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.”
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 Company 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 Company 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 a dollar. 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 Ms. DeKnight, who became the magazine’s first food editor in 1946.
An enthusiastic traveler and “leading home economist,” Ms. 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 the journalist Donna Battle Pierce, who is working on a book about Ms. 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 Ms. 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 Ms. DeKnight started bloomed after her death in 1963. Under the food editors Charla L. Draper and then Ms. 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,” Ms. 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.”
Though the kitchen wasn’t open to the public, a large window allowed any visitors to the building to get a glance at whatever was brining, boiling or browning. Celebrities, however, would occasionally have some luck. According to Ms. Lyons, before Janet Jackson became a vegetarian, the singer was known to pop in and enjoy fried chicken with a bit of 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, would stop by the iconic kitchen.
“Everybody used to laugh because whenever the presidents would come, the Secret Service used to always like to hang out in the test kitchen because I would always have coffee, and always had food in a test kitchen,” she said.
The celebrity encounters are memorable, but for Dr. Harris, the test kitchen’s magic was its ability to educate the world about Black American foodways.
“An extraordinary number of African American households saw Ebony whether or not they subscribed to it,” Dr. Harris said. “When you factor in that it was a magazine that did talk about international issues and people in international scope, and certainly food in international scope, you begin to get a sense of how Ebony — through the kitchen, through the recipes that were tested in the kitchen — then expanded not just African American knowledge of food, our food, and our food in its American diaspora, but of connecting that world.”
Along with the restored kitchen, visitors to the “African/American” exhibit in Harlem will learn about African American foodways, from agriculture and the culinary arts, hospitality, distilling and brewing to entrepreneurship and migration.
A colorful legacy quilt that recognizes 406 African American contributions in food will greet guests as they enter the exhibit. A rotating shoe-box lunch tasting, curated by chefs like Carla Hall, Adrienne Cheatham and Kwame Onwuachi, will end the experience for an additional fee, allowing visitors to engage with a tradition African Americans experienced while traveling through the segregated Deep South.
“These stories are important,” said Catherine M. Piccoli, the curatorial director of the Museum of Food and Drink, which organized the “African/American” exhibit. “We need to be able to share them, we need to be able to acknowledge our shared history of trauma and of racism, and also celebrate African American ingenuity, creativity and foodways.”
The celebration begins by engaging with the test kitchen, a space that could’ve so easily been lost.
“It is not only the place from which much emanated, but it is also a thing that is with us that we still have,” Dr. Harris said. “There are so many things that we don’t have, that this is doubly to be revered because it did survive, and only barely.”
“African/American: Making the Nation’s Table,” presented by the Museum of Food and Drink and the Africa Center at Aliko Dangote Hall, 1280 Fifth Avenue, 212-444-9795, theafricacenter.org.