By any century's standards, Abby Fisher was an amazing woman.

An ex-slave and plantation cook, she bore and raised 11 children. She not only escaped the post-Civil War South, she managed to get herself and her family to San Francisco where she was a caterer and ran a small pickle business. And despite being unable to read and write, she had a cookbook published in 1881 with the help of some of San Francisco's most prominent citizens.

Yet for more than a century, "What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking" -- believed to be the first cookbook by an African American and maybe the only one by an ex-slave -- remained forgotten. Copies of the slim, dark-blue leather volume were so rare that most food historians were unaware of its existence. Those who might have heard tantalizing wisps of information about it had no way to investigate further.

Until last year. That was when well-known food historian Karen Hess received a phone call.

Hess is an expert in historical Southern cooking and one of the few people who had glimpsed Fisher's cookbook when it came up for auction at Sotheby's in New York in 1984. Shortly afterward, she mentioned the volume to Phil Zuckerman of Applewood Books, a small Massachusetts firm that publishes historical facsimile books. "She told me it would be a fabulous book to do if we could find a copy of it," recalls Zuckerman.

It took several years, but in 1994 Zuckerman finally called Hess. He had tracked down a limited-edition copy of the book that had been published in Connecticut. Applewood would reprint it, and he wanted Hess to write the historical afterword.

"They couldn't give me as much time as I wanted to research it, but still, I was thrilled," she remembers.

The first thing she needed to do was prove what had been only rumored: that Abby Fisher was indeed an African American and a former slave.

"I had read a recipe of hers back in the '70s that said she was an ex-slave, but there wasn't a whisper of documentation," Hess says.

There were some hints in the book: A recipe for "Blackberry Syrup -- For Dysentery in Children" notes that it's "an old Southern plantation remedy among colored people," and there are other references to plantation life. But it wasn't until a colleague at the Los Angeles Public Library found Abby Fisher listed in the U.S. Census of 1880 that Hess hit pay dirt.

The census listed Fisher's name, age (then 48) and a San Francisco address. Her profession was listed as "cook" and under the heading of race was the notation "mu.," or mulatto. The census records also noted that her mother was from South Carolina and her father from France.

"She had to have been a slave," Hess says. "There was a strong French presence in South Carolina among landowners, and in 1832 or so when she was born, any relationship involving a man born in France and a South Carolina woman that produced a mulatto child was almost certainly that of a slave owner and slave."

The same census also listed Abby Fisher's husband, Alexander Fisher, 46, as a mulatto born in Alabama.

To reinforce these findings, Hess had a researcher in San Francisco go through the 1880 city directories. There they found a listing for "Mrs. Abby Fisher & Co.," along with the notation, "pickles, preserves, brandies, fruits, etc."

How the Fishers made the trek to San Francisco from Alabama, where three of their children were born, remains a mystery, Hess admits. The transcontinental railroad had been completed by then, but such a journey would have been costly.

"Her last child was born in Missouri, a popular jumping-off place for going west. It's not inconceivable that she was part of a wagon train, maybe even as a cook," she muses.

The fact that Fisher and her family did make it to San Francisco indicates several things to historians, adds Hess. "There was a much larger African-American presence in the West than many realize. San Francisco was a bustling city, but with a lot of the frontier spirit. Maybe {African Americans} there were not discriminated against as much."

Whatever the reason, Abby Fisher flourished in San Francisco. She catered for the city's upper class -- those she called "my lady friends and patrons in San Francisco and Oakland" -- and won medals for her pickles, preserves and sauces at the San Francisco and Sacramento state fairs, a high honor in those days.

"It's very clear," says Hess, "that she was the driving force in the family."

That strength and confidence also come through in the cookbook's preface, where Fisher admits that she is unable to read or write, but stresses that she wanted to share her 35 years of cooking experience, as many had asked her to do. She believed the book was written "so that a child can understand it and learn the art of cooking."

Most impressive is the number of "friends," as she calls them, listed at the front of the book who helped her complete the project. According to city records of the time, Abby Fisher's nine patrons included stockbro\kers, an insurance office manager and the wives of a prominent businessman and an attorney.

The book was dictated to at least one of these patrons, who obviously had some difficulty transcribing Fisher's Southern accent. A recipe for "circuit hash" turns out to be succotash. "Jumberlie" is jambalaya. "Carolas" is a recipe for crullers. The only term Hess was unable to decipher was "Vigareets," which appear to be a type of meat croquette.

Aside from these small quirks, Abby Fisher's 160 recipes are further proof of why the golden age of Southern cooking occurred on plantations, Hess contends.

"Of course slavery was a horrific institution. But the near mythic quality of Southern cooking is due to the black women cooks on plantations. They transformed the palate of the Southern gentry. They left their thumbprint on every dish they cooked."

In Fisher's case, Hess calls her preserve recipes "exceptional" and her roasting techniques exemplary. The perfect roast beef, according to Abby Fisher, "should be well cooked on the outside and rare on the inside. A five-pound roast should cook in half an hour."

Despite her research, Hess still has many questions about Fisher: What was her girlhood in South Carolina like? Who taught her to cook? How did she become so successful in San Francisco? Did she survive that city's destructive 1906 earthquake?

Even with these loose ends, though, Hess is positive that the cookbook is a historical treasure.

"As far as I can tell, it's the first cookbook by an African-American woman. That's something the nation should be proud of, and women should be proud of." Copies of "What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking" can be ordered for $8.95 plus $2 shipping and handling from Food Heritage Press, P.O. Box 163, Ipswich, Mass. 01938-0163. Or call Applewood Books at 1-800-277-5312. Small Publishers Help History Repeat Itself

Interest in facsimiles of historic cookbooks is growing. Several small publishers, such as Applewood Books, University of South Carolina Press and University of Iowa Press, are reprinting antique cookbooks from the early 19th and 20th centuries and finding a widespread market among collectors, serious cooks, museum gift shops and catalogues.

Joe Carlin, a nutritionist with the U.S. Administration on Aging in Ipswich, Mass., has been collecting historic cookbooks for 15 years. Although he owns several 19th-century originals, "over the years they have become harder to come by and, when they are available, prohibitively expensive."

So Carlin started Food Heritage Press, a catalogue of facsimile reprints of historical cookbooks available from many of the country's small publishers.

What makes these reprints so attractive, says Carlin, is not only are they affordable, but they are printed on acid-free paper and often have scholarly introductions that explain the history of the book and its author.

"In many ways, you are getting a better bargain with these reprints," says Carlin.

And, if you keep them in good condition, someday they themselves will be valuable collector's items as well.

To order a catalogue, send $1 to Food Heritage Press, P.O. Box 163, Ipswich, Mass. 01938. -- Candy Sagon CAPTION: Applewood's reprint of Abby Fisher's 1881 cookbook.