Bessie Gant: Pittsburgh's original celebrity chef | Food | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Bessie Gant: Pittsburgh's original celebrity chef

click to enlarge Bessie Gant: Pittsburgh's original celebrity chef
Walter L. Gordon, Jr./William C. Beverly, Jr. collection, UCLA Library Special Collections
L to R, back row: Herman Hill, Phil Jones (?) or "Stubblefield'", Bill Nunn, Forrest (?) Gant, and Williams (a writer for The Courier). L to R, front row: Gladys Hill, unidentified woman, Bessie Gant, Irene Jones, unidentified woman. (All information concerning the content and description of the image was provided by Walter Gordon.)

I am an avid collector of vintage cookbooks. There are at least 40 in my collection, which I started at age 9 — that’s when I received my very first Betty Crocker cookbook as a Christmas gift. So when I was researching an article about Pittsburgh’s historic cookbooks, I felt inspired by our local culinary foremothers and forefathers (some of whom were Steelers), and I wound up purchasing a couple more cookbooks. Okay, four.

But there was one book, let’s call it the “one that got away,” that I couldn’t find in any local bookstore or library. I even combed the web, scouring sites like Amazon and Thriftbooks. I eventually found a few copies on rare book sites, all sold out. This cookbook was originally self-published by its author. Only one copy can be found in Pittsburgh, at the University of Pittsburgh’s rare books and special collections catalog ... and it can't leave the university. Then, I found an active listing at Swann Auction Galleries, so I got my hopes up. A day later, it sold for nearly $700.

click to enlarge Bessie Gant: Pittsburgh's original celebrity chef
Courtesy of Between the Covers
The third edition of Bessie Gant's cookbook
That price tag made me wonder what could have been so special about this local cookbook from the 1940s: Bess' Cook book, 400 Original Recipes, and its author, Bessie Gant. It turns out, she was one of the nation's most notable Black culinary experts of her time, and perhaps Pittsburgh's very first “celebrity chef.”

After scouring dozens of issues of the Pittsburgh Courier from 1928-1954 and scanning old photos and records from UCLA Library's Special Collections, I discovered that Bessie Gant (1896 -1962) lived in Pittsburgh during the 1920s and again in the late '30s-'40s, and possibly the 50s (though records show she spent much of her later years in Los Angeles).

She was born in Omaha, Neb., and grew up in Kansas City, Mo. before she returned to Nebraska as a young woman and married Forrest Gant. When Bessie was 13 years old, she won a baking contest and found her life’s passion, according to Bess herself in her interview in the December 17, 1938 issue of the Pittsburgh Courier. In that same article, Gant says that she cooked at home every chance she got before moving on to work for wealthy families in their kitchens, “always with good results.”

Gant wrote extensively in her cooking column in the Pittsburgh Courier, “Bess' Secrets 'bout Good Things to Eat,” about her travels around the United States and Canada, picking up tips, tricks, and time-honored recipes along the way. She fused this culinary knowledge with her Midwestern roots and created a mass of homespun recipes that captured the hearts of Pittsburgh society, Chicagoans, Los Angeles’ Black elite, and numerous celebrities.

An article in the Pittsburgh Courier on Aug. 25, 1928, highlights Gant, known then as a well-respected Pittsburgh caterer, as the up-and-coming proprietor of a new society tea room in Chicago. This tea room, called the "Stop and Dine," was slated in the article to serve all of the finest in breakfasts, dinners, and society parties, as well as offering a centralized meeting place for fellow Pittsburgh natives to gather in the Windy City.
click to enlarge Bessie Gant: Pittsburgh's original celebrity chef
Walter L. Gordon, Jr./William C. Beverly, Jr. Collection
Party at photographer George Cutler's house, Los Angeles, 1940s

Between 1928 and 1938, Gant must have made a name for herself nationally. An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1939 stated that she was already cooking for celebrities such as Gertrude Lawrence, Tallulah Whitehead, and Helen Hayes. After self-publishing her cookbook, Gant famously penned the weekly Pittsburgh Courier cooking column from 1939 to 1956. In those days, the Pittsburgh Courier circulated to over 200,000 Black Americans all over the United States.

During her tenure at the Pittsburgh Courier, Gant spent much of her time in California, calling Los Angeles her second home. There, she got acquainted with many of the A-list celebrities of the day and became a chef to the stars. The last five pages of the 1947 and 1949 (third edition) prints of her cookbook are devoted to "Favorite Recipes of Famous Personalities," including Lena Horne, Walt Disney, Katherine Hepburn, and more. Several of her cooking columns between 1941 and 1956 pay tribute to celebrities she hobnobbed with and possibly cooked for, including Fred Astaire and Hattie McDaniel.
Bessie Gant: Pittsburgh's original celebrity chef
Walter L. Gordon, Jr./William C. Beverly, Jr. Collection
Anne Wheeler, Ellen Cussman (or Kussman), Dorothy Irene Height and Bessie Gant, Los Angeles, 1940s
The first edition of her self-published cookbook was available for purchase on Dec. 22, 1938, nearly two years before James Beard’s first cookbook, Hors d’Oeuvre and Canapés was released. There are no known first editions of Gant’s cookbook in circulation today. The second and third editions were printed between 1940 and 1949 with several updates including 200 additional recipes and her “celebrity favorites” section.

Gant's original cookbook was sold for $1.50 with the third edition retailing for $2.00. At the time of the book's release, she advertised extensively in the Pittsburgh Courier, collecting money order payments at a P.O. Box in Pittsburgh. I’m sure she’d be tickled to see her sought-after book sold at auction for hundreds of dollars today.