One pound of fresh okra, two outer ribs of celery with leaves, one bay leaf, one-half pound of cubed ham: This is just a handful of the ingredients listed in a recipe for creole chicken gumbo from The Black Family Reunion Cookbook, published in 1991.
It is one of 1,700 cookbooks, many focused on African American cuisine, recently donated to the Washburne Culinary and Hospitality Institute in Englewood by Sandra Rosalie McWorter Marsh, whose collection dates back to the 1930s. McWorter Marsh, 82, is the great-great granddaughter of an enslaved man who negotiated freedom for himself and his family members and established a community for freed slaves near the Mississippi River.
On Wednesday, McWorter Marsh attended a celebration in her honor at Kennedy-King College, a campus of the City Colleges of Chicago that houses the Washburne Institute.
Students there prepared the creole chicken gumbo from The Black Family Reunion Cookbook, along with sweet potato muffins, vegetarian black-eyed peas and rice, and molded salad — also all from McWorter Marsh’s cookbooks
“She learned how to cook a lot of different kinds of meals,” said Abdul McWorter Alkalimat, her brother and self-proclaimed biggest supporter. “She began with a strong African American tradition and then branched out into the foods of the world. And the collection really involves food of every continent, and every community in the United States.”
McWorter Marsh and her brother are members of a storied family. Their great-great-grandfather, Free Frank McWorter, was born into slavery in South Carolina in 1777 and purchased his own freedom and the freedom of 15 family members and founded the community of New Philadelphia in southern Illinois, according to the National Museum of American History. It’s the first known town founded by an African American person and was recently designated a national park.
McWorter Marsh’s cooking and her cookbook collection reflect this history, one that is often overlooked by culinary schools, which traditionally have been Eurocentric and purveyors of French cooking techniques. These traditions don’t necessarily reflect the students at Kennedy-King, more than 70% of whom are Black, according to federal data.
“African American cooking, which has its origins under slavery, and therefore turning food that wasn’t valued into delicacies, is a tradition that can contribute to world culture,” said McWorter Alkalimat, a professor emeritus in Black studies at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign.
“This idea that some cultures are more highly valued than others is something we really have to confront,” he said. “And we hope that the culinary institute here at Washburne will be one of the ways in which the culinary diversity of the world will grow to be appreciated, and the chefs will take it out to the tables and help people enjoy that.”
McWorter Marsh chose to donate her cookbooks to the institute because she wanted to give back to Chicago. Both McWorter Marsh and her brother were raised in the city. They went to Jenner Elementary School, Marshall High School and eventually the University of Chicago for graduate school.
“We’ve lived on the North Side, the West Side, and the South Side, and we used to go swimming in the lake on the East Side,” said McWorter Alkalimat.
He remembers a certain dish his sister used to make from their University of Chicago student days.
“This might not sound great to other people, but it was great to us: We used to have a plate of fried chicken gizzards and we would all be drinking gin and tonics. That was the Hyde Park graduate school experience,” he said, turning to his sister. “Remember that? I mean, we ate a lot of chicken gizzards with tangy red sauce.”
Students at Washburne will be able to recreate that and other southern dishes, along with dishes from all over the world, with help from McWorter Marsh’s cookbook collection.
“That she is a black woman and it’s a cultural history of recipes? I mean, that’s amazing,” said student Lindsay Thomas.
Thomas, who lives in Englewood, is excited “to be able to grab these recipes from our history and bring them to the present day. We can use those as the stepping stones and then innovate them and make them new and make them fresh.”
Lisa Philip covers higher education for WBEZ Chicago, in partnership with Open Campus.