When I was a newlywed in 1975, with almost non-existent culinary skills, I loved reading the food and lifestyle articles in the Austin American Statesman. One of my favorite columns was written by Travis County Negro Agricultural Extension Agent, Opal H. Washington. The user-friendly articles that Ms. Washington wrote each week were like getting advice from my Mom.
Opal Washington was born in Crockett, Texas in 1922, and graduated from Prairie View A&M in 1944 with a degree in home economics. During World War II, she was put in charge of war food assistance in Lee, Bastrop, and McLennan counties.
She moved to Austin in 1952 to work for the Travis County Negro Extension Service. This Agency was established as a separate Agricultural Extension Service specifically for the County’s African-American citizens.
Ms. Washington worked as an Extension Agent from 1953 until the office was desegregated in 1965. Her duties included everything from helping people grow vegetables in order to stave off wartime food shortages to creating classes about how to operate food processors and microwave ovens in the 1980’s.
As one of the first African-American, female columnist, she paved the way for many more food-writers at the Statesman, including me. I’ve come a long way since 1975. I’m now a culinary historian, food writer, Chef and cookbook author known as The Kitchen Diva!
I wasn’t the only one who looked to Ms. Washington for answers about all things domestic. Former Statesman Q&A columnist, Ellie Rucker also leaned on Ms. Washington’s vast culinary and home-making knowledge. She wrote about her long friendship with Ms. Washington in her final column before she retired.
“At one point the editor declared he was changing the byline from Ellie to Opal, if I didn't stop quoting her in every answer,” said Ms. Rucker. “I relayed this to Opal. She said, "Oh honey, you keep on calling me, but pretend you knew it all yourself!”
Opal Irving succeeded Ms. Washington as the Travis County Extension Agent for home economics. She also took over her newspaper column when Ms. Washington retired from Travis County in 1982.
“She was like an encyclopedia,'' said Opal Irving, “You could call her and ask her about any question pertinent to home economics. She would have the answers in her head. She would not have to look it up.''
Ms. Washington’s love for all things culinary didn’t stop when she retired. She was such an important source for tips on canning, baking, steaming and other kitchen minutiae people would call her at home for advice. She also edited cookbooks, demonstrated Oster products, and did some catering.
Opal Washington died in 1997 at age 75 from pancreatic cancer. Her years of service as a Travis County Negro Extension Service Agent and the work of many other unsung Extension Agents live on in an incredible collection of black and white photographs that are now part of the Austin History Center’s collection.
The George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center, 1165 Angelina Street, will exhibit a portion of the Austin History Center’s collection focusing on Black Austin Food-ways and Agribusiness photos tomorrow, July 13th .
I’ll be presenting a special EAT YOUR WAY THROUGH HISTORY lunch and lecture program at the Carver Museum on July 13th in conjunction with the Black Food-ways photography exhibit. My BBQ pork and brisket menu will feature a variety of Texas favorites, including a salad recipe from Opal Washington, pimento mac and cheese, banana pudding, and many other “Diva-licious” dishes! Lunch will be served continuously from 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. For reservations and more information go to eventbrite.com, thekitchendiva.