The Ebony Test Kitchen, Where Black Cooking Was Celebrated, Is Reborn

When Charlotte Lyons first walked into Ebony’s Chicago test kitchen after becoming the magazine’s editor in 1985, a thought crossed her mind: “Whoa!”

Here, amid psychedelic waves of orange, green and purple swirling along the walls, the black kitchen has been liberated to be experimental and futuristic. For Ebony readers, the magazine’s food was central to black identity and pride.

When the kitchen was built in the early 1970s, it marked the magazine’s place in the culinary pantheon, a legacy that began a quarter of a century before with Freda DeKnight, an exhilarating cook and editor who blazed the trail. to future generations of black women in American food media.

“Ebony cuisine has certainly been one of the ways that many people, African American and non-African American, have become aware of the vastness of African American cuisine,” said Jessica B. Harris, expert food and author. from “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America”.

Lee Bey, an assistant professor of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, said the look of the kitchen was almost indescribable. “I compare it to a kind of Afrocentric modernism, where there are colors and fabrics, leather and ostrich feathers, color and wallpaper with slanted patterns and every floor is different”, a- he declared.

When it was built half a century ago, the Ebony kitchen was central to black American food culture in the media. John H. Johnson, the owner of Johnson Publishing Company in Chicago, had built a headquarters that reflected black creativity and innovation, which his company covered through some of the country’s leading African-American magazines, including Ebony and Jet. .

John Moutoussamy designed the 11-story building, and the kitchen was outfitted by a team that included Arthur Elrod and William Raiser, both known for their adoration of Palm Springs decor, with state-of-the-art technology like grills, blenders , a hidden toaster, a trash compactor and a refrigerator with an ice and water dispenser.

It was almost lost to history. Johnson Publishing Company closed the kitchen in 2010 and sold the building to a Chicago developer, but Landmarks Illinois, a nonprofit preservation organization, was able to save the kitchen before it was destroyed, by purchasing it for a dollar. The Museum of Food and Drink took temporary possession of the kitchen and moved it to New York City, where it restored the room to its funky former glory.

Before the test kitchen opened, some of the most prominent black women in American food journalism had created the food cover in Ebony, including Ms. DeKnight, who became the magazine’s first editor in 1946.

An avid traveler and “leading home economist,” Ms. DeKnight traveled across the United States to learn the culinary traditions of black American cooks and gain a deeper understanding of international cuisines and flavors. She shared her findings through recipes published in her photo-rich monthly column, “A Date With a Dish,” which catered to black cooks with varying degrees of knowledge and experience. Many of these recipes were collected in “A Date With a Dish: A Cookbook of American Negro Recipes,” published in 1948, which is among the first major African-American cookbooks published for a black audience.

“She understood that across the country there were black people and black professionals in every small town and every state, and that’s exactly who she was talking to,” said reporter Donna Battle Pierce, who is working on a book about Ms. DeKnight’s life. “She said, ‘I’m not writing this for anyone but us,’ and I love that concept.”

Ebony readers could share family recipes that would be tested by professional cooks and editors, and selected recipes would receive a $25 prize and a feature in the magazine. Internationally influenced recipes that Mrs. DeKnight had come to admire, such as rose petal pudding, fruitcake, peanut soup and mulligatawny soup, could be found among the pages of Ebony, along with refinements of dishes that were perhaps more familiar to the black American diaspora, including Ebony and Hoppin’ John’s Slow Cooker Chicken and Meatballs.

The Mrs. DeKnight column began to flourish after her death in 1963. Under food editors Charla L. Draper and then Mrs. Lyons, Ebony lined the column, sharing stories that helped readers prepare dishes like turnips, mustard greens, fried catfish and oven-roasted chicken.

“So many people have turned to Ebony for recipes they knew or had become part of our culture,” Ms. Lyons said. “And I think that’s why people liked this column so much. Maybe they didn’t get their grandmother’s recipe for pancakes or sweet potato pie. But we could create it for them, and we would bring it all to life.

Although the kitchen was not open to the public, a large window allowed all visitors to the building to have a look at whatever was pickling, boiling or browning. Celebrities, however, would sometimes get lucky. According to Ms Lyons, before Janet Jackson became a vegetarian, the singer was known to come and enjoy fried chicken with a little honey. Michael Jackson was known to visit, sometimes in disguise, while other celebrities like Mike Tyson and Sammy Davis, Jr. also stopped by. Even presidents, including Barack Obama, stopped by the iconic kitchen.

“Everyone was laughing because whenever presidents came, the Secret Service always liked to hang out in the test kitchen because I always had coffee and I always had food in a test kitchen,” she said.

The celebrity encounters are memorable, but for Dr. Harris, the magic of the test kitchen was its ability to educate the world about black American eating habits.

“An extraordinary number of African-American households have seen Ebony, whether they subscribe to it or not,” Dr. Harris said. “When you take into account that it was a magazine that was about international issues and people of international concern, and certainly food of international concern, you start to get a sense of how Ebony – through cooking, through the recipes that were tested in the kitchen – then expanded not only African American knowledge about food, our food, and our food in her American diaspora, but also about connecting to this world.

In addition to the restored kitchen, visitors to the “African American” exhibit in Harlem will learn about African American lifestyles, from agriculture and the culinary arts, to hospitality, to distilling and brewing at entrepreneurship and migration.

A colorful quilt that recognizes 406 African American contributions to food will greet guests as they enter the exhibit. A rotating shoebox tasting, hosted by chefs like Carla Hall, Adrienne Cheatham and Kwame Onwuachi, will end the experience for an additional fee, allowing visitors to engage in a tradition that African Americans have come to know on their travels in the separated Deep South.

“These stories are important,” said Catherine M. Piccoli, curatorial director of the Museum of Food and Drink, which curated the “African American” exhibit. “We need to be able to share them, we need to be able to recognize our shared history of trauma and racism, and also celebrate the ingenuity, creativity and eating habits of African Americans.”

The celebration begins by engaging with the test kitchen, a space that could so easily have been lost.

“It’s not just where a lot comes from, but it’s also something that’s with us and we still have,” Dr Harris said. “There’s so much we don’t have, it’s doubly worth revering because he survived, and barely.”

“African/American: Making the Table of the Nation,” presented by the Museum of Food and Drink and the Africa Center at Aliko Dangote Hall, 1280 Fifth Avenue, 212-444-9795, theafricacenter.org.

Receipts: Ebony Rose Petal Pudding | Ebony’s Chicken and Meatball Stew | Honey Glazed Carrots

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