Ebony magazine had a significant food section, becoming a touchstone for African American cooking. Before a recipe made it to print, it was put through the wringer in the Test Kitchen inside the Johnson Publishing building here in Chicago.
The kitchen became a hub for Black culinary experimentation, with food editors emphasizing both traditional cuisine and expanding on it for a modern audience.
Back in 2018, Landmarks Illinois rescued the orange and green, 1970s-style kitchen from demolition. The test kitchen was one of the last remaining features of the building that was still intact at the time. The kitchen is now on display in New York’s Harlem neighborhood as part of an exhibit called “African/American: Making the Nation’s Table.”
Charla Draper, Ebony magazine’s second food editor and the first to work in the cutting-edge kitchen, recently told WBEZ’s Reset that the kitchen was designed to convey “the creativity and warmth of the African American reader of Ebony magazine.”
The magazine’s food section, including its iconic A Date With a Dish column, had an impact on the perceptions people had about the Black culinary world.
“One of the things that the food section did was share with the world that African Americans cooked other things besides the traditional Southern recipes of fried chicken, greens and beans,” Draper said. “We cooked some of those foods, but we were also interested in cooking items that we may have come into contact with.”
For example, the magazine had a section that talked about pasta, with separate recipes for different skill levels, Draper explained.
The Museum of Food and Drink, which is based in Brooklyn and organized the display, restored the kitchen and moved it to New York after taking temporary ownership of it, according to a New York Times article.
The exhibit in Harlem includes a legacy quilt. At 14 by 30 feet, it includes quilt squares of African Americans who have contributed to the country’s culinary world over the past 400 years.
Draper has her own square there, along with food enthusiasts and innovators like James Hemmings, who goes back to Thomas Jefferson’s era.
Visitors can also submit their own stories of African American culinary heroes through an interactive, virtual experience, Amsterdam News reported – showing that the work of documenting and celebrating culinary history continues today.
When the kitchen was still operational, Ebony readers could share recipes, which professional cooks and editors would then test, according to the New York Times. Authors of selected recipes would get $25 prizes and features in the magazine.
The space wasn’t open to the public, but celebrities were known to stop by the Johnson Publishing headquarters and visit the Ebony kitchen.
“Rev. Jesse Jackson was a special visitor during his campaign for president while I was there,” Draper said. “Also, I had an opportunity to meet Billy Dee Williams, who was in the building, and you just never knew who might come into the kitchen.”
Those visitors got to see the kitchen in all its glory. Besides its psychedelic colors on the walls, it had “a lot of little secret stuff,” former food editor Charlotte Lyons told The New Yorker last month.
A toaster popped out of the wall. Can openers were built into the counters. A Ronson Foodmatic could come out of the counter and had attachments for stirring, folding, creaming, whipping, blending, beating, pureeing, grating, chopping and liquefying, according to The New Yorker. It also worked as a juicer, knife sharpener, meat grinder, shredder, coffee mill and ice crusher.
The kitchen will be on display in Harlem until June 19, 2022, which is Juneteenth.
Bianca Cseke is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow her @biancacseke1.