How a Funky, Orange Kitchen Became an Enduring Symbol of Black Cuisine
Francis Dzikowski for MOFAD
Tucked away in a building at the northeast corner of Central Park, nearly 800 miles from its original home, sits one of America’s great design and culinary icons: Ebony magazine’s test kitchen. For decades, the kitchen—a riot of psychedelic, ’70s-era colors, technologies, and silhouettes—was the proving ground and showcase for recipes presented to Black readers across the United States.
But the space, which has been reconstructed in its original glory for the first time since the Johnson publishing headquarters was sold more than a decade ago, is not just about nostalgia for throwback dishes and design sensibilities: “African/American: Making the Nations Table,” an exhibition organized by the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) and presented in partnership with Manhattan’s Africa Center, underscores the importance of this space as a valued symbol of Black innovation and diligence—qualities that have been central to the African American experience since enslaved peoples revolutionized our agricultural systems some four centuries ago.
“Ebony was an iconic and world transforming magazine for many African Americans at the end of the 20th century,” says Jessica Harris, the show’s curator and author of High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America. “Its ability to expand knowledge in the community and share everything from recipes to travel information remains unparalleled. And the kitchen is where those recipes started.”
The test kitchen was originally located in the Chicago offices of Ebony magazine, the influential Black American cultural publication founded in 1945 by John H. Johnson. The Johnson Publishing Company’s 11-story modernist building was built by African American architect John Warren Moutoussamy and decorated by the firm Arthur Elrod and William Raiser with groovy aplomb (the cafeteria, for instance, was outfitted with orange and purple carpet).
The same aesthetic applied to the test kitchen, where the magazine’s food editors would develop and test new recipes. It was entirely electric, with walls covered in swirling orange, olive green, eggplant purple, and clay red—a marbleized mix that extends to the cupboards, complemented by creamsicle-orange floor tiles and banana-yellow overhead cabinets. The layout, meanwhile, is straight out of The Jetsons. A central stove in the shape of a rocket with six burners dominates the space. Everywhere you look there is state-of-the-art cooking gear: a four-slot toaster built into the wall, an inset microwave atop an oven with innumerable settings, a dishwasher in the same psychedelic swirl that envelops the space, and an orange Hermès refrigerator.
But the Ebony test kitchen—like so much other cultural erasure—was nearly lost. Ebony and its sister publication, Jet, left the Johnson Publishing Building in 2012, shortly after the building was sold and a plan to redevelop the tower threw the iconic cooking space into jeopardy. Landmarks Illinois, a preservation nonprofit, bought it for $1 from a Chicago developer in 2019 and meticulously disassembled it, cataloged its components, and stored it in a climate-controlled warehouse on the outskirts of Chicago.
MOFAD founder Dave Arnold remembers first hearing about the sale during a trip to the National African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington, D.C., with Harris. “We instantly knew it had to be a part of the exhibition and the story we wanted to tell,” he says.
The museum, working with Landmarks Illinois, acquired the test kitchen that year. “I put everything into a 26-foot U-Haul truck and drove it on the three-day journey from Chicago to Brooklyn, where the museum was situated at the time,” says Jean Nihoul, then a member of the MOFAD curatorial team. Once at the museum, everything was unloaded, inventoried, and reassembled as a dazzling time capsule.
When it first opened in the early 1970s, the Ebony test kitchen was to be a symbol of futurity and experimentation, reinforcing the expansive culinary tastes of Black American families. On view in Manhattan as the anchor of “Making the Nations Table,” that heritage is clearer than ever. The show itself is highly instructional, taking the viewer on a journey through history beginning with a “legacy quilt” memorializing over 400 named and unnamed Black farmers and chefs who distinguished American cuisine over the past several hundred years. Slavery, of course, is a central topic in the show, as farming— particularly rice farming—was central to the development of America’s agricultural and economic power. (Rice made its way into the Ebony test kitchen many times by way of recipes straight from the magazine’s pages.)
“Food for me brings memory,” says Harris, “Memory is vivid and intense. It’s transportive.” And nowhere is this better exhibited than in the test kitchen that survived against all odds, to transport us right into the inventive center of Black publishing—and the Black home.
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