The Powerful Legacy of "A Date With A Dish"
How Ebony Magazine's food coverage shaped popular cultureNicole Taylor
April 02, 2019
When we say the James Beard Foundation is about good food for good, it’s not limited to sustainable agriculture, the Farm Bill, or reducing food waste. Another important aspect of our mission is highlighting the myriad hands that have helped to shape American cuisine. Below, Nicole Taylor recounts the multi-decade influence of the Johnson Publishing Company and Ebony magazine, which through its lifestyle and food coverage created space for a more nuanced view of black foodways across America and the world.
Look inside old childhood homes with all-pink ceramic tiled powder rooms and loveseats draped in plastic covers, or bygone Los Angeles Sugar Hill neighborhood mansions with brown-textured Chippendale chifforobes, and find the magazine rack. There you’ll see those recognizable, bold, dark letters stamped to the upper left corner—prideful pages. In the United States and households abroad, Ebony Magazine was the authority for African-American lifestyles, from entertainment, to religion, to fashion, to food. From a monthly column titled “A Date With A Dish” to the magazine’s state-of-the-art test kitchen, Ebony’s output cemented black foodways as more than a one-trick pony.
Ebony was founded in 1945 by Arkansas native John H. Johnson; he borrowed $500 to create a publishing company dedicated to black storytelling and nuanced social justice statements. Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) ephemera includes Negro Digest, Jet, Hue, Ebony Jr!, and Tan Confessions—aspirational spreads showing daily lives and achievements. But balancing the realities of the day with leisure content takes skills. In August 1955, Johnson’s decision to publish Emmett Till’s open-casket funeral in Jet single-handedly sparked national action towards the many unwarranted brutal killings of black men.
Ebony has had only three food editors in its nearly 75-year history. Beyond their efforts, these editors only ran the food section at black media companies. Currently, no mainstream food magazine has an African-American woman in an editor position.
Culinary coverage commenced in 1946 with Freda DeKnight. She is described, in her debut cookbook, A Date with a Dish (Hermitage Press, 1948), a collection of recipes from her monthly column of the same title, as a “cultivated Negro woman, writing the first book of its kind.” The legend goes that DeKnight’s rose petal pudding won Johnson over at a dinner affair and she was offered an editing opportunity on the spot. In 1962, A Date with a Dish was reprinted as The Ebony Cookbook. DeKnight remained the food editor until her death in 1963.
Throughout the late 1960s, without a full-time food editor and relying on freelancers, JPC pumped out stories of freedom and food. The Paris bureau covered “Soul Food King” Leroy Haynes’s restaurant, a ”down home” cafe that had just opened in Montmartre. The visuals of the former athlete strolling the Parisian markets buying herbs from “old French West Indian women” communicated an international proficiency to readers.
Johnson Publishing Company headquarters, designed by notable architect John Montasssamy and located in Chicago’s South Loop, opened in the early 1970s. The 11-floor building featured “Afro-modernist” furnishing and interiors, an avant-garde test kitchen (co-designed by Arthur Elrod and William Raiser) on the tenth floor, an employee cafeteria, and another gourmet kitchen inside Mr. Johnson’s penthouse apartment.
Almost two decades passed before DeKnight’s successor arrived inside the Palm Springs-meets-African earth tones test kitchen. Charla Draper, who previously worked as a recipe developer for Kraft Kitchens, joined JPC in 1982, after convincing Mr. Johnson to retool “A Date With a Dish.” “The column was three to four pages,” said Draper. “I broke the featured recipe into [a] step-by-step presentation.”
A 1984 Ebony issue with Emmanuel Lewis on the cover showcases the food updates. Draper’s formal education and familiarity in marketing was an asset, not only for the monthly column, but also for the magazine’s food ads. "I identified a food photographer from my time at Kraft—we went to his studio for the first six to eight issues I worked on, [and] for the other issues we brought it back to magazine's studio," she recalls. During her two-year stint, the quality of styling expanded and a new feature was introduced. Called “Reader Favorite Recipe,” home cooks would mail in dishes and an employee tasting panel would vote on the best. A subsequent column featured the printed recipes along with the winner’s name and location. “My proudest moment is increasing the food advertising revenue by almost 50 percent...Mr. Johnson was a businessman," said Draper.
Atlanta native Charlotte Lyons ushered in all things edible after Draper: “After receiving a telegram about Ebony’s food editor position, I interviewed with a long table of staff, and then Mr. Johnson asked me to make an impromptu pound cake...he was very hands-on,” she said. Lyons has a home economics degree from Morris Brown College and previously worked for the Betty Crocker Test Kitchen. She worked as the magazine’s food editor for 25 years, from 1984 to 2010.
In addition to writing and styling the “A Date With the Dish” column, Lyon was responsible for planning menus for JPC parties, training the dining staff on healthier dishes, producing The New Ebony Cookbook and the “Taste of Ebony” event—all in the “intensely colored” test kitchen. “Everything was built-in and custom. The GE appliances were purple and orange because they were one of the first companies to advertise in the magazine. The only thing updated while I was there was the refrigerator,” said Lyons. Johnson Publishing Company sold the South Michigan Avenue building in 2010, and efforts are underway to find a home for the swirling metallic wallpapered test kitchen, which remains intact.
Ebony remains the oldest black-owned magazine in the country, and its website boasts over three million digital page views per month. “Ebony is iconic and legendary. They have done things nobody else has done,” said Kym Backer, the magazine’s lifestyle contributing editor from 2014 to 2016. “Social media opened up people and places, [and] many became a part of the magazine,” said Backer, whose bylines ranged from “Champagne Class” to “48 Hours in Oahu” during her tenure.
Today, ClearView Group, an African-American owned private equity group, owns Ebony, and the print edition is available eight times per year. The December/January 2019 food content centered on rapper Snoop Dogg’s recent cookbook. Ebony’s legacy is solid. The early innovation and dedication to myriad African-American lifestyles keep the beloved magazine on people’s tongues. No doubt that Johnson Publishing Company will keep finding ways to keep the oven light on.
Nicole A. Taylor is a food writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She has written for Wine Enthusiast, Food & Wine, Esquire, and the New York Times. Nicole serves on the boards of The Edna Lewis Foundation and EATT (Equity At The Table). Find her on Twitter.
Photos courtesy of ©Barbara Karant. See more of her work at 820ebonyjet.com.