Food editor celebrated African-American cooking

Freda DeKnight was named the first food editor of Ebony magazine in 1946 and thus became "the national, if not international, face of African-American food," as the food historian Jessica B. Harris once described her. Through nearly two decades of food columns and in a popular cookbook, DeKnight highlighted the delicious diversity of African-American cooking and those who cooked it. Hers was — and is — a needed corrective.

"The disrespect for our food and for the people who cook it has been a battle that has raged for decades," Harris wrote in her 2011 work, "High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America." DeKnight, she noted, addressed that attitude in her 1948 cookbook, "A Date With a Dish: A Cookbook of American Negro Recipes."

"It is a fallacy, long disproved, that Negro cooks, chefs, caterers and homemakers can adapt themselves only to the standard Southern dishes, such as fried chicken, greens, corn pone and hot breads," DeKnight wrote. "Like other Americans living in various sections of the country they have naturally shown a desire to become versatile in the preparation of any dish, whether it is Spanish, Italian, French, Balinese or East Indian in origin."

DeKnight then set out to prove it with the stories of African-American cooks she had met and the recipes she had collected over decades.

"She realized the incredible odds she faced in proving African-American cooks had a diverse, broad creative repertoire of food skills," said Toni Tipton-Martin, an Austin, Texas-based food writer, community activist and creator of The Jemima Code, a pop-up exhibit, blog and upcoming book exploring the legacies of African-American cooks. "She needed evidence and models and people from wide-reaching careers. She reached into all kinds of places to build this model to show African-American cooking was more diverse than it had been portrayed to be."

The people introduced in "A Date With a Dish" are a fascinating mix of the unknown, the once-known and the enduring celebrity. Louis Armstrong extolled the virtues of ham hocks and red beans. Lucille B. Smith, the Texas entrepreneur and creator of Lucille's All Purpose Hot Roll Mix, gave recipes for baked ham and apricot ice. Lena Horne contributed an East Indian chicken dish. And one Mary Russell, who raised nine children in tiny Browns, Ill., was remembered by a granddaughter who shared the recipe for grandmother's feather cake.

Donna Battle Pierce, a Chicago-based food writer and creator of the Black America Cooks website, said DeKnight made it clear she was writing about and for African-Americans. DeKnight was able to weave food and fashion together in a way that made people feel good about themselves and proud of their heritage, said Pierce, a former test kitchen director for the Chicago Tribune.

DeKnight was born in 1909, the daughter of a railroad steward who died when she was 2. Her mother was a traveling nurse who had to leave Freda and an older sister with friends, a family of caterers, in Mitchell, S.D. It was there she developed her love of food early on, later recalling she had baked a loaf of bread and made biscuits by the time she was 5.

She graduated from Dakota Wesleyan University with a major in home economics, her 1963 obituary reported, and she served "as teacher and counselor in all phases of culinary arts" in New York City schools.

Harris, in "High on the Hog," mentioned a 20-year catering career and a stint operating a Harlem restaurant called The Chicken Coop with actor Canada Lee. She married Rene DeKnight, a pianist for The Delta Rhythm Boys (whom she thanked in "Dish" for being her "official samplers").

A trip to Chicago led to the post at Ebony. According to a 1963 story in The Negro Digest, she was visiting wealthy friends on her way to Los Angeles and volunteered to cook a dinner party for them after the caterer was forced to cancel at the last minute. Among the guests: John H. Johnson, the publisher of Ebony, who requested a copy of her menu and was so impressed by the subsequent description she provided that he offered her a job.

DeKnight's energetic approach to the position can be seen in the opening lines of a 1949 Milwaukee Journal interview.

"Food can be glamorous," she was quoted as saying. "It can be something outside of kitchen drudgery. It's my aim to teach this to the Negro youth of this country, for too many of them assume the wrong attitude because their parents have associated hardship with it."

At Johnson Publications, DeKnight would be promoted to home service director. Besides her food writing and editing, she launched the Ebony Fashion Fair, gave cooking demonstrations before live audiences and on television, made product endorsements and, as William Barrow, author of the Negro Digest story, noted, became "a familiar figure at professional food and fashion gatherings where Negroes had been seen before only as servants." In 1962, the cookbook was revised and reissued as "The Ebony Cookbook: A Date With a Dish," and enjoyed subsequent editions.

By the time of her death, of cancer at age 53 in 1963, the "legacies of her life were many and far-reaching," Barrow wrote.

Yet, today, DeKnight is often forgotten.

"We need to know her," said Harris. "One of the interesting things about history, particularly food history, is that people tend to forget the immediate past to go to the historic past. Freda DeKnight falls in those cracks.

"People need to understand an African-American magazine wasn't always there," Harris added. "An African-American magazine with a food editor who spoke not just to African-Americans but to all Americans was not there. The current system is new and different because of people like Freda DeKnight."

SPANISH RICE

Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 60 minutes

Makes: 6 servings

A recipe from Freda DeKnight's "A Date With a Dish." While the recipe is given in standard cookbook fashion, she follows it with suggestions for modifying the recipe or gussying it up for a party. (The 1 "pod" garlic in the first edition became 1 clove, chopped, in "The Ebony Cookbook: A Date With a Dish" of 1962.) Although DeKnight admonishes cooks not to cover the pan, we had better results cooking the rice in a covered Dutch oven.

1 small onion, chopped

1 small green pepper, chopped

1 pod garlic, finely chopped

1 tablespoon celery, chopped

3 tablespoons butter or bacon fat

1 cup whole grain brown rice

1/3 cup tomato sauce or 3 tablespoons paste

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon paprika

2 cups boiling water

Saute onion, pepper, garlic and celery in the butter or bacon fat in a heavy skillet. (Do not allow to brown.) When tender, add unwashed rice. Stir until well mixed and all grains are semi-fried. Add tomato paste or sauce, seasonings and hot water. Stir until well mixed. Do not cover. Cook over a very low fire until rice is dry, light and fluffy, about 50 minutes. Grains should be whole and firm. (If it is necessary to stir when adding water, use a fork. Refrain from stirring, if possible.)

Crushed salted almonds or diced stuffed olives make this a glamorous party dish. (A bit of thyme or a bay leaf cooked in the sauce adds a spicy taste.)

Plain cooked rice may be used for Spanish rice. Simply prepare your Spanish sauce and add rice, mixing well. Let steam without cover 10 to 15 minutes.

Some folks like rice dry and some with plenty of sauce. These things have to be worked out to suit your own family taste, which only you can determine. But wet or dry, a Spanish sauce simply does things to plain rice and brightens up the meal.


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