A patent was issued on this day in 1884 in America for a new, improved egg-beater. The Patent Office must have been a busy place in the nineteenth century for it was a time of great innovation and invention, but what was unusual for the era was that the patent was granted to an African-American. Willis Johnson was not the first ‘coloured person’ to receive a patent - that honour went to Thomas L. Jennings, a New York tailor who developed a new dry-cleaning process in 1821 – but it was hardly a common occurrence in the 1800’s for those who came from slave stock to be acknowledged in this way.
Johnson’s invention (Patent number 292, 821) was not for a simple egg-beater. It was a commercial mixing machine with two separate chambers each capable of mixing “in the most intimate and expeditious manner” a large quantity of “eggs, batter, and other similar ingredients used by bakers, confectioners, &c”. History does not seem to have recorded any significant information about Willis Johnson himself - at least none found by this little investigator in a brief hunt, - so I was left wondering if he did well financially out of his invention.
I was also set wondering about early African-American cookbook writers too, so here is a little selection from my gleanings from their works, on the topic of eggs.
The first book of any kind written by an African-American to be published in the USA by a major publisher was a manual to assist in the training of household servants by one who had been-there and done-that. The year was 1827, and the writer was Robert Roberts. It is not known whether he was a slave or free-born, but he was certainly a household servant for some of Boston’s finest - or at least wealthiest, and he eventually became quite wealthy himself. His book ‘The House Servant's Directory, or A Monitor for Private Families: Comprising Hints on the Arrangement and Performance of Servants' Work .. ’ was not technically a cookbook, but it did contain advice on such things as marketing.
Your employer will generally attend to going to market, to suit himself; but your experience, if you should be called upon to do this duty, is of the utmost consequence. It is impossible to give you particular directions for all kinds of articles for the table; in all cases observation and experience only can supply you with these to any degree of perfection. I shall merely set down some of the principal means of judging of the freshness or goodness of provisions, in the choice of poultry, &c. Beef, veal, pork, mutton, and vegetables, you all are generally competent of purchasing.
Here is what he had to say specifically about eggs:
Hold the great end to your tongue; if it feels warm it is new; if cold, bad; and so in proportion to the heat or cold, is the goodness of the egg. Another way to know, is to put the egg in a pan of cold water, the fresher the egg, the sooner it will fall to the bottom; if rotten, it will swim at the top. This is a sure way not to be deceived. Sound eggs may be also known by holding them between the eye and a lighted candle, or the sun. As to the keeping of them, pitch them all with the small end downwards in fine wood ashes, turning them once a week end-ways, and they will keep some months.
Abby Fisher was probably born in the early 1830’s in South Carolina. She was almost certainly a slave, ‘a mullato’ and a cook. In 1881 she became a cookbook author with the publication of What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking. Here is one of her egg recipes.
One quart of flour, half tablespoonful of butter, two eggs lightly beat, half tea-cup of sweet yeast, half tea-cup of water, one teaspoonful of salt. Mix as a sponge, about 10 o'clock at night, for breakfast; put to rise until morning. With dry flour knead the sponge, not too stiff; make off rolls, put to rise in baking pan, then have oven hot and bake slowly. When rolls are done, put them in a napkin until sent to table.
Our last example today is also from a former slave. Rufus Estes was born in Tennessee in 1857, and took his name from his father who was also his owner (by way of owning Rufus’ mother of course). Rufus began working in a restaurant at the age of sixteen, and eventually became a well-known chef and caterer. From his book Good Things To Eat, As Suggested By Rufus; A Collection Of Practical Recipes For Preparing Meats, Game, Fowl, Fish, Puddings, Pastries, Etc. published in 1911 we have our final egg recipes for the day.
Two level tablespoons butter, two level tablespoons flour, one-half level teaspoon salt, one cup milk, four hard-boiled eggs. Make a white sauce of the butter, flour, salt and milk, and add the whites of the eggs chopped fine. Cut buttered toast in pointed pieces and arrange on a hot plate to form daisy petals. Cover with the sauce and put the egg yolks through a ricer into the center.
Egg and Potato Scallop:
Fill a buttered baking dish with alternate layers of cold boiled potatoes sliced thin, hard-boiled eggs also sliced, and a rich white sauce poured over each layer. Cover the top with buttered crumbs and set in the oven until the crumbs are browned
The cookbooks mentioned above can all be found online at Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project.
Tomorrow’s Story …
Dishes Men Like.
Quotation for the Day …
There is the same mysterious gap between a musical scale and a Debussy prelude as between an egg and a souffle. Brillat-Savarin