The revival of the ebony test kitchen, a home for the black kitchen
One morning in January 2020, a group of curators and officials from the Museum of Food and Drink traveled to the industrial outskirts of Queens to assess the status of their most high-profile acquisition to date: the Ebony Test Kitchen. The kitchen, originally located on the tenth floor of the Johnson Publishing Company Building in downtown Chicago, tested recipes from Ebony magazine’s famous “Date with a Dish” cooking column, which has become a touchstone of African-American cuisine. “This kitchen is like – I don’t even know if calling it Black Julia Child’s kitchen does it justice, but it’s this important,” Jessica B. Harris, one of the foremost scholars of black food history, told me. In 2017, news emerged that the building that housed the kitchen was about to be converted into apartments. To save it, volunteer conservators rushed in and dismantled the kitchen in a single weekend. They selected MOFAD as new stewards. In February, it will finally be exhibited, in an exhibition entitled “African/American: Making the Nation’s Table”, organized by Harris, at the Africa Center, in Harlem. “Let’s hope I stay the course,” Harris told me, as we prepared to head for the warehouse in Queens. “These walls will start to sparkle and talk. I probably contributed 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 manufacture Forbes list of the richest Americans. Johnson built a publishing empire dedicated to accurately reflecting black culture and achievement; he founded Ebony in 1945, and modeled it after the large photographic format of Life magazine. “Before starting Ebony you would never know from reading other publications that black people got married, held beauty pageants, hosted parties, ran successful businesses or engaged in normal life activities,” Johnson reportedly said. Along with the lifestyle stories, Johnson’s multiple magazines published flawless journalism. In 1955, Jet released graphic photographs of Emmett Till’s mutilated body in his coffin, at his mother’s request, sparking national outrage and helping to rekindle 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, seat of Johnson’s empire, was designed by John Warren Moutoussamy, an African-American student of modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Inside, “it was like ‘Mad Men,’ okay?” said Harris. “It was this building built by an African-American millionaire who knew what this building meant to everyone.” The design woven into celebrations of black achievement, including a collection of works by black artists and a library of volumes written primarily by or about black people. State-of-the-art technology, such as a conference room “picturephone,” was included alongside “employee pampering amenities in which black creativity could flourish and black magazine production would be a joy,” a Ebony read function. The headquarters included both men’s and women’s salons with a full line of hair care products, “so employees could keep their Afros stylish.”
The interior featured bright colors; walls covered in suede, leather and African wood; and raging geometric patterns. Carla Hall, chef and former co-host of “The Chew,” who is a consultant for the exhibit, told me that when she first saw the kitchen, it reminded her of her family’s. “I was, like, De Classes,” she said. “I remember our kitchen, with those brown knobs and paneling, you know? You think of avocado green and that mustard and that orange — that was my mom’s house. Right That mid-century funkadelic.In 1985, Johnson hired Charlotte Lyons as Ebony culinary editor. When she arrived for her interview, he asked a crucial question: Could she make a pound cake? “I could do one with my eyes closed,” Lyons, who previously worked at Betty Crocker, told me. Johnson sent someone to buy some supplies, then they took Lyon into the kitchen, complete with his psychedelic immersion. “At first, I just look around. I’m like, ‘Oof, you wouldn’t want to have a drink in that kitchen,'” she said. “It was the whirlpools.” The pound cake was delicious. She was hired on the spot.
Lyons remained editor for twenty-five years, overseeing the “Date with a Dish” column. I grew up to really, really love cooking,” she said. “There were a lot of little secret things.” There was a toaster that popped out of the wall, built-in can openers, and a Ronson Foodmatic that could pop out of the counter and had attachments for stirring, folding, creaming, whipping, mixing, beating, pureeing, grating, chopping and liquefying. It could also be used as a juicer, knife sharpener, meat grinder, shredder, coffee grinder and ice crusher. The kitchen was often frequented by distinguished guests, including presidents and presidential candidates. At one point, Lyons brushed off Mike Tyson, who was trying to eat a chocolate cake made for an upcoming shoot. “One of his handlers said, ‘Do you know who that is?’ ” she told me. “I thought, I’m not going to spend two more hours on this.” She made cookies for Luther Vandross (“he loved cookies”) and met Janet Jackson (“often, they said Michael would come into the building, but he would always have a disguise and you would never know until he left.”
It was the recipes that emerged from the kitchen, however, that left a lasting impact on American cuisine. Hall remembers reading Ebony growing up and watching his grandmother cook her recipes. “I mean, if you found a recipe in Ebony magazine, that meant it was for you,” she said. She noted that Ebony was “almost like the Bible of our culture”. The cuisine was rooted in African American tradition, but Lyons expanded and updated it to serve a modern audience. “I wanted to keep the African American recipes and the soul food and stuff, but I wanted them to be healthier,” Lyons said. She also incorporated recipes she encountered during her travels around the world, from countries like Italy and South Africa. When Johnson challenged her to include mushrooms in a recipe, asking, “Do you really think black people eat mushrooms?”, she stood her ground. “It was a popular recipe,” Lyons said. Johnson died in 2005 and the company’s fortunes faltered. In 2010 Johnson Publishing Company sold its building and the kitchen went dark. But his legacy has shaped generations of chefs. When Hall started a restoration business in 1990, she seized copies of Ebony from a friend’s old stash and cooked from its pages. “In my cookbook, I say the difference between Southern food and soul food is like the difference between an anthem and a Negro spiritual, and as soon as I tell people that, they’re like, ‘OK, I I got it,'” she added. noted. “That’s what cooking reminds me of – shameless, bam, spice, in your face, this is us, loud and proud and shamelessly Black.”
The kitchen arrived in New York in pieces and, when the team of MOFAD visited in Queens two years ago, the makers were trying to piece it together. As she entered the warehouse to view the work in progress, Harris, the head curator, slowly looked around. “Wow, wow, wow,” she whispered softly. She noticed the swirling orange and brown of the cabinet fronts and wallpaper, the interwoven pattern of green, purple and orange rugs. “It’s crazy.” Workers diligently compared paint samples to find the right shade of vibrant yellow to match the fabric-wrapped bookcases. Workers opened rolls of plastic with a knife to reveal the recreated carpet weave of green, brown, white and purple. Under a counter hung a jar still filled with the juices from the kitchen’s last meals, the grease having long settled in stripes of orange, white, and brown, like the cloud bands of Jupiter.
The exhibit was originally scheduled to open just before the start of the pandemic shutdown in New York City. It’s been sitting in the dark exhibit hall ever since. “It’s not the first time, if you want to personify it, to live solo,” Harris said of the kitchen, recalling that she stayed in the Ebony offices long after they were closed, where it was “perhaps much less pampered”. Harris said seeing the kitchen always brings her back to when she used to visit Lyon there. “It’s still, I guess, the equivalent of a time machine to me,” she said. Visitors will enter the exhibition through the living room, before entering the main kitchen. Three one-minute videos containing interviews will be strategically placed throughout, while a playlist curated by Kelis, focusing on 70s soul music, will form the backdrop. Visitors will work around the curve of the central stove island and resist the urge to stick their elbows everywhere – a test that museum officials coyly admitted to failing during their own inspection. “We just walked in and were looking at it,” Peter Kim, the museum’s former director, said in a meeting after the tour.
Lyons told me that when she worked at Betty Crocker, the facility was industrial, equipped with large off-the-shelf appliances to facilitate rapid recipe testing. The Johnson Kitchen was a public space, an office, and a celebrity hotspot, but it also had an intimate feel. “At Johnson Publishing, it was like one person’s kitchen,” Lyons said. The curators wanted to recreate that feeling of intimate connection. After a heated internal debate, they decided to extend the floor width by fourteen inches, so visitors could walk through the kitchen, not just see it from the outside. “It’s such a space of his time that just being able to walk through it, to be in it, is going to make some people’s heads spin,” Harris said. “And I always like to turn heads.”