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[Hungry for History] Devil in the Details

Photo Credit: Donna Battle Pierce

When it comes to Easter in America, ham and deviled eggs have somehow become the menu essentials for a traditional holiday spread. And according to Donna Battle Pierce, a food journalist and test kitchen director, those staples have largely held firm through many generations—and particularly in our culture. As evidence, Pierce points to the writings of legendary cookbook author Freda DeKnight, who was also EBONY magazine’s first food editor in the 1940s-50s.

“If it is not lamb, it must be ham, for those meats are definitely an Easter Sunday tradition,” wrote Freda DeKnight about an Easter holiday dinner menu in her A Date With a Dish cookbook. “For luck and good eating, plan your menu around a delicious baked ham and gaily colored hard-boiled eggs.”

The Chicago-based Pierce, who is writing a book about DeKnight, says ham, lamb, yeast rolls and deviled eggs have been a part of her family’s Easter dinner celebrations since they took place in her grandmother’s Mobile, Ala. home. And now, the food journalist takes the role as the chief meal planner for her family’s Easter dinners, where she prepares some of the same family recipes.


Photo Credit: Donna Battle Pierce

But, according to Pierce, there’s one family recipe among the collection that is garnering new attention thanks to a lesser-known ingredient. Though deviled eggs have deep European origins—even dating back to ancient Rome—Pierce says, at some point, African-Americans put their spin on the recipe, calling for the inclusion of pickle juice. Yup, she’s talking about good old-fashioned, leftover pickle juice—the same sour, briny juice your grandmother hoarded in jarfuls. And now pickle juice, which has long been a popular flavoring agent in many African-American kitchens, seems to be lauded as the “next new thing” in mainstream America.

“I flinch when I read in popular white publications about the ‘discoveries’ we’ve been cooking with for generations,” says Pierce. “Collards are the new kale? Bacon fat becomes a trend-setting addition? And most recently, a popular culinary website described the pickle juice, passed down in our families for generations as a flavorful addition to deviled eggs, was touted as an exciting new trend for recipe additions and marinades.”

Of course, Pierce doesn’t mind new food trends nor embellishing traditions (she says she loves the fancy deviled egg trend with specialty toppings like shrimp and salmon or cutting the fat with Greek yogurt instead of mayo). But, she does aspire to place a much-needed spotlight on the African-American family cooks, chef and recipe creators, who like DeKnight, don’t often get credit for their influences. And to do this, she makes it a point to pass on these recipe traditions.


Photo Credit: Donna Battle Pierce

This Easter, she plans to share this culinary knowledge by cooking with her nieces and nephews. And she’s offering you her very own family’s deviled egg recipe, in which she hopes you’ll pass along to your families as well.

Pierce’ Easter Deviled Eggs
Makes 16 pieces


8 hard-cooked eggs, peeled

1 tablespoon pickle juice or vinegar

1 to 2 teaspoons Creole or Dijon-style mustard, as needed

½ teaspoon each: celery salt, onion powder, ground thyme, white pepper

1 teaspoon prepared horseradish

Sweet paprika, for garnish

Cut the eggs in half; remove the cooked yolks; reserve the whites on a plate. Place the yolks in a medium bowl. Mash yolks with a fork or finely chop with a hand grater. Add the pickle juice, 1 teaspoon of mustard, celery salt, onion powder, thyme and white pepper to the yolks, stirring to mix until thick and smooth, adding additional mayonnaise by the half-teaspoon as needed to make creamy. Taste, add additional mustard, if needed for flavor. Spoon or pipe the mixture into the egg white halves; sprinkle with paprika. Chill, covered, at least one hour before serving.



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