Welcome to Plating the Past: A Year with the NCNW Cookbook! We are so excited that you stumbled upon our page.

We want to take some time to introduce you to the project, tell you about what makes this particular cookbook so special, and share some of our hopes for the coming year. 


Kayleigh: I found this cookbook in the course of my dissertation work a couple of years ago. As it did not directly pertain to my research interests, I set it aside and only occasionally thought about it. Graduate school is full of moments like this – you encounter so many books and resources that it is impossible to spend meaningful time with everything. However, this past year I was working on a conference proposal and it came across my desk again. This time I decided to take a look and was completely surprised by what I found. I had always assumed that the cookbook was focused on family histories, which would have been interesting in their own right, but this was something different. Instead of recipes that were passed down through generations, which perhaps some of these are, the “historical” element was captured in the organization of the cookbook itself and it was full of details and insights into African American history. 

Well, you know what they say about assuming things… Anyway, I reached out to Abena with this ambitious idea and now we have weekly plans for 2023. 

Abena: Kayleigh introduced me to this cookbook. As a 19th century historian, it’s an absolute gem of a find, and I immediately knew I had to buy it and be a part of this project! Similarly to Kayleigh, it is somewhat tangential to my work so I appreciate Kayleigh for diving in first and telling me about it.  Published in the mid-twentieth century, the book highlights the significant historical figures, institutions, and moments that have shaped Black American, and broader American history, featuring a lot of 19th century figures (many of which/who have not been the focal point of popular historical interest). This is what drew me to this cookbook: it is a collection  not just of interesting and historical recipes, but, simultaneously, it is an anthology of mini-testaments to people, institutions, and moments that the National Council of Negro Women, and, undoubtedly, many other Black women who were not members, deemed important. This means it gives us insight into Black women’s memory of history until 1958, a demographic that does not often get to be the center of examinations of memory. 

Original cover and title page, published 1958


Cover of Reprinted Edition, 2000

The cookbook was published in 1958 after a decade of work by Sue Bailey Thurman, the Cookbook Committee, and contributors across the country. The 1940s and 1950s were decades of great change in the United States, and African Americans in particular. World War II had created massive demographic shifts across the country as African Americans moved out of the South for higher paying war-industry jobs and to escape oppressive Jim Crow laws that continued to rule in the South. Not only were these laws legally upholding segregation, but white supremacists continued to commit violence against Black communities with impunity. 

At the time of the cookbook’s publishing, Brown v. Board of Education had been decided in favor of Oliver Brown, ending the legal segregation of public schools, and nonviolent protests like the Montgomery Bus Boycott had started in the South. However, it would still be two years until the famous student sit-in movement started in Greensboro and Nashville and six years until the Civil Rights Act was passed. 

While all of this was taking place, there were strong and influential African American institutions pressing forward across the United States. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a number of Black colleges and universities like Morehouse College, Spelman College, Fisk University, and Howard University, and women’s organizations like the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) were committed to preserving African American culture and furthering their political interests.The Historical Cookbook should be understood as a contribution to these efforts. This cookbook was designed for a popular audience, most likely African American women, marketed through the organization’s extensive national network, and intended to engage the women in a “year-long celebration of black heritage.” 

Florida Photographic Collection
Mary McLeod Bethune (ca. 1920) Coursen, W. L. (William Ludlow), 1880-1967.

The NCNW was founded by Mary McLeod Bethune in 1935 in order to advance opportunities for African American women and families and improve life generally for the race. It was an umbrella organization, based in Washington D.C. that invited women’s groups from across the nation to affiliate in order to coordinate their efforts towards advancement in the political, economic, educational, and professional fields. All of this work foregrounded women and their specific efforts in communities and national politics (Bethune herself worked closely with President Franklin D. Roosevelt as an advisor for the National Youth Administration and organizer of the “Black Cabinet”). The funds raised from selling this book would have sustained that work, but the book also contributed to their cause by affirming women’s role as educators and leaders in their homes.

In the 2000 edition of the book, Dr. Anne L. Bower emphasizes this point by pointing out that this history would have been read by women while they were preparing the meal. They would then share the information that they learned with their male relatives and friends at the dinner table or during family gatherings. 

Kayleigh: I have been studying Sue Bailey Thurman for years at this point, so there are a number of things about her that I admire. One of them that is especially present in this cookbook is the way that she integrates the past into the present. In the Historical Cookbook by associating certain people or events with recipes she is making the historical figures part of a present action. For example, when making a peanut cake in honor of George Washington Carver the cook and the consumer were bringing the “Plant Doctor” in their experience, communing with him at the dinner table. This is exactly the kind of thing that you find throughout Bailey Thurman’s writings whether it’s journalistic work, historic monographs, or her narratives. 

It encourages us to think about history as a practice. Is it only written by historians with formal training? Does it take place within the walls of the academy? Can it only be told in one way? 


We wanted to experience this approach to history for ourselves, so we are going to cook through the book. Beginning on January 3rd, we will be posting a recipe (and documenting our attempts at making it) every other Monday. The posts will include a brief overview of the historical figure or organization honored by the recipe including the information provided by the cookbook and anything else we can find out or happen to know. We will then detail our experiences attempting to make said recipes and what we think about the final product. 

We have started mapping out our first couple of months and have found a few logistical points worth noting. First, the recipes are not evenly distributed across the months. Some weeks there will be multiple dates/figures from which to choose. In these cases we will make our choice based on the recipes that we feel most confident we can make, as well as figures that we are interested in learning more about. There will also be weeks where there are no recipes, so we will not be posting those weeks. 

We would also note that not everyone included in the book is African American. We are going to try to prioritize the African American entries where possible and make clear why other non-Black figures are included. Sue Bailey Thurman was a true integrationist and globalist, so it is not surprising that there is a diverse racial representation in the book. 


Kayleigh: One of the remarkable things about the cookbook is that not all of the people, events, or places celebrated are well-known, especially in the 21st century. I am looking forward to learning about these figures and in so doing, learning more about the historical understanding of Sue Bailey Thurman and the women of the NCNW. 

Abena: I’m a bit of a nerd about affect and finding how we can explore history considering those we study as three dimensional people with emotions, preferences, and desires. So, the opportunity to cook recipes that have been cooked throughout time by countless people, is exciting to me. A dish in this cookbook was someone’s favorite; a cake, one that was baked yearly for a daughter’s birthday; a punch made for countless parties; a pie just for dinner on a Thursday. I’m really excited to taste what we make and imagine the many scenarios in which they have been made and eaten! 

Thank you for reading about this exciting piece of history. We hope you’ll join us this year!


Image Credits
Photograph of NAACP Leadership: New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff Photographer: Al Ravenna
Mary McLeod Bethune Portrait: Mary McLeod Bethune – Daytona Beach, Florida. 1915 (circa). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. <https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/730>, accessed 3 January 2022.
(State Archives of Florida/Coursen)
Mary McLeod Bethune and Students in FL: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. <https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/149519>, accessed 3 January 2022.(State Archives of Florida)

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