Lucille Bishop Smith was a chef, educator, entrepreneur and food corporation president who has been called the first African-American businesswoman in Texas. She is credited with inventing the first commercially marketed hot roll mix and establishing one of the nation’s first college-level commercial foods and technology departments.
“She’s an example of an educated, professional cook who understood her environment and was able to translate her skills to create the generation after that, and the generation after that, and the generation after that of like-minded and competent workers,” says Toni Tipton-Martin, the author, community activist and creator of “The Jemima Code,” a pop-up exhibit, blog and upcoming book exploring the legacies of African-American cooks.
Tipton-Martin, a resident of Austin, Texas, says Smith was one of a number of African-American women who began to get a foothold in the food industry in the 1940s and 1950s, a time of Jim Crow segregation and the birth of the modern civil rights movement.
“They worked on uplift,” she says. “They took aspiring cooks under their wing and taught them professional and organizational standards so their work would be respected as more than scrubbing floors. She was a leader who understood the importance of professionalism in upgrading the profession.”
Born in Texas in 1892, Lucille Bishop graduated from what is now known as Huston-Tillotson University in Austin and married Ulysses Samuel Smith, who would later be dubbed the “Barbecue King of the Southwest.” A seamstress and cook, she became, in 1927, a teacher-coordinator for a vocational education program for the Fort Worth, Texas, school system that trained African-American students for domestic service jobs, according to the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas Online.
In 1937, Smith was hired to create what the handbook describes as a “domestic service training program” at what is now called Prairie View A&M University.
“She recognized women of color didn’t have many opportunities. She forged a pathway for them,” says Carol Roark, an archivist and historian in Fort Worth, who wrote about Smith in two books about the women of Forth Worth. “She gave them the skills to make a good living and lift themselves out of poverty.”
“She led the way, she certainly did,” recalled Gladys Hogan, Smith’s 98-year-old daughter and resident of Brenham, Texas. “She touched so many young people and gave them work. She knew everybody in Texas. She recommended young people go into jobs never open to them before.”
In 1941, Smith first published her recipes as a boxed set of cards called “Lucille’s Treasure Chest of Fine Foods.” Roark wrote in “Grace & Gumption: The Cookbook” that Smith noted in the 1945 edition that the recipes “were once private records for personal gain” but were being published “with the hope that they will aid persons interested in lifting Culinary art from the commonplace.”
Lucille’s All Purpose Hot Roll Mix was introduced in the mid-1940s as a fundraiser for Smith’s church. It was an immediate hit; Smith donated $800 in profit to the church the very first month, according to Handbook.
“Her climb to cooking fame has not been easy,” wrote Freda DeKnight, Ebony’s first food editor, in introducing Smith to readers of her 1948 cookbook, “A Date with a Dish.” DeKnight didn’t elaborate, preferring instead to focus on Smith’s achievements – and her cooking. “'A Date with a Dish' is very proud of this Culinary Queen … you will be hearing more about Lucille Smith.”
Smith was the first African-American woman to join the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, the handbook reports. In 1965, during the Vietnam War, she baked a fruitcake for each of the 330 residents from her local Tarrant County serving in the military; the next year, Fort Worth proclaimed a Lucille B. Smith Day in gratitude. She was named to the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1969. In 1974, at age 82, she founded and became president of her family-owned corporation, Lucille B. Smith’s Fine Foods. Smith died in 1985, age 92, at her daughter’s home.
Smith’s legacy – and a number of her dishes – lives on at a Houston restaurant named for her. Lucille’s is owned by a great-grandson, chef Chris Williams. He was 6 when Lucille Smith died, but he remembers sitting in her bedroom talking “for hours about nothing and everything.” Later, he discovered his great-grandmother’s culinary legacy and found his culinary focus.
“And everyday since, the more I discover about this amazing woman,” Williams declares on his restaurant’s website, lucilleshouston.com, “the more determined I become to honor her legacy.”