Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Smithsonian’s African American Museum Acquired Ebony Magazine Test Kitchen, Adding Important Element of Black Culinary History to Collection

Installation view of the Ebony Test Kitchen, “African/American Making the Nation’s Table” exhibition, The Museum of Food and Drink in New York, N.Y., 2022. | © Museum of Food and Drink


THE SMITHSONIAN’S VAST COLLECTION of art and cultural objects includes two famous kitchens. In 2001, the National Museum of American History acquired Julia Child’s kitchen from her Cambridge, Mass., home where the American cook known for her French cuisine taped three television shows.

Earlier this month, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) added the Ebony Test Kitchen to its holdings. Built in 1972 and housed in the Chicago headquarters of Johnson Publishing Company, the all-electric kitchen was used by food editors to develop and test recipes published in Ebony magazine and several cookbooks.

William Raiser and Arthur Elrod of Arthur Elrod Associates in Palm Springs, Calif., designed the interiors of the 28 x 13 foot kitchen and adjacent sitting area. The design employed a bold mix of burnt orange, mustard yellow, and avocado green on the cabinets, counters, and floors, with a psychedelic, swirl-patterned wallpaper that brought a deep purple into the palette and set the tone for the space. Over the years, the aesthetic has been described as “Afrocentric modern.”

“The Ebony Test Kitchen is a living, breathing testament to the power of Black excellence and innovation in the culinary world,” NMAAHC Director Kevin Young said in the acquisition announcement. “The kitchen was a place where recipes were reimagined, flavors were explored and stories were shared—a place that celebrates Black history and culture in a way that was not only inspiring but delicious.”


A Tenth of a Nation: Achievements, a film made circa 1953, highlights accomplished African Americans, including Ebony magazine’s first food editor, Freda DeKnight. | Video by Library of Congress


Ebony hired first food editor decades before test kitchen came about

EBONY’S FOOD COVERAGE began one year after the magazine was launched in 1945. Hired in 1946, Freda DeKnight was the first food editor. Her father died when she was two and her mother was a traveling nurse, constantly on the road. In the absence of her parents, DeKnight lived in Mitchell, S.D., with a couple that owned a catering business. She went on to earn a degree in home economics from Dakota Wesleyan College, located in Mitchell.

How did DeKnight land a job at Ebony magazine? It was fate, according to a posthumous tribute to her, published in Negro Digest, a Johnson publication. John H. Johnson was impressed with DeKnight’s culinary acumen—her talent for cooking and writing about cuisine, which he experienced by chance when she was passing through Chicago. In the August 1963 tribute, William Barrow wrote:

    As Mrs. DeKnight liked to tell the story, deliberately embellished, it went something like this:

    While visiting Chicago, en route to Los Angeles, she was invited to a dinner at the home of a wealthy couple who were longtime friends of hers. Shortly before the dinner hour, the hosts learned that their caterer had broken a leg in an accident. Freda soothed her frantic hosts, assured them that she would take care of everything in short order, and promptly proceeded to do so. Sparing no expense, she bought the ingredients and prepared a meal fit for royalty.

    As Fate would have it, one of the dinner guests was young publisher John H. Johnson. So impressed was he with the food that he asked Mrs. DeKnight to give him the menu. Hurrying off to catch her train, she promised to send the menu back by mail. When the menu arrived, it was done in an exciting narrative style that made it seem like fun to cook. Publisher Johnson was delighted. He offered Mrs. DeKnight a job writing a regular food column for Ebony, and she readily accepted.


Freda DeKnight’s Date With A Dish column inspired a cookbook first published in 1948. The 1962 edition (shown) added “The Ebony Cookbook” to the title. | via The First Edition Rare Books


DEKNIGHT STARTED Ebony’s Date With A Dish column in 1947, sharing insights from chefs and a spectrum of recipes aimed at home cooks, focusing on regional American cuisines and international dishes with less emphasis on Southern soul food. Two years later, she published “A Date With a Dish: A Cookbook of American Negro Recipes” (Hermitage Press, 1948), a now-treasured cookbook that reflected her approach to the column.

The volume was divided into chapters dedicated to categories such as Appetizers, Soups, Meats, Fowl, Vegetables on Parade, Sandwiches, Salads and Salad Dressings, and Cookes and Cakes. The Fish chapter featured Clam Fritters, Baked Stuffed Fish, Fried Oysters, Shrimp and Crab Gumbo, and Ma Williams’ Crab Cakes. Recipes for Brunswick Stew, Shepherd’s Pie, Lamb Casserole, Chili Con Carne, Tamale Pie, and East Indian Chicken, a favorite of Lena Horne, are included in the All-in-One Dish chapter.

In the preface to the cookbook DeKnight wrote: “There has long been a need for a non-regional cookbook that would contain recipes, menus, and cooking hints from and by Negroes all over America. I have attempted in these pages to present, along with my own contributions, as complete a collection as can be found anywhere in the land.”

DeKnight worked out of an early kitchen where she tested recipes. Eventually, she became Home Service Director of Johnson Publishing Company, serving as an in-house food expert and also organizing the first Ebony Fashion Fair fashion show in 1957, according to Negro Digest. DeKnight remained on staff for nearly two decades until her death in 1963.

“There has long been a need for a non-regional cookbook that would contain recipes, menus, and cooking hints from and by Negroes all over America. I have attempted in these pages to present, along with my own contributions, as complete a collection as can be found anywhere in the land.” — Freda DeKnight


Ebony Test Kitchen in the Johnson Publishing Company Building, Chicago, Ill., n.d. | Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture


Ebony Test Kitchen was a work space and gathering place

THE MAGAZINE CONTINUED to publish the Date With A Dish column throughout the 1960s and 70s without a food editor, relying on other staff and freelancers.

When the new Johnson Publishing headquarters opened in 1972, the impressive building was outfitted with a state-of-the-art kitchen with General Electric appliances. The Ebony Test Kitchen featured a center island with a six-burner stove and overhead cabinets. One wall housed a wall oven and a microwave. A three-basin sink was adjacent to a dishwasher and the refrigerator had French doors with an ice and water dispenser on the front. There were also two built-in can openers, a built-in, four-slice toaster, and a trash compactor.

With a colorful new kitchen on site, it would be another decade before a new food editor was hired. Over the next three decades, two food editors presided over the Ebony Test Kitchen, first Charla L. Draper, briefly from 1982 to 1984, and then Charlotte Lyons for the duration, from 1985 to 2010.

Draper wrote a Date With A Dish column called “His Turn to Cook” in the August 1983 issue of Ebony. She began by explaining why more men were in the kitchen. “These days, men are cooking more often and for a variety of reasons,” Draper wrote. “While necessity may have been the initial reason to develop culinary skills, today’s man is cooking for enjoyment, relaxation, and to impress friends.” The article included recipes for Beef ‘N Vegetable Kabobs, Parslied Rice, a Crunchy Cheese Ball, Caesar Salad Roma that called for an 8-oz. bottle of Italian dressing, and Almond Cream Dessert.

The same issue also printed the ingredients for Lucille’s Old Fashioned Strawberry Cobbler, the winner of Ebony’s Reader Favorite Recipe, which was selected by a “taste panel” at the magazine. A solicitation for the next favorite asked readers to share Rice Pudding recipes for the opportunity to win $100 and have their recipe appear in a future issue of the magazine. Draper launched the favorite recipe feature during her tenure.


In 2022, from the sitting area of the Ebony Test Kitchen, former food editor Charla Draper discusses the recipes she shared with the magazine’s readers. | Video by Museum of Food and Drink


IN THE JULY 1989, Date With A Dish column, Lyons presented a menu of “Tropical Coolers,” recipes for 10 refreshing fruity drinks, including an Apricot Cooler, Pink Lemonade, Spiced Lemon Tea, Zesty Lime Punch, and a Daiquiri Punch, along with the ingredients for fruit-filled ice cubes and instructions for using a mold to make an ice ring for a bowl of punch with citrus slices, mint leaves, and cherries.

Lyons featured “Healthy Dishes to Start the Year” in January 1997. Recipes for Roasted Vegetables, Turkey Stew, Vegetable and Spaghetti Frittata, Seared Fish Filets, and Lentil Pilaf, were among her recommendations.

Ebony celebrated its 60th Anniversary in November 2005 and Lyons dedicated her column in the issue to “60 Years of Thanksgiving Recipes,” presenting a “walk down memory lane” with some of the “best Thanksgiving recipes that have appeared in Date With A Dish.” The 13 offerings included Herb Roasted Turkey (2000), Peas and Onions (1965), Pheasant with Chestnut Dressing (1949), Cranberry Chutney (1956), Roast Duckling with Glazed Orange Slices (1958), Candied Yams with Brandy (1976), Turnip Greens (1982), Cornish Game Hens and Rice Stuffing (1971), and Cornbread Dressing (1998).

According to NMAAHC, the food editors “spent their days in the kitchen testing recipes, styling food for photographers, and planning the next issue’s feature in the food editor’s office close by.” The Ebony Test Kitchen, which included a dining area with banquette seating, was also “a popular gathering spot for both staff members and distinguished guests of the Johnson Publishing Company.”

According to NMAAHC, the food editors “spent their days in the kitchen testing recipes, styling food for photographers, and planning the next issue’s feature in the food editor’s office close by.”


Food editor Charlotte Lyons in the Ebony Test Kitchen, featured in the November 1992 issue of Ebony magazine. | Photo by Vandell Cobb. Johnson Publishing Company Archive, Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture


Iconic kitchen will be conserved by Smithsonian for future display

THE EBONY TEST KITCHEN was installed on the 10th floor of Johnson Publishing building, the iconic 11-story building designed by architect John Warren Moutoussamy (father of photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe). The tower was the first Black-owned building in downtown Chicago and is the only Chicago high-rise designed by a Black architect, according to the Chicago Architecture Center. In 2010, the Johnson family sold the building.

Operational from 1972 to 2010, the Ebony Test Kitchen sat dormant for years after the building was purchased and development plans stalled. In 2017, the building was designated a national landmark, protecting the building from demolition, but not safeguarding its interiors. 3L Real Estate, a local developer, sold the kitchen for $1 to Landmarks Illinois in 2018. A historic preservation organization in Chicago, Landmarks Illinois took steps to preserve the kitchen. The nonprofit documented the space, took it apart piece-by-piece, and held it in storage.

The kitchen was recently transported to New York and reassembled for an exhibition presented by The Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD). On view at The Africa Center, “African/American: Making the Nation’s Table” (Feb. 22-July 17, 2022) was curated by culinary historian Jessica B. Harris. The show explored the many ways in which Black people have shaped the nation’s culinary identity and emphasized that African American food is American food.

The Ebony Test Kitchen was gifted to NMAAHC by Landmarks Illinois and The Museum of Food and Drink. The kitchen expands the museum’s Johnson Publishing collection, which includes the historic Ebony and Jet photo archive of more than 4 million negatives, slides, prints, contact sheets, and audio and video recordings.


Installation view of the Ebony Test Kitchen, showing the adjacent seating area and an orange refrigerator, a replacement model and the only update made to the kitchen during four decades of active use. “African/American Making the Nation’s Table” exhibition, The Museum of Food and Drink in New York, N.Y., 2022. | © Museum of Food and Drink


Owned jointly by NMAAHC and the Getty Research Institute, the archive represents the most comprehensive visual documentation of Black life in the 20th century. Included in the archive are undated photographs of the Ebony Test Kitchen in the Johnson Publishing Building and images of food editor Charlotte Lyons in the kitchen, which have been published in Ebony magazine.

There are no immediate plans to install the historic and iconic kitchen at NMAAHC. The kitchen will undergo conservation as plans for reconstruction of the space are mapped out. The museum’s Cultural Expression exhibition explores food history in a section called “Foodways: Culture and Cuisine.” In the short term, through digitization, the newly acquired kitchen is expected to be featured in the NMAAHC’s foodways programming.

“I think the Ebony kitchen means so much to so many African Americans simply because Ebony magazine was a heart space. It was a pivot point. It was a place we learned about some of the best and the brightest of African Americans during a period when that was not news that was always foremost,” Harris, the curator and culinary historian told the Oxford Cultural Collection.

“In the Ebony Test Kitchen people began to explore foods of the African diaspora. Vegan food Vegetarian food. Food that came out of different traditions of African American life. So the Ebony Test Kitchen is really a kind of pivot point for African American food in the second
half of the 20th century.” CT


FIND MORE about the Ebony Test Kitchen on the Searchable Museum site

FIND MORE a digital version of “A Date With a Dish: A Cookbook of American Negro Recipes” (Hermitage Press, 1948) by Freda DeKnight is available via the Library of Congress

FIND MORE about Ebony’s first food editor, Freda DeKnight, at Bon Appétit and a reflection from Toni Tipton Martin published on the James Beard website


Culinary historian Jessica B. Harris, curator of the Museum of Food and Drink’s “African/American: Making the Nation’s Table” exhibition, discusses Ebony Magazine’s food coverage. | Video by Museum of Food and Drink


In 2022, former food editor Charlotte Lyons recalls her time in the Ebony Test Kitchen, including the famous people who stopped by over the years. | Video by Museum of Food and Drink


FIND MORE The vision for Sweet Home Café, NMAAHC’s museum restaurant, was informed by culinary historian Jessica B. Harris’s research. Through its menu, the café highlights the importance of culinary history in exploring the story of Black people in America

SEE MORE Television news reports from PIX 11 News in New York and the Black News Channel/theGrio Politics showcase the Ebony Test Kitchen at The Africa Center in Harlem, where it was the centerpiece of the “African/American: Making the Nation’s Table” exhibition, presented by the Museum of Food and Drink

FIND MORE about how artists and museums are exploring food history and culture on Culture Type


Authored by Ebony magazine’s first food editor, Freda DeKnight, “The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish” was first published as “A Date With a Dish” in 1948 and a later version was released in 1962 with The Ebony Cookbook title. Published in 2019, “Arthur Elrod: Desert Modern Design” is the first monograph of the “design king of the desert in the 1950s,’60s, and ’70s.” “Sweet Home Café Cookbook: A Celebration of African American Cooking” features recipes from Sweet Home Café, the restaurant at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. In 2019, “Sweet Home Café Cookbook” was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award. Culinary historian Jessica B. Harris is among the contributors to “Sweet Home Café Cookbook” and she has authored many of her own books, including “My Soul Looks Back: A Memoir,” “Welcome Table: African-American Heritage Cooking,” “The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent,” and “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America,” which was adapted into a Netflix documentary series. Also consider, “Ghetto Gastro Presents Black Power Kitchen,” which made Culture Type’s list of Best Black Art Books in 2022, and “Black Food: Stories, Art, and Recipes from Across the African Diaspora” by Bryant Terry, who inaugurated the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco’s chef-in-residence program in 2015. Finally, Toni Tipton Martin’s “The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks” won a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award.


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