Ebony’s historic test kitchen moving to the ‘Blacksonian’ permanently

The historic kitchen that has developed some of the magazine's most popular recipes is headed to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The test kitchen of Ebony has found a permanent home at the “Blacksonian.”

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the historic room where some of the magazine’s recipes for African American cuisine were developed is headed to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, where it will be a part of a permanent collection.

Kevin Young, the NMAAHC’s Andrew W. Mellon director, called Ebony’s kitchen “a living, breathing testament to the power of Black excellence and innovation in the culinary world.”

The Ebony test kitchen in Chicago, where recipes featured in the magazine were developed, is headed to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington for permanent display. (Photo: Landmarks Illinois)

“The kitchen was a place where recipes were reimagined, flavors were explored, and stories were shared,” Young maintained, “a place that celebrates Black history and culture in a way that was not only inspiring but delicious.”

Although there is no specific date for the grand opening, the museum shared that the Ebony kitchen will eventually be a part of a project that uses digitization to showcase how food and culture connect in the African American community.

Landmarks Illinois purchased the kitchen for $1 in 2018 to prevent it from being demolished, according to the Sun-Times. The kitchen was restored, put in storage and loaned to a New York museum before being donated to the NMAAHC for permanent installation. The organization hopes the Washington museum will begin showing the kitchen next year.

Ebony’s test kitchen, constructed in 1972, was once housed in the Johnson Publishing Co. building on South Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Regarded as one of the most cutting-edge kitchens, it was the testing ground for recipes that were distributed nationwide in Ebony magazine and cookbooks.

Johnson Publishing also owned Jet magazine. In an era when photographs of white, fair-haired men and women primarily populated glossy magazines, Ebony and Jet featured accomplished Black doctors, lawyers, businesspeople and celebrities. 

After selling the magazines in 2016, the business declared bankruptcy in 2019.

The Johnson Publishing building was sold in 2010, raising concerns about demolition since developers were considering residential construction. However, it was preserved in 2017 after a grassroots campaign led to its designation as a Chicago landmark, the Sun-Times reported.

Sandra Rand, who sits on the board of directors of Landmarks Illinois, said that the Ebony kitchen symbolizes courageous and iconic moments in African American and U.S. history. She noted that its inclusion in the museum assures upcoming generations will have the opportunity to learn about the test kitchen’s history.

“I’m a firm believer that if we don’t intentionally preserve our history,” she said, “whether it’s in written form or in physical form, it will be forgotten.”

The New York museum that displayed the test kitchen, the Museum of Food and Drink, made it part of the “African/American: Making the Nation’s Table” exhibition that opened in 2019. The museum renovated two rooms and reproduced elements, including its distinctive wallpaper with orange, purple and avocado-green swirls.

The Africa Center in Manhattan hosted the Food and Drink Museum’s exhibition last year from February to July. Rand recalled the sensation she felt upon entering the renovated kitchen, and she hopes guests feel the same way when visiting the “Blacksonian.”

“It was such a moving experience,” she said, the Sun-Times reported. “It’s a very emotional engagement when you’re actually in the space. It’s almost this psychedelic physical environment.”

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