A Date with Lyons & Draper: Former Ebony Magazine Food Editors Share Stories of Working in the Iconic Test Kitchen

(Photo: Charlotte Lyons in the Ebony Test Kitchen, featured in the November 1992 edition of Ebony Magazine. Provided by Charlotte Lyons.)

April 2, 2019



Landmarks Illinois recently spoke with former Ebony Food Editors Charlotte Lyons and Charla Draper, who each spent time cooking in the iconic former Ebony Test Kitchen in the Johnson Publishing Company Building in Chicago. In 2018, Landmarks Illinois removed the test kitchen from the Chicago landmarked building on South Michigan Avenue and took ownership of it to ensure it was preserved. Landmarks Illinois is now seeking a new owner who will reassemble the kitchen for educational use or public display. Request for Proposals from interested parties are due May 1, and can be found here.

Designed by Palm Springs-based interior designers William Raiser and Arthur Elrod in 1971, the Ebony Test Kitchen featured orange, swirled psychedelic wallpaper and bright colored cabinets and appliances. As Lyons and Draper said, the bold colors and patterns may have required some getting used to, but it also sparked joy and awe in anyone who saw it. Below, we share insights from our conversations with both of the former food editors.

Typical Reaction to the Test Kitchen: “Wow”

When Charlotte Lyons became the Food Editor at Ebony Magazine in 1985 and stepped inside the Test Kitchen at the Johnson Publishing Company Building, her first reaction was, “Wow!” Celebrities, guest cooks and other visitors said the same thing at first glance: “Wow.” People couldn’t pass the kitchen on the building’s 10th floor without stopping to check it out.

“Most people were curious,” Lyons said.

The test kitchen’s location made it hard to miss. It shared the 10th floor with the cafeteria for Ebony’s employees. Like so many kitchens in people’s own homes, the test kitchen was a gathering place for guests, too.

“They just always liked to hang out in the test kitchen,” Lyons said. “If I was cooking, they were tasting.”

Lyons, who worked as Ebony’s Food Editor for 25 years, said she had a number of memorable visitors in the test kitchen as she worked – from actor Gregory Hines, who snatched one of the Christmas cookies she was baking, to boxer Mike Tyson, who requested a piece of a chocolate cake she spent four hours making. The cake, by the way, needed to be photographed for the magazine after it came out of the oven, and Lyons made Tyson wait until after the professional photos were snapped to cut him a slice.

Lyons also recalled times when Eunice Johnson, the wife of Ebony’s editor-publisher John Johnson and director of Ebony’s Fashion Fair, would come to the kitchen and ask for help in preparing a recipe she wanted to try.

(Photo: Clipping of JET Magazine announcing Draper becoming Ebony Food Editor. Provided by Charla Draper)

The Test Kitchen’s Modern Efficiencies

Charla Draper, who was Ebony’s Director of Food & Home Furnishings from 1982 to 1984, said the unique design and features of the test kitchen served as a catalyst for conversation. While the décor, “was something that required a little bit of an adjustment” – especially from the one-color, homogeneous test kitchen at her previous employer, the Kraft Foods Company– it did not deter from her ability to use the kitchen efficiently. She noted its “work triangle” layout that allowed for easy movement from sink to refrigerator to counter, as well as the use of a kitchen island for the range. Draper said, in fact, it was a very functional kitchen and she liked that her office was right next door, allowing her easy access to the space for creating and testing recipes that would resonate with Ebony readers and advertisers.  Draper and her assistant Ava Gardner also regularly used the attached kitchen nook for meetings and proofing recipes and editorial features.

Lyons spoke to the kitchen’s modern General Electric appliances, all insisted upon by Mr. Johnson since GE was an early advertiser with Ebony.

(Photos: Ebony’s Test Kitchen food counter. Credit: Barbara Karant)

Ebony’s Famous Food Columns: ‘Date with a Dish’, Readers’ Favorites and More

Draper and Lyons both continued Ebony’s long-standing food column “A Date with a Dish,” while working at the magazine. The column was originally established by Ebony’s first Food Editor, Freda DeKnight, who also authored the 1948 cookbook, A Date With A Dish: A Cookbook of American Negro Recipes, based off recipes she included in the magazine’s column. The cookbook was reprinted as The Ebony Cookbook in 1962, a year before DeKnight’s death. The original book, which served as a cultural guide as well, is considered the first cookbook written by an African-American for an African-American audience. A 2018 Bon Appétit article on DeKnight’s legacy said the cookbook “changed the course of black culinary history.”

In addition to updating “Date with a Dish”, Draper also launched a popular “Your Favorite Recipe” column while at Ebony. In it, Draper would ask the magazine’s readers to submit their favorite home recipes, which she would then prepare in the Ebony Test Kitchen and have fellow magazine editors and employees taste and vote on. Draper would line up the prepared food at the Test Kitchen’s window counter. Taste testers would fill out an evaluation, eat a soda cracker to cleanse their palate and return to the counter for the next recipe. The winning reader recipe would be featured in the magazine and receive a $25 cash prize. Draper specifically recalls a delicious sweet potato pie recipe that was a personal favorite from this column.

The “Date with a Dish” column, as well as the entire food section, was a highly rated and popular part of the magazine, Lyons said. She was aware of this reputation when she took over as Food Editor in 1985. She was also aware of the cultural significance and impact of the magazine in the black community and was proud to be part of it.

Ebony was on everyone’s coffee table,” Lyons said, adding she never thought she would one day work at the publication. “So, I guess, in a way, it was sort of a dream come true.”

The space alone in which she worked in every day at Ebony – the iconic Test Kitchen – was another perk of the job. Lyons said she has never worked in a space as unique as the Ebony Test Kitchen in jobs prior or after her time at the magazine.

Interested in submitting an RFP to take ownership of the Ebony Test Kitchen? Download the RFP here. Proposals are due May, 1, 2019. For questions or to learn more, contact Lisa DiChiera, Landmarks Illinois Director of Advocacy, at LDiChiera@landmarks.org.

 

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