The Reborn Ebony Test Kitchen was the Home of Black CuisineBreaking News
tags: African American history, cultural history, Ebony Magazine, Black Press
One morning in January, 2020, a group of curators and officials from the Museum of Food and Drink headed out to the industrial edge of Queens to assess the status of their most high-profile acquisition to date: the Ebony Test Kitchen. The kitchen, originally situated on the tenth floor of the Johnson Publishing Company Building, in downtown Chicago, tested recipes for Ebony magazine’s famed “Date with a Dish” cooking column, which became a touchstone of African American cuisine. “This kitchen, it’s like—I don’t even know if calling it the Black Julia Child’s kitchen does it justice, but it is that important,” Jessica B. Harris, one of the leading scholars of Black culinary history, told me. In 2017, news emerged that the building which housed the kitchen was about to be converted into apartments. To save it, volunteer preservationists rushed in and dismantled the kitchen in a single weekend. They selected mofad as the new stewards. In February, it will finally be put on display, in an exhibition called “African/American: Making the Nation’s Table,” curated by Harris, at the Africa Center, in Harlem. “Let’s hope I keep it together,” Harris told me, as we prepared to head to the Queens warehouse. “Those walls will start shimmering and talking. I probably contributed to some of the grease on them.”
The Ebony Test Kitchen was part of a decades-long project by John H. Johnson, the first African American to make Forbes’s list of the richest Americans. Johnson built a publishing empire dedicated to the idea of accurately reflecting Black culture and achievements; he founded Ebony in 1945, and modelled it after the large, photo-driven format of Life magazine. “Before I started Ebony you’d never know from reading other publications that blacks got married, had beauty contests, gave parties, ran successful businesses, or carried on any normal living activities,” Johnson reportedly said. Alongside life-style stories, Johnson’s multiple magazines published unflinching journalism. In 1955, Jet published graphic photographs of Emmett Till’s mutilated body in its casket, at his mother’s request, spurring national outrage and helping to jump-start the civil-rights movement. For a time, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., served as an advice columnist at Ebony.
The Johnson Publishing Company Building, the headquarters of Johnson’s empire, was designed by John Warren Moutoussamy, an African American student of the modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Inside, “it was like ‘Mad Men,’ O.K.?” Harris said. “It was that building done by an African American millionaire who was conscious of what that building meant to everybody else.” The design wove in celebrations of Black achievement, including a collection of work by Black artists, and a library of volumes written primarily by or about Black people. Cutting-edge technology, like a conference room “picturephone,” was included alongside “employee-pampering conveniences in which black creativity could blossom and the production of black magazines would be a joy,” an Ebony feature read. The headquarters included men’s and women’s lounges with a full range of hair-care products, “so that employees can keep their Afros styled.”
The interior featured rollicking colors; walls covered in suède, leather, and African wood; and rampaging geometric patterns. Carla Hall, a chef and the former co-host of “The Chew,” who is consulting on the exhibition, told me that, when she saw the kitchen for the first time, it reminded her of her family’s. “I was, like, Of course,” she said. “I remember our kitchen, with those handles and the brown panelling, you know? You think about the avocado green and that mustard and that orange—that was my mother’s house. Right? That mid-century funkadelic.” In 1985, Johnson hired Charlotte Lyons as Ebony’s food editor. When she arrived for her interview, he asked a crucial question: Could she bake a pound cake? “I could bake one with my eyes closed,” Lyons, who had previously worked at Betty Crocker, told me. Johnson sent someone out to buy supplies, and then they took Lyons up to the kitchen, with its psychedelic immersion. “At first I’m just looking around. I’m, like, ‘Oof, you wouldn’t want to have a drink up in this kitchen,’ ” she said. “It was the swirls.” The pound cake was delicious. She was hired on the spot.
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