Washington County woman recognized in state museum food exhibit

Jonathan Roberts • Nov 17, 2019 at 9:00 AM

Not much is known about Washington County’s Malinda Russell.

But as the Tennessee State Museum found out, it’s hard to tell the story of Tennessee’s culinary history and culture without her.

Born as a free woman of color in Washington County around 1812, Russell began cooking around the age of 19, and became the first known black woman to publish a cookbook, even though becoming a cook wasn’t in her plans.

In fact, her story and life, is one rife with tragedy — but also one of perseverance.

And that’s exactly why the Tennessee State Museum decided to bring her story and many others to the forefront, telling the story of Tennessee’s rich food history through the people who created it.

“It’s people like her that spread these recipes, so much of this cuisine was spread by people who did it (because of) economic necessity, and she’s a really good example of that,” said exhibit curator Rob DeHart.

Around 1831, Russell planned to start a new life by moving to Liberia, but was robbed in Virginia and had to settle in Lynchburg, where she began cooking. While in Virginia, she met her husband and had one child, a son who she described as “crippled.” Her husband died four years after they wed.

After her husband died, Russell moved to Greene County — her mother’s birthplace — and opened a boarding house on Chuckey Mountain in the Cold Springs area. After three years, she managed to open her own pastry shop around 1858, but things took a turn for the worse when the Civil War began.

“(B)y hard labor and economy, (I) saved a considerable sum of money for the support of myself and son, which was taken from me on the 16th of January, 1864, by a guerrilla party, who threatened my life if I revealed who they were,” Russell wrote in the foreword of her book. “Under those circumstances, we were obliged to leave home, following a flag of truce out of the Southern borders, being attacked several times by the enemy.”

Plagued by threats of violence, Russell and her son fled the war-torn South, and made their way to Paw Paw, Michigan, where she published her cookbook in 1866. In closing her foreword, Russell longed to return home to Greeneville, and hoped the money she made with her book would be enough to get her home.

“This is one reason why I publish my Cook Book, hoping to receive enough from the sale of it to enable me to return home,” she wrote.

After the book’s publication in May of 1866 though, there is no record of Malinda Russell.

It’s is unknown whether she lived the rest of her life in Michigan, or if she was able to return to Tennessee. Had a copy of her book not been preserved, it’s likely there would be little or no knowledge of who Malinda Russell was and of her story.

“She was such a fascinating story, being a free woman of color,” DeHart said. “So far, it’s been really hard to find any record of her aside from this cookbook.

“It’s just great to bring her out of obscurity and try to get her better known to more people,” DeHart added.

The exhibit, “Let’s Eat! Origins and Evolutions of Tennessee Food” is open now through Feb 2, 2020 at the museum’s location in Nashville. Aside from Russell, the exhibit will feature stories from across the state throughout its history, dozens of artifacts, interactive activities and videos.

To honor Russell’s recipes, the museum recreated two of her recipes, which will be displayed on at the exhibit. You can also view the re-made recipes at tnmuseum.org/Stories/posts/lets-eat-recipes.