Born in 1901, Cleora Butler learned to cook from her mother, Martha Thomas. Their home in North Tulsa, Okla., was a favorite destination for Cab Calloway and other black musicians and entertainers, who often ate in private homes when traveling through the segregated South and Southwest.
In the 1940s, with the help of her mother, Butler would bake some 150 small pies a day in her own kitchen to help supplement her family's income. By the mid-50s, she had opened her own successful catering business.
In Cleora's Kitchen: The Memoir of a Cook & Eight Decades of Great American Food, Butler recounts her life story and celebrates other African-American women who cooked for a living but always put the needs of their families ahead of their own. Below is Butler's signature recipe.
2 cups sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
4 heaping tablespoons cocoa powder
4 rounded tablespoons flour
1 cup pecans, broken into large pieces
2 teaspoons vanilla
whipped cream, for serving
Directions: Preheat the oven to 325 F. Beat the eggs well, add the sugar and butter and beat well again. Sift the cocoa and flour together. Add broken pecan meats. Fold into butter mixture. Mix in vanilla. Pour into 9 x 12 x 13- inch Pyrex dish or tin pan. Set dish in a pan of hot water (enough to come 1/2 inch to 1 inch up on the sides of pan). Put the dish, still in the pan of hot water, into the oven. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour. The fudge will have the consistency of firm custard and will be crusty on top. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream on each piece. Serves 9 – 12.
Recipe excerpted from Barbara Haber's book From Hardtack to Home Fries: Food Keeps the Faith.