to taste. Baking soda requires an acidic catalyst to make it work, so regular sweet milk would not give the desired result.
After that it’s a pretty straightforward recipe. Cream the sugar and butter, then add the other ingredients. Pour into greased pans, or if you’re as lazy as I am, put baking paper in your pans and then pour in the batter.
Thusly. In hindsight, I could have taken a photo before putting them in the oven.
The recipe doesn’t specify heat or baking time. I improvised with 175 degrees C and an hour or so of baking time.
It seemed to work.
The resulting cake wasn’t nearly as gingery as I thought it would be, considering I poured in the entire contents of my ginger jar (note to self: restock ginger jar). It was tasty cake and my friend who actually knows stuff about Southern cooking didn’t sneer at it, so I call it a win.