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Annie Fisher’s path to fame, ‘paved with beaten biscuits’ from Missouri, was nearly forgotten

Crysta Henthorne, KCUR 89.3
Images courtesy of Stuart Spivack and Missouri State Historical Society

At the turn of the 20th century, a self-taught caterer in Columbia gained national acclaim with her sought-after biscuit recipe. Fisher’s famous beaten biscuits made it onto the plates of presidents and Hollywood stars alike — making her one of the wealthiest Black women around. But her story may have been lost if not for a few determined Missouri women.

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Back in the 19th century, before baking powder and other rising agents were ubiquitous, you had to put in some serious elbow grease if you wanted a fluffy, airy dough to emerge from the oven.

One of the most laborious recipes of the era was the iconic Southern delicacy known as the beaten biscuit.

These tender, flaky hardtack rolls were often made by enslaved cooks and domestic servants, who would spend as much as an hour creating delicate layers in the dough by whacking it with everything from a rolling pin to an axe handle.

“A beaten biscuit is a very, very special-occasion dish in some households because it takes a long time to make,” says food columnist Donna Battle Pierce. “There's just nothing any better in the world than a thin slice of country ham on a beaten biscuit.”

And at the turn of the 20th century, the most famous beaten biscuits in Columbia, Missouri, were those made by culinary entrepreneur Annie Fisher — serving her beaten biscuits at a party or dinner was a major hostess flex.

“In all sections of the State, Anna Fisher’s baking is the vogue,” wrote Clement Richardson, editor of the National Cyclopedia of the Colored Race. “It is possible that many people in Missouri can make beaten biscuit, but none of them are Anna Fisher’s biscuit.”

But, 85 years after her death, Fisher's story might have been completely forgotten, if not for a handful of women who made it their mission to revive it.

'Her story captivated my soul'

Meg Vatterott
Vox Magazine
Historical reenactor Verna Laboy has spent the last 30 years piecing together the story of Annie Fisher.

These days, the kind of success that Annie Fisher enjoyed a century ago might be partly attributed to an impressive marketing plan, investors, or at the very least, access to a bank loan.

But as a Black woman in Jim Crow Missouri, Fisher didn’t really have access to those advantages. She amassed a fortune anyway.

“That's the miracle of the whole situation. That woman had every opportunity to fail, and didn't,” says Columbia, Missouri, resident Verna Laboy.

Laboy's interest in Fisher started by happenstance about 30 years ago, when she first moved to Columbia. She was at a luncheon when someone told her offhand that a number of historical women were being inducted into the Boone County Hall of Fame, including a famous caterer. They needed reenactors for the event.

“Are you an actress?” they asked her.

“And me, being the drama queen that I am, it was like, ‘Of course!’” Laboy says.

Meg Vatterott
Vox Magazine
Verna Laboy says she changes and evolves her telling of Fisher’s story as she learns new information.

To prepare for the role, Laboy started asking about Fisher around town. But not much was known in the 1990s about the biscuit queen of mid-Missouri.

She started interviewing elders in the community, even going so far as to stop people in the grocery store. After the performance was over, she just kept going.

Laboy has basically been researching Fisher and giving historical presentations about her life ever since.

“It's almost like her story captivated my soul,” she says.

Laboy takes vacation time from her day job in public health to present at school assemblies so she can push kids to dream big, like Fisher did.

It's a huge thanks to Laboy's work — and additional research by historian Mary Beth Brown — that we even have a semicomplete picture of who Fisher was.

Fame, fortune and beaten biscuits

This cartoon ran with a 1926 profile of Annie Fisher in the Albuquerque Journal featuring the headline, "Road to Fortune Paved With Beaten Biscuit!"
Albuquerque Journal
This cartoon ran with a 1926 profile of Fisher in the Albuquerque Journal with the headline, "Road to Fortune Paved With Beaten Biscuit!"

Annie Fisher was born into a big family in Boone County, Missouri, in 1867, two years after the Civil War ended. Her parents, Robert and Charlotte Knowles, were born enslaved.

As a child, Fisher discovered a love of cooking while “rocking the cradles” for white families, she told the National Negro Business League in 1919.

“Oftentimes, when the baby was asleep, I would steal down in the kitchen, climb up on a stool and help the cook peel potatoes, and make biscuits,” Fisher said. “Sometimes they were not altogether right, and no matter if, at times, they were only half-baked, I enjoyed them very much, for those biscuits were the product of my own hands.”

Columbia Missourian
Fisher initially sold a dozen beaten biscuits for only 10 cents, as advertised in 1911 in the Columbia Missourian.

In the 1890s, Fisher went on to cook for the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house at the University of Missouri and some of the finest homes in Columbia, before going into business for herself around the turn of the century.
The catering operation began small, with just hot rolls at first. Then she added pies, cakes, and, eventually, what became her claim to fame: beaten biscuits.

Described as “fluffy, flaky, and creamy,” the biscuits caused word of Fisher to spread. In 1911, her biscuits were on the table when President William Taft visited the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia.

Fisher shared her recipe far and wide, but she would joke to reporters with a smile that the reason people couldn’t duplicate them was she couldn’t teach the “common sense” they required.

The biscuits ultimately served as a gateway into her entire menu: chipped potatoes, fruit cake, roast chicken, salads, ice cream and more.

“It was not a party of any status if Annie Fisher wasn't cooking, honey,” Laboy says. “I mean, people changed their wedding dates, their debutante party dates, so that Annie could accommodate them.”

To celebrate her growing success, Fisher designed and bankrolled the construction of a 14-room mansion near the Sharp End, a historically Black business district. She even lived in a tent on the property while it was built to make sure it was to her exact specifications.

On top of her elaborate catering enterprise, Fisher also ran a successful mail-order business, reportedly shipping her biscuits to Hollywood celebrities and New York City stockbrokers.

Southern Workman
Annie Fisher's home, as pictured here in a 1922 article in the Southern Workman journal.

By 1926, at age 58, Fisher had made more than enough money to retire.

Instead, she started a restaurant specializing in chicken dinners. She built “The Wayside Inn” on a farm where her parents had lived, just outside of Columbia. In addition to serving customers, Fisher and her daughter lived there.

Fisher made sure it was a classy establishment. The elegant home was tastefully furnished with elaborate rugs, mahogany furniture, and leather, and Fisher forbade her white patrons from drinking liquor or dancing on the polished floors.

“When they comes to Annie Fisher’s they comes to eat, and if they want to do any high-ballin’ they must do it before they come and after they leave,” Fisher told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, during the height of Prohibition. “People can’t get common around here.”

The mystique of Annie Fisher

St. Louis Globe-Democrat 1927
"I've never asked for a job in my life. I make them come to Annie Fisher. Of course, I have to deliver the goods, as you say, but I don't go around askin' for favors," Fisher told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in 1927.

Missouri historian Bridget Haney says there were certainly other Black female cooks in Columbia at the time, but none remotely close to the scale of Annie Fisher. Haney speculates raw talent was indeed the cornerstone of Fisher's success, but what gave Fisher a boost was visibility in the form of glowing press and good, old fashioned word-of-mouth recommendations.

Part of the mystique of Fisher back then was how tight-lipped she was about her success. Nosy journalists always asked how much money she had, but she was coy.

Fisher was married to a reverend briefly but, according to newspaper reports, she filed for divorce and offered her husband a cash settlement not to contest it — exceedingly rare in those days.

“She’s a smart woman, this Annie Fisher. She’s a specialist in two kinds of dough — the kind that makes beaten biscuits and the kind that swells a bank account,” wrote a reporter for the Globe-Democrat.

Meg Vatterott
Vox Magazine
The labor required to make beaten biscuits was lessened with the 19th-century invention of the beaten biscuit brake. Many were manufactured by J.A. DeMuth, of nearby St. Joseph, Missouri.

In 1929, Fisher's fortune was estimated at $150,000 dollars, which is worth nearly $3 million today.

And it wasn’t just biscuit money lining her pockets. She also became something of a real estate mogul. In addition to her two mansions, she owned 18 smaller houses around town that she rented out, during a time when it was notoriously difficult for Black Americans to own homes.

Fisher's success is all the more extraordinary given the open bigotry that was so prevalent at the time. Just a few years earlier, in 1923, James T. Scott was lynched by a mob in Columbia. Scott, a Black man, was falsely accused of assaulting a white girl.

“Long ago, I got the idea that the only way I could ever get ahead was to believe in myself and not the other fellow,” Fisher told the Globe-Democrat. “For that reason, I never tell anyone my business. I makes my livin’ honest. I live honest and I try to make the most of the opportunities I have.”

Fisher herself only ever got a third grade education but, using her catering profits, she put her daughter, Lucille, through college and a music conservatory.

“It's like, painful things happened and something beautiful came out of it. And I think that's the way life happens for a lot of us,” Laboy says.

Annie Fisher who?

Mackenzie Martin
KCUR 89.3
As a baker herself, Columbia resident Sheila Ruffin was immediately enamored with the story of Annie Fisher. "She was some kind of woman," Ruffin says.

Today, there's little original evidence left in Columbia that Annie Fisher ever lived there.

A historical marker on the African American Heritage Trail sits near the location of Fisher’s first mansion, but the house itself was demolished in 1961 during urban renewal, a period when the federal government paid cities across the country to tear down neighborhoods they argued were blighted.

In Fisher’s former neighborhood alone, an estimated 303 families of color were displaced in the 1960s.

In 2011, Sheila Ruffin, a spiritual leader in Columbia, campaigned for months to preserve Fisher’s restaurant and second mansion. She wanted it to stand as a testament to Black achievement in town.

But in the end, Ruffin was unable to raise enough money and community support to save it. The owners tore it down.

"It's a sad day for the Black community, and it's a sad day for Columbia," Ruffin told the Columbia Daily Tribune.

More than a decade later, it’s still hard for Ruffin to go near that part of town.

"My grandmother said nothing beats a failure, but a trier. But it doesn't stop me from feeling the loss of it," she says.

Mackenzie Martin
KCUR 89.3
Annie Fisher is buried in Memorial Park Cemetery in Columbia, Missouri. Her only daughter, Lucille Merritt, reportedly had no children of her own.

When Ruffin first visited Fisher’s grave at Memorial Park Cemetery, she was disappointed to see the headstone covered in moss and standing water. But she complained to the cemetery and they cleaned it up. Now, people go there to pay their respects.

Over the years, Columbia has done more to recognize Fisher. One of its local food pantries is now named in her honor, and a local restaurant even donates its unsold biscuits there.

But it’s hard not to wonder: What was lost as a result of Columbia not celebrating Fisher sooner?

What's at stake when history gets forgotten

Kevin Obomanu
Donna Battle Pierce, Skillet Diaries
Donna Battle Pierce at Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago. The food columnist has an extensive collection of family recipes and vintage cookbooks.

Back in the 1950s, Donna Battle Pierce was the new kid in Columbia. Her parents, distinguished Black educators and civil rights leaders Muriel and Eliot Battle, had a specific reason for moving to town.

"Their purpose of coming down was to integrate," Pierce says.

When Pierce and her siblings integrated Grant Elementary School, their parents called them “brave little soldiers of integration.” But it was still very much the Jim Crow era.

Pierce remembers how her teacher stood up and told her white classmates: “If you don’t want to play with Donna, you don’t have to.”

Knowing Annie Fisher's story would have been deeply empowering for Pierce back then, but she never learned about Fisher in school.

“I grew up in two worlds,” Pierce says. “I grew up loving my culture and appreciating so many different things about it, but not sharing it with white people, who totally didn't understand it.”

As Pierce came of age, she became politically active, protesting the Vietnam War with fellow students. All the while, she was becoming more aware of how little she knew about her own culture’s history. She also started questioning why it had been kept from her.

Finally, in the ‘90s, she learned about Fisher when she saw none other than Verna Laboy portraying the beaten biscuit trailblazer on television.

“I said: ‘What the heck is this? How was it possible that this woman was in my community?'” recalls Pierce. "I just could not believe that I had missed this part of Columbia’s history."

Pierce even realized that, as a teen, she had coveted Fisher’s “Wayside Inn.” By that time it was no longer a restaurant. It was just a beautiful house across from the Sky-Hi drive-in, where she’d go with friends.

The initial shock was followed by a life-changing experience.

In 1997, before Fisher’s home was torn down, Pierce got the incredible opportunity to tour it. To this day, she has a clear memory of standing inside the small kitchen where Fisher made thousands of beaten biscuits.

“It had such a clean, creative feel to it,” she remembers. “It's always, since then, made me feel how important it is to uncover these people. So many things kind of slip away. And this Annie Fisher's one person who really shouldn't slip away.”

Food columnist Donna Battle Pierce has made Annie Fisher's beaten biscuits on numerous occasions, but her testing has found that a food processor works just as well as an old-fashioned biscuit brake.
Donna Battle Pierce
Skillet Diaries
Food columnist Donna Battle Pierce has made Fisher's beaten biscuits on numerous occasions, but her testing has found that a food processor works as well as the old-fashioned biscuit brake.

Pierce went on to become the assistant food editor and test kitchen director for the Chicago Tribune. In that job, and all her jobs since, she’s championed Black culinary visionaries who have mostly been left out of history, so their knowledge can be passed down to future generations.

And while Pierce can't change how late she learned about Fisher, she can make a difference for others.

"I'm very proud to have her having been from Columbia," Pierce says.

By her count, there are hundreds more exceptional stories to be told — just like Fisher’s — in cities and towns across America. And it’s about time, Pierce says, for more kids to see themselves reflected in their city’s history.

This episode of A People's History of Kansas City is a collaboration with Gravy podcast, from the Southern Foodways Alliance. It was reported, produced, and mixed by Mackenzie Martin, with editing by Sara Camp Milam, Olivia Terenzio, Suzanne Hogan and Luke X. Martin.

Whether it’s something happening right now or something that happened 100 years ago, some stories don’t fit in the short few minutes of a newscast. As a podcast producer at KCUR, I help investigate questions and local curiosities in a way that brings listeners along for adventures with plot twists and thought-provoking ideas. Sometimes there isn’t an easy answer in the end – but my hope is that we all leave with a greater understanding of the city we live in. Reach me at mackenzie@kcur.org.
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