Today ahead of Juneteenth we’re launching “By Us For Everyone,” a three-part series about how Black American food is represented in media, and how those portrayals change when Black people are in charge of them. In the 1940s and ‘50s, Ebony was one of the only magazines created by Black people that spoke directly to Black people. It showed Black Americans falling in love, playing sports, dressing in style, gathering together – and eating. Freda DeKnight was the magazine’s first food editor, publishing recipes that were international and sophisticated, challenging the stereotype that Black American food was limited to soul food. Dan speaks with historian Donna Battle Pierce about Freda’s legacy, then meets Charla Draper, another Ebony food editor, at the Ebony test kitchen. After sitting unused for more than a decade, the kitchen and its original 1970s appliances have been restored and transported to New York for a new exhibit by the Museum of Food and Drink.
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Johanna Mayer, Tracey Samuelson, and Jared O'Connell, with editing help this week from Oluwakemi Aladesuyi, Hali Bey Ramdene, and Alexis Williams.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Twenty 99" by Erick Anderson
- "Birthday Party" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Lucky Strike" by Erick Anderson
- "Pong" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Can You Dig It" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Trippin" by Erick Anderson
- "Happy Jackson" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
Photo courtesy of Museum of Food and Drink.
Charla Draper: Our first issue under my leadership was for New Year's and the recipes were for corn bread, black eyed peas, a baked ham and greens. And one of the readers wrote and told me that the cornbread recipe was wrong because the mix was sweetened and you did not put sugar in cornbread. And I mean, that's a big point of controversy.
Dan Pashman: Tension. Right.
Charla Draper: Sugar in the cornbread. And she sent me her recipe so that I would have a correct recipe for cornbread.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] Did you try it?
Charla Draper: No, I don't think I did.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. This week ahead of Juneteenth, we’re kicking off a three-part series called “By Us For Everyone”. It’s a look at how Black American food is represented in media, past and present, and how those portrayals change when Black people are in charge of them.
CLIP (NICOLE BEYER): I think I had like one big goal and that was to bust through the door and keep it open for other Black and Brown people who wanted to work in food media.
Dan Pashman: Over these episodes we’ll share the stories of several influential cookbook authors, food editors, and publishers from the past century.
CLIP (STEPHEN SATTERFIELD): Being a black publisher in 2022, that’s out here getting it like, there’re still not too many of us out here.
Dan Pashman: And we begin today with the story of the first food editor at Ebony Magazine. For decades, before the internet, Ebony was where many Black Americans turned for recipes. Ebony was created by Black people, and it spoke directly to Black people, bringing together fashion, food, celebrities, and more to depict a lifestyle.
Donna Battle Pierce: I grew up with Ebony. And I remember it as a, as a young girl. And this was Jim Crow era when everything was divided.
Dan Pashman: This is Donna Battle Pierce. She’s a food writer and historian — and she’s writing a book about Ebony’s first food editor. Donna was inspired to write the book in part because Ebony had such an impact on her as a young woman.
Donna Battle Pierce: We had very little control over what media said about us. Things were constantly being made fun of or ridiculed.
Dan Pashman: She says growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, Black people and their food were rarely represented at all in white-owned media. When they were, it was usually as stereotypical servants — think Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben.
Dan Pashman: Donna grew up in a middle class Black community in Columbia, Missouri. Her mother had a doctorate in education and her father was a school principal. But she rarely saw her own experience reflected back to her in media:
Donna Battle Pierce: The parties that your parents gave and the, you know, the wonderful society groups and church and all of that did have people that were well-educated and well-dressed and intellectual and all of that. And so that's the division that Black people knew the both parts of, and white people had no idea about. So Ebony was very meaningful because it brought that part of our culture into our lives and highlighted those people. And Ebony said, yes, here they are.
Dan Pashman: Ebony’s first issue came out in 1945. The magazine’s founder and publisher John H. Johnson grew up in Arkansas, moved to Chicago, and would make millions in the publishing business. He said Ebony’s mission was to paint a fuller picture of Black America. To show Black people falling in love, getting married, gathering together, and doing it in style. It was part representation, part aspiration.
Dan Pashman: And the person who set the tone for Ebony’s food coverage from its very early days was its first food editor, Freda DeKnight.
Donna Battle Pierce: She was very adaptable, very inquisitive, and totally enthralled with food and cooking.
Dan Pashman: Freda was born in the early 1900s, in Topeka, Kansas. Donna says based on that timeframe, her grandparents were probably enslaved. Her father died when she was 2, and her mother was a traveling nurse, so she was often away. Freda was mostly raised in South Dakota by her aunt and uncle, Paul and Mamie Scott.
Dan Pashman: The Scotts were caterers. Donna says they were well known in their area of South Dakota, where they cooked mostly for white people.
Donna Battle Pierce: They were introducing dishes to people and they were cooking the chickens they raised and they were cooking the wonderful vegetables — you know, eggplants, and they were using seasonings that maybe some people had not been exposed to.
Dan Pashman: Even as a young child, Freda helped out. She once told an interviewer that by the time she was 5 she could bake biscuits and garnish plates. She said, “Instead of cutting out paper dolls and playing house, I was cutting out recipes and playing cook.”
Dan Pashman: The Scotts didn’t just expose Freda to a wide range of flavors, they also exposed her to a lifestyle, good food and good living. The family was well off. Their catering business was successful and they owned land.
Dan Pashman: Freda graduated from Dakota Wesleyan University with a major in home economics and moved to New York City, where she worked as a dancer and a teacher. She was in her 30s when she married René DeKnight, a pianist for the Delta Rhythm Boys. This was in the wake of the Harlem Renaissance.
Donna Battle Pierce: They traveled everywhere, back and forth to Chicago to California. Traveled all over Europe. She’d always had a deep interest in all kinds of food. She’d always associated with immigrants from all different places and had been open to the dishes that people taught her. And then of course, Europe just redefined some of that. Just helped her to really jump in and learn more, as it does for lots of cooks, learn more about recipes and ingredients and dishes.
Dan Pashman: One night in about 1945, Freda was visiting Chicago. She was invited to dinner at a well-to-do friend’s house. At the last minute, the hosts learned that their caterer had been in an accident and wouldn’t be able to make it. Freda stepped in and cooked the meal, herself. The guests were blown away. And one of those guests just happened to be John H. Johnson, the founder and publisher of Ebony. He was so impressed that he asked Freda to send him the menu. She wrote it all up in an engaging, narrative style that made cooking sound fun. He offered her a job.
Dan Pashman: As Ebony’s food editor, Freda wrote a regular recipe column called Date with a Dish. And she featured Black celebrities of the day — Lena Horne making East Indian chicken. Dorothy Dandridge making cinnamon buns. A photo of Nat King Cole ran with Freda’s tamale pie recipe — he was said to be a fan of it.
Dan Pashman: In 1948 she published her first and only cookbook, also called Date with a Dish, which would be re-released in the 60's as the Ebony Cookbook. It’s an encyclopedia of recipes, from roast lamb in wine, to spiced pig’s feet, to Spanish rice. Freda made her mission clear in the introduction. I asked Donna to read an excerpt from it:
Donna Battle Pierce: "It is a fallacy long disproved that Negro cooks chefs, caterers and homemakers can adapt themselves only to the standard Southern dishes ... 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's Spanish, Italian, or east Indian in origin. There are no set rules for dishes created by most Negroes. They just seem to have a way of taking a plain everyday dish and improvising a gourmet's delight ... This love for food has given them the desire to make their dishes different, well-seasoned, and eye-appealing."
Dan Pashman: That’s such a powerful quote to me because it's such — first of all, it's just such a clear mission statement. This tells me that Frida DeKnight knew exactly what she wanted to do when she got put in charge of Ebony. It also, though … this sentiment that I see Freda DeKnight sharing in 1948 is one that I've talked to people in Black food media in the past few years, who are fighting the same battle to some degree. So seeing this quote was sort of some, for me, at least some combination of like inspiring and depressing.
Donna Battle Pierce: It's a battle that still going on.
Dan Pashman: Right, you know, this is 1948. So that 70 years later, excellent, talented Black people in the world of American food media are still saying, you know, we're a lot more than soul food and having to make that case.
Donna Battle Pierce: Well that's because editors for the most part are still people that have, um, have that point of view and editors have a very strong role in what's depicted.
Dan Pashman: But at Ebony, Freda was the editor. She was the one who decided what foods were covered and how they were characterized. And she didn’t just work behind the scenes. Her picture often appeared in the magazine, alongside her columns and recipes, for dishes like lobster thermidor, swiss steak, and rice and beef cakes.
Dan Pashman: As the 1950’s went on, her star rose. She became a spokesperson for multiple brands, and wrote about the business benefits of appealing to Black consumers. She appeared on TV to share cooking tips, and toured the country as a speaker at both Black and white colleges.
CLIP (NARRATOR): A leading home economist is Mrs. Freda DeKnight of Ebony magazine. Her popular articles on food and home furnishings and her book A Date With a Dish have won international honor …
Dan Pashman: This is from an old black-and-white video series from 1953, meant to highlight the contributions of Black Americans. We don’t actually hear Freda in the video — only the narrator. But just watching her, she moves around the kitchen like someone very comfortable being in charge. She gives instructions to a woman who seems to be taking careful notes. Then she holds up a cake and inspects it, offering commentary on it to an assistant.
CLIP (NARRATOR): … And only perfection rates the DeKnight stamp of approval.
Dan Pashman: Freda once said in an interview, “Food can be glamorous. 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.”
Donna Battle Pierce: Her favorite quote was, "By us for us", as opposed to like the plantation style cookbooks, which had been popular before. But she was talking about doing it for our culture, as opposed to doing it to be appreciated by the white culture. And she wanted to claim our part in all of American culture.
Dan Pashman: In 1963, Freda DeKnight died of cancer. She was in her 50s and she’d been at Ebony for 17 years. Negro Digest magazine, another Johnson publication, ran a five-page tribute. It began, “Through her astute knowledge and brilliant use of food and fashion, Freda DeKnight helped to forge a new image for American Negro women.”
Dan Pashman: Even though Donna never met Freda, she always felt a connection. The women in Donna’s family passed down Freda’s recipes, and both Donna’s grandmothers happened to know Freda, they were friends. When Donna told her parents she wanted to go into food as a career, they weren’t happy. Her parents were educators. Her dad was a principal who helped desegregate his school district.
Donna Battle Pierce: And they did not want me to do anything with food because they said that's something that Black people have always been known for — wonderful to do for family, but not to do it as a career.
Dan Pashman: But Freda showed Donna that a career in food could be both glamorous and important. After all, integration didn’t only have to happen in schools. Donna went on to work as a test kitchen director and to become the first Black food writer at the Chicago Tribune. I ask Donna how Freda’s work has influenced her. She pauses, then before talking about Freda, goes back to her own childhood …
Donna Battle Pierce: It’s been a full circle for me. I had a lot of anger that I had to really get over. I’m still getting rid of the anger of having grown up in the community I did, watching my father who is this elegant administrator, and he, too, was elegant and had been a WWII veteran and college graduate. And watching — I was in the yard as a little girl watching a man walk by — a drunk man walk by — a drunk white man and call him boy. And my dad stood tall but he didn’t say anything. And that’s what — I know now that’s what he had to do to be alive for us now. And that’s still a vivid memory, I can be there, I see that. And so there’s lots of things that Freda has helped me with in terms of how she insisted on bringing so many stories to the front. It’s important for all of us to speak what we know as Black people. And that’s the inspiration from Freda, for me.
Dan Pashman: It feels like it’s given you a purpose.
Donna Battle Pierce: It’s helped direct my purpose.
Dan Pashman: Mm-hmm.
Donna Battle Pierce: My passion has always been food and fashion, that was my major in college. And then to learn about her made me understand exactly what she went through and the nuances that are there. And it’s given me a real determination. You know, this is not — this is not something that you retire from, this is something I’ll do forever because this is something that’s very important to my life.
Dan Pashman: In the time Freda was at Ebony, from the mid 40s to the mid 60s, its circulation doubled, to a million readers a month. The magazine became the cornerstone of John H. Johnson’s Publishing Company, which went on to launch Black World and Jet magazines, among others.
Dan Pashman: But after Freda died, food became a lower priority at Ebony. It would be 20 years before they hired another full-time food editor, Charla Draper. Coming up, I speak with Charla, and we visit the Ebony test kitchen where she worked, which has just been restored as part of a new museum exhibit. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman and I have some extremely exciting news! We are doing our first New York area live taping in 21/2 years! I’ll be talking with the founders of Omsom and Brooklyn Delhi about marketing their Asian-inspired food products to a mass American audience. What does it mean to be a “proud and loud” food brand, as Omsom likes to say? I think this conversation is going to be fun and thought provoking, and there will be food samples and products for sale, including Sfoglini’s cascatelli, it’s gonna be a blast.
Dan Pashman: While Freda DeKnight was working as the food editor at Ebony, Charla Draper was growing up on the south side of Chicago, about 10 miles from the Ebony building. Charla’s parents subscribed to the magazine, and she even had a family friend who worked there.
Charla Draper: Well, we always had Ebony at the house. Probably by the time I got into high school college, I could see the significance, some of the stories that Ebony would cover, because Ebony — it was an aspirational magazine. You know, it demonstrated people who came from humble beginnings who went on to become justices on the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall. And it also demonstrated you know the lifestyle of some of the rich and famous, whether it would be Lena Horne or Sammy Davis Jr.
Dan Pashman: Charla learned how to cook from her grandmothers — she says cooking is in her genes. In college she majored in home economics, with a minor in marketing. After she graduated in the 70s, she landed a job at Kraft, where that marketing minor came in handy.
Dan Pashman: Because Kraft wasn’t just interested in recipes — they were interested in the business of food. And for them that included a focus on Black consumers. The company worked with a Black advertising agency, came up with marketing that targeted Black Americans, and Charla was part of that effort.
Dan Pashman: Kraft was also where Charla learned about the importance of food styling. If you’re going to get people excited about a food product, or a recipe, the food’s gotta look good. But when she opened up Ebony’s food section around this time …
Charla Draper: It was, um, pretty dreadful looking.
Dan Pashman: How so? What made it dreadful looking?
Charla Draper: Well, it was very dark. It was extremely dark.
Dan Pashman: So it wasn't colorful? It wasn't bright?
Charla Draper: No, it was in color — it was in color, but it was browns and blacks and you know, nothing that would make the average person stop and say, wow, look at how good this looks. And as I worked with Kraft and the advertising agency, I looked more closely. The food pages came under scrutiny.
Dan Pashman: Charla knew what the issue at Ebony was.
Charla Draper: There was not an in-house food editor at that time.
Dan Pashman: Freda DeKnight’s role had gone unfilled for 20 years. In the wake of her death, the magazine was mostly just re-running her old Date with a Dish columns. Charla saw an opportunity.
Dan Pashman: She began to pester that family friend who worked at Ebony, and finally got a meeting with Mr. Johnson. She took a food spread from a recent issue and revamped it, mocked it up how she thought it should be done — colorful, enticing. She presented the two side by side to Mr. Johnson. In 1983, she got the job.
Dan Pashman: She started working to make the food coverage more contemporary, and added a popular feature called Reader Favorite Recipes. Readers would submit their recipes for a dish, and Charla would test them out. The winning entry got 50 bucks and their recipe published in the magazine. Within a year, Ebony’s revenue from food advertising increased 50 percent.
Dan Pashman: Now the food section was growing, just like the rest of the business had been for a while. Johnson was publishing five magazines by the time Charla started working there. They’d moved into a fancy office building on Michigan Ave — one of the most prestigious addresses in America. The building was one of the first high-rises in downtown Chicago designed by a Black architect. Charla says everything about it was first class. Especially the parties …
Charla Draper: They served the absolute primo quality shrimp.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Charla Draper: I have a good friend now that we still —‚ when we talk about Ebony, we go … shrimp!
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] You still remember the shrimp?
Charla Draper: Yes, yes, yes.
Dan Pashman: Well, what was it about the shrimp? Tell me about the shrimp.
Charla Draper: Well, they were delicious. I mean, they were huge.
Dan Pashman: Was it like shrimp cocktail style or it was cooked some other way?
Charla Draper: No, it was shrimp cocktail style. They were big. They were bigger than –—
Dan Pashman: Past hors d'oeuvres, big and juicy, and cooked just right?
Charla Draper: Yeah. Bigger than most people were used to seeing. But that's just an example of the primo quality you would find at Ebony magazine — at Johnson publishing company.
Dan Pashman: Right, right.
Charla Draper: Who wouldn't want to work at the Ebony buildings?
Dan Pashman: Especially, if you worked in food, because along with everything else in the building, there was a state-of-the-art test kitchen.
Dan Pashman: So should we go check out the Ebony test kitchen?
Charla Draper: Sounds good.
Dan Pashman: All right ...
Dan Pashman: In 2005, John Johnson died. A few years later, the Great Recession hit. That, combined with general hard times for magazines, forced Johnson Publishing to sell the building on Michigan Ave. It sat vacant for years, until 2017 when a developer decided to turn it into apartments. The Test Kitchen where Charla worked would be destroyed.
Dan Pashman: But at the last minute, a team of preservationists at Landmarks Illinois swooped in to find it a new home. The Museum of Food and Drink in New York acquired it. The kitchen was dismantled, moved to New York, and reassembled in the Africa Center in Harlem. That’s where I met up with Charla.
Dan Pashman: Wow.
Dan Pashman: We enter the kitchen. I had seen pictures of it. I knew it would be colorful, b`ut it is so much brighter in person.
Dan Pashman: How would you even describe the pattern on these walls, Charla?
Charla Draper: I would describe the walls as vibrantly colored, more of a psychedelic pattern. Orange would be the dominant color, I think.
Dan Pashman: Right, this pattern ...
Dan Pashman: All the walls, cabinets, even the front of the dishwasher, it is swirls of color. Mostly day-glo orange, with red, purple, and olive green mixed in.
Charla Draper: And one of the things that the decor does is it communicates the vibrancy of the African-American consumer market and coming from Kraft, our kitchen at Kraft was beige.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Charla Draper: So this was certainly an eye opener to come in here.
Dan Pashman: Right. It feels like just the, just the decor, the way this place looks makes it feel like a lot is happening here.
Charla Draper: Yes. And there were days when there was a lot going on, literally in the Ebony test kitchen.
Dan Pashman: It’s not super big, about the size of a standard home kitchen. But the appliances? They were high tech when the kitchen was built in the early ‘70s. Microwave, trash compactor, wall mounted can opener, two dishwashers …
Dan Pashman: The General Electric power scrub two-speed Americana line, and of course, it looks old fashion now, but, I mean —
Charla Draper: It was top of the line.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Charla Draper: Cutting edge.
Dan Pashman: In the center of the kitchen there’s an island with a six-burner stove. On one wall there’s an opening, a passthrough window, like you’d see in a restaurant where the cooks put the food up to be taken out to the dining room. Charla would put dishes she was testing out on the counter for employees to try, and have them vote on their favorites.
Dan Pashman: If I was working at a place with a test kitchen and a passthrough counter, I would make a point of walking past that passthrough counter quite a bit.
Charla Draper: Yes, yes.
Dan Pashman: Are those samples? Okay. I guess we'll be back in a half an hour then and see there's any samples later. [LAUGHS]
Charla Draper: Yes, yes. Yeah. We had a lot of foot traffic.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: And back in the day, on the other side of that passthrough window, were the elevators. Ebony was a regular stop for Black celebrities at the time. So when those elevator doors opened …
Charla Draper: You never knew who you might meet. The Jacksons, who were originally from Gary, Indiana ...
Dan Pashman: Of course.
Charla Draper: They would come over to the building on occasion ... so you never knew.
Dan Pashman: As I said to Charla, when she was working at Ebony in the 80’s, it was a time when technically, segregation was long past. But in practice …
Charla Draper: It was not.
Dan Pashman: Right. So from that perspective, what was it like to have this kind of a space?
Charla Draper: Well, it gave you a real sense of pride that a Black man from Arkansas had built this. When you say, say you represent Ebony magazine, people will pay attention and they will listen to what you're saying.
Dan Pashman: Charla spent two years as Ebony’s food editor. It was an early stop in a long career in food. She went on to be the food editor at Southern Living magazine, and worked in communications at Campbell’s Soup. Today, she runs her own food marketing company.
Dan Pashman: How does it feel to be back in here?
Charla Draper: Well, it feels, you know, certainly very nostalgic. And I'm glad they were able to save the Ebony kitchen. I was living in Alabama when the building was sold and that made me very sad, because, I mean, it's just a piece of history here,
Dan Pashman: What part of the Ebony test kitchen and Ebony's food coverage more broadly, do you feel like we can see in food media today?
Charla Draper: Well, there are so many people who are making a space in food media where maybe 25 years ago there was not space for so many voices. You have Toni Tipton Martin, who is now the editor in chief for Cook's Country magazine. There's Bryant Terry, who's a chef from the west coast and he's written that phenomenal book, Black Food.
Dan Pashman: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: Of course, there are many more. We’ll be hearing from others as this series progresses. It’s true that in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, media outlets have shown more interest in Black voices. But Charla also tells me she’s putting together a proposal for a cookbook of her own, and she’s started shopping it around.
Charla Draper: Well, you know, you know that saying the more things change, the more they stay the same. And one of the comments that I got was, "Well, do you know how many Black cookbooks there already are?", and I knew, and I said, "But on the other hand, do you know how many Italian cookbooks there are?"
Charla Draper: There have been significant inroads. There is a place at the table for more African-Americans and people of color today. And then there are also instances where you couldn't get a seat at the table. Well, let's build our own table.
Dan Pashman: Today, Ebony has gone the way of so many magazines — it’s digital only, no more print editions. But the legacy of their food coverage lives on in the next generation of Black Americans working in food media, some of whom we’ll feature in parts 2 and 3 of our series.
Dan Pashman: Next week, we hear from Nicole Taylor, who’s written a new cookbook for Juneteenth and Black celebrations. She calls it a love letter to Black people, but says it’s really for anyone who wants to cook something special and delicious for Juneteenth. She’ll explain why she included a recipe for grilled watermelon, despite the fruit’s connection to racist tropes:
CLIP (NICOLE TAYLOR): I know that for many decades, Black people and watermelon were linked to really ugly ads. But for me, as I moved through this cookbook, I had to block that noise out. I had to move forward with centering joy and centering what I know for so many Black folks is a very fond memory of summer of communing of tradition.
Dan Pashman: That’s next week in part two of our series “By Us For Everyone”. If you want to see the Ebony test kitchen for yourself, the Museum of Food and Drink’s African/American exhibit at the Africa Center in New York runs through June 19th, get more info at mofad.org.