Who Was Leola Spencer?
The Unknown Black Makers of American Food
Enjoy this free post from Shifting the Food Narrative. Please consider becoming a paid subscriber. Thanks!
The lens distorts as it captures: a Black woman stands before a soup kettle, shot obliquely overhead so it looks oval and stretched out. The woman’s left thumb and two fingers close delicately around the kettle’s wire handle. Her unseen right grips an enameled spoon filled with catfish stew: tensed curl of fish and clump of bacon; ectoplasmic tomato swirls and bits of onion cooked so long they’re like dabs of jelly. The woman’s expression suggests she’s unaware the camera is on her; that she believes her face might be invisible—her arched eyebrows and compressed forehead, her mouth that seems to be asking the photographer, You gettin this?
A caption identifies her as Leola Spencer. She’s wearing an outfit that looks like she ran it up herself on the sewing machine: pink gingham apron jazzed with rickrack; pink shift dress with modest neckline edged in blue bias tape, unofficial uniform of female domestic workers of 50 years ago. The kind of women Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor wrote about in 1972 in Thursdays and Every Other Sunday Off: A Domestic Rap. The ones she celebrated and channeled the voice of outrage for. Women who were almost always unknown, if not invisible:
I rode the Penn Central into Westchester and I was moved and mad. At 125th Street nothing but sisters get on. Going to work for Miss Anne. Riding the domestic train.… Everyday in America, South Africa and other places in the world like them. Black people. My people. Travelin. To be cooks, janitors, housekeepers, porters, days workers, servants, Black boys, Beige girls, Brown daddies, Ebony mothers.
The photo of Leola and her catfish stew is from American Cooking: Southern Style. It was published in 1971, as part of Time-Life’s Foods of the World, a subscription book series that stretched to 27 volumes by 1976, when the last title, The Cooking of Japan, was mailed out. James Beard was the series consultant, Michael Field the consulting editor. Leola was captured by Life magazine photojournalist Mark Kauffman, no doubt at the Manhattan test kitchen studio in the Time and Life Building at 1271 Avenue of the Americas.
Leola’s is one of three names listed as test kitchen staff in the credits for American Cooking: Southern Style. The others are Fifi Bergman and Tina Cassel, both white. Fifi was a former model, said to be Avedon’s first fashion subject; her husband was then editor of the New York Times Magazine. Tina seems to have been an avid equestrian rider originally from Lebanon, Pennsylvania.
It’s not clear how they found their way to Foods of the World, though I suspect it’s because all three women had a connection to Michael Field, a former concert pianist who, until his death in 1971, ran a prestigious cooking school out of his apartment on the Upper East Side. Fifi and Tina as students, perhaps; Leola, maybe, as a cook for Field and his wife, the artist Frances Fox, or as cooking class support: prepping ingredients, organizing the mise en place, washing up. Is she the same Leola Spencer I found through Ancestry.com., who lived in the Bronx before retiring to Jersey City?
Leola is among the forgotten Black cooks—mostly unknown then, completely forgotten now—who helped to shape the American food landscape in the twentieth century. Alyce McComb is another. In the 1950s she was a caterer—a force behind the lavish food parties James Beard would throw for friends and food media. She cooked party foods and managed buffets for Craig Claiborne, too—crab and fresh dill baked in pastry shells, or heaped into avocado halves and broiled. “Many of her clients are culinary experts themselves,” the New York Times’ Jane Nickerson wrote of Alyce in 1956, “cook book authors and television ‘cooks.’” Nickerson doesn’t names Alyce’s illustrious clients, perhaps not to spoil the fiction that these men were the ones in the kitchen, owners of the hands that had assembled the morsels Alyce offered guests from a tray.
Did she want to write a cookbook of her own, or appear on television herself? Would she have been able to?
The only other picture of Leola I can find is in an earlier Foods of the World book, American Cooking, from 1968. The photo by Mark Kauffman—who worked outside of food media—shows Leola serving on the buffet line for a dinner social at the Universal Hagar’s Spiritual Church on West 150th Street in New York. Shot in profile, she hands a plate to one of the guests, across a table loaded with fried chicken and roast beef, potato salad and cornbread, pale double-crust pies and a knobby coconut slab cake. The church hall looks spangled for Christmas, the ceiling’s water pipes hung with shiny foil garlands and a tissue paper pinwheel with a magenta heart. Leola’s in an ivory coat dress, a pretty scarf at her neck, another pink apron at her waist.
With The Taste of Country Cooking in 1976, Knopf editor Judith Jones would help make Edna Lewis a star in the world of chefs and cookbook authors. Ms. Lewis’s evocative rendering of simple, seasonal cooking in Freetown, Virginia, inspired Americans in the year of the US Bicentennial, when privileged suburban dwellers in the US were weary of stories about discord in the cities. Absent from Jones’s rendering was any glimpse of Edna Lewis getting on the train at 125th Street, along with Alyce and Leola—all of it, save a couple of oblique shots by a news photojournalist, part of a concealing.