The Ebony test kitchen, where Black cuisine was celebrated, is reborn

When Charlotte Lyons first stepped into the Ebony test kitchen in Chicago after becoming the magazine’s food editor in 1985, one thought ran through her mind: “Whoa!”

Here, amid the psychedelic waves of orange, green and purple that swirled along the walls, Black cuisine was freed to be experimental and futuristic. For Ebony readers, the magazine’s food was a central element of Black identity and pride.

When the kitchen was built in the early 1970s, it heralded the magazine’s place in the culinary pantheon, a legacy that began a quarter-century before with Freda DeKnight, an exalted cook and food editor who paved a path for future generations of Black women in American food media.

“The Ebony kitchen was certainly one of the ways that a lot of people, both African American and non-African American, became aware of the vastness of the scope of African American food,” said Jessica B. Harris, a food scholar and author of “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America.”

Harris is the lead curator for “African/American: Making the Nation’s Table,” an exhibition at the Africa Center at Aliko Dangote Hall in Harlem where the kitchen, rebuilt and restored by the Museum of Food and Drink, a mobile museum based in Brooklyn, will be on display through June 19.

Lee Bey, an adjunct professor of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, said the look of the kitchen was almost indescribable. “I liken it to a kind of Afrocentric Modernism, where there are colors and fabrics, and leather and ostrich feathers and color and wallpaper with angled patterns on it and every floor looks different,” he said.

When it was built a half-century ago, the Ebony kitchen was at the heart of Black American food culture in the media. John H. Johnson, the owner of Johnson Publishing Co. in Chicago, had built a headquarters that reflected Black creativity and innovation, which his company covered through some of the nation’s foremost 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 décor, with then-state-of-the-art technology like grills, mixers, a hidden toaster, a trash compactor and refrigerator with an ice and water dispenser.

It was almost lost to history. Johnson Publishing Co. closed the kitchen in 2010 and sold the building to a Chicago developer, but Landmarks Illinois, a preservation nonprofit, was able to save the kitchen before it was destroyed, buying it for $1. The Museum of Food and Drink took temporary ownership of the kitchen and moved it to New York, where it restored the room to its former funky glory.

Before the test kitchen’s opening, some of the most important Black women in American food journalism had created the food coverage in Ebony, including DeKnight, who became the magazine’s first food editor in 1946.

An enthusiastic traveler and “leading home economist,” DeKnight traveled throughout the United States to learn the culinary traditions of Black American home cooks and to gain a deeper understanding of international cuisines and flavors. She shared her findings through recipes published in her monthly, photo-heavy column, “A Date With a Dish,” which spoke to Black cooks with varying degrees of knowledge and experience. Many of those 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 all over the country, there were Black people and Black professionals in every little city and in every single state, and that’s exactly who she went after,” said journalist Donna Battle Pierce, who is working on a book about DeKnight’s life. “She said, ‘I’m not writing this for anybody 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 DeKnight had grown to admire, such as rose petal pudding, fruitcake, peanut soup and mulligatawny soup, could be found among Ebony’s pages, along with refinements to dishes that were perhaps more familiar to the Black American diaspora, including Ebony’s stewed chicken and dumplings and Hoppin’ John.

The column DeKnight started bloomed after her death in 1963. Under food editors Charla L. Draper and then Lyons, Ebony doubled down on the column, sharing stories that helped readers prepare dishes like turnips, mustard greens, fried catfish and oven fried chicken.

“So many people looked to Ebony for recipes that they were familiar with or had been part of our culture,” Lyons said. “And I think that’s why people loved that column so much. Maybe they didn’t get the recipe for their grandmother’s pancakes or sweet potato pie. But we could create it for them, and we would bring all of that stuff to life.”

 

Honey-Glazed Carrots

These sweet, citrusy carrots are an ideal accompaniment to savory, hearty main dishes, like Ebony’s stewed chicken and dumplings from the magazine’s first food editor, Freda DeKnight. This adaptation streamlines the usage of a pot and baking dish in the original and requires only a single ovenproof skillet. The dish tastes just the same and reflects DeKnight’s commitment to fresh ingredients and vibrant flavors in her cooking.

Yield: 2 to 4 servings

Total time: 40 minutes

— 6 to 8 carrots, peeled

— 2 tablespoons orange juice

— 2 tablespoons honey

— 1 tablespoon butter

— Salt

— 1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Fill an ovenproof skillet that can fit the carrots with 1 to 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Add the carrots and add more water if needed to cover the carrots. Reduce the heat to simmer the carrots until they’re tender but not soft, about 15 minutes.

Pour the water out of the skillet, keeping the carrots in the skillet by holding them back with a spatula. Add the juice, honey and butter to the skillet and stir to mix (the butter may not melt all the way). Roll the carrots in the mixture, season them with salt and transfer to the oven.

Bake, gently rolling the carrots once, until the carrots are glazed, about 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt and sprinkle with parsley.

— Recipe from Freda DeKnight; adapted by Kayla Stewart

 

Ebony’s Stewed Chicken and Dumplings

This warming dish remains a constant in African American cuisine. Comforting and indulgent, it follows a formula that was familiar to Ebony’s audience. Published in 1962, the original recipe from food editor Freda DeKnight called for a 4 1/2- to 5-pound stewing hen that, she wrote, could take 2 to 3 1/2 hours to cook “depending on the age and quality of the bird.” Today, smaller, fresh young chickens are readily available in most supermarkets, so the meat becomes tender much more quickly, making it easier to dig into this one-bowl meal even faster.

Yield: 4 servings

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

For the chicken:

— 1 (4-pound) whole chicken

— 1/2 cup chopped onion

— 1/2 cup chopped celery with tops

— 1 1/2 teaspoons fine salt

— 1/2 teaspoon flavor enhancer, such as Ac’cent or chicken bouillon granules

— 1/4 teaspoon garlic salt

— 1/4 teaspoon paprika

For the dumplings:

— 1 cup all-purpose flour

— 2 teaspoons baking powder

— 1/2 teaspoon sugar

— 1/2 teaspoon fine salt

— 1/2 cup whole milk

— 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley, plus more for garnish

Prepare the chicken: Cut the chicken into 8 pieces with the back bones (2 breasts, 2 thighs, 2 drumsticks, 2 wings). You also can buy the chicken already cut up. Place in a large, heavy cooking pot or Dutch oven, and add the onion, celery, salt, flavor enhancer, garlic salt, paprika and enough cold water to just cover the meat (about 4 cups).

Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Skim any foam from the surface, then reduce the heat to low and simmer gently until the chicken is almost completely tender, about 45 minutes.

When the chicken is almost done, make the dumplings: Whisk the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in a medium bowl. Add the milk and stir to form a thick, smooth batter.

Uncover the pot, and drop heaping teaspoons of the dumpling batter on top of the chicken, spacing apart slightly. Sprinkle with the parsley and cover the pot. Cook for 20 minutes without lifting the lid. If you cut into a dumpling, the dough should be cooked through to the center. Serve the chicken and dumplings on a platter or in serving dishes, garnished with more parsley.

— Recipe from Freda DeKnight; adapted by Kayla Stewart

 

Ebony’s Rose Petal Pudding

Freda DeKnight introduced many signature dishes to Ebony magazine in the mid-20th century. One was her rose petal pudding, which was beloved by Ebony staffers and readers alike. Although its origin story is unclear, it’s likely that DeKnight, the magazine’s food editor and a frequent traveler, created the dessert from her research and willingness to incorporate international flavors into her cooking. This warm pudding provides a sweet taste of one of the most significant culinary periods in the nation. The rose icing is divine, and the aromatic pudding, which resembles bread pudding, is really lovely. The original recipe calls for 1/4 cup of rose water, which will give the pudding a very pronounced floral flavor, so you can choose an amount that is pleasing to you.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Total time: 2 1/2 hours

For the pudding:

— 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the mold

— 6 slices white bread, toasted and finely ground (about 3 cups)

— 1 cup sugar

— 1 1/2 cups almonds, finely ground, or 2 1/4 cups almond flour

— 1 tablespoon baking powder

— 1/2 teaspoon fine salt

— 1/2 teaspoon ground mace

— 1/4 packed cup dried edible small rose petals, picked over for stems

— 3 large eggs

— 3/4 cup whole milk

— 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

— 1 tablespoon rose water, plus more if desired

For the icing:

— 2 cups powdered sugar

— 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

— 1/4 cup currant jelly or seedless raspberry jam

— 1/2 teaspoon ground mace

— 1 teaspoon rose water

— 2 tablespoons whole milk or cream, plus more as needed

— Crystallized rose petals, for garnish (optional; see tip)

Make the pudding: Butter a 7- to 8-cup heatproof pudding mold or other deep baking dish or bowl.

Meanwhile, combine the breadcrumbs, sugar, almonds, baking powder, salt, mace and rose petals in a large bowl or bowl of a stand mixer. Using an electric hand mixer or the paddle attachment of a stand mixer, mix the dry ingredients just to blend, about 10 seconds, then add the butter and beat until well combined, about 1 minute. In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with the milk, lemon juice and rose water. Add to the bread mixture and beat until everything is evenly moistened, about 1 minute.

Spoon the pudding mixture into the prepared mold; it should come two-thirds up the sides of the mold. Cover tightly with aluminum foil, crimping it around the edges to seal.

Place the covered mold in a wide pot or Dutch oven large enough to fit it with space around and over it. Add enough water to the pot to meet the middle of the bowl. Bring the water to a boil over medium heat, then cover the pot and reduce the heat to maintain a low simmer. Steam, replenishing with boiling water as needed so there’s always enough to reach the middle of the bowl, until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Cover tightly with foil again if the pudding needs to continue steaming after you insert the skewer.

When the pudding is done, uncover the pot and let the pudding cool in the pot for about 5 minutes. Wearing oven mitts or protecting your hands with kitchen towels, grip the mold and transfer it to a heatproof work surface. If the pudding seems stuck to the mold, run a thin knife or spatula around the edges of the mold. Center a serving plate larger than the mold over the mold, then hold both tightly together and flip. The pudding should release onto the plate. If it doesn’t, tap the mold a few times, then lift off the mold. Let the pudding cool to warm.

While the pudding cools slightly, make the icing: In a medium bowl, combine the powdered sugar, butter, jelly, mace and rose water. Beat or whisk until smooth, then stir in the milk. If the icing is too thick to pour, add more milk by the tablespoon.

While the pudding is still warm, coat it with the icing. If you have any icing left over, serve alongside the pudding. Decorate the pudding using the crystalized rose petals if you’d like. Serve warm.

Tip: If you’d like to decorate your dessert with crystallized fresh rose petals, start by purchasing organic edible roses that are safe for consumption. A day before serving your dessert, pluck 1/4 cup petals from the roses. Beat 1 large egg white in a medium bowl, and place 1/4 cup granulated or superfine sugar in another bowl. Dip each rose petal into the egg white, then into the sugar to coat. Place on a wire rack and freeze overnight.

— Recipe from Freda DeKnight; adapted by Kayla Stewart