Toni Tipton-Martin, a local food activist, had her “Aha!” moment while working as a nutrition writer at the Los Angeles Times.
That’s where her editor, Ruth Reichl — the woman who would later helm Gourmet magazine — called Tipton-Martin into her office. Observing the young journalist’s talent and also the humdrum nature of her nutrition assignments, Reichl asked, “What do you really want to do?”
The question was a lightning bolt.
And it prompted Tipton-Martin to realize that she dreamed of a career at the intersection of food, community, and storytelling, with an emphasis on African American tradition. It’s a niche she has spent the past 20+ years pioneering.
Things got cooking back in 1991, when Tipton-Martin served as the first African American food editor at a major newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer. In 2001, she co-founded the Southern Foodways Alliance, which champions the diverse culinary traditions of the American South In 2008, she founded SANDE, a healthy eating initiative for youth (this earned her two invitations from Michelle Obama to the White House). And, in 2015, she hosted Austin’s Soul Summit, an unprecedented meeting-of-the-minds about African American cuisine.
The list goes on. It includes many honors, affiliations and, now, a book. Last fall, Tipton-Martin released The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cooking (UT Press, 2015). The volume is a compendium of African American culinary writing. “For this project,” Tipton-Martin said, “I collected nearly 300 rare black cookbooks which date back to 1827. The Jemima Code explores more than 150 of these important cookbooks.”
In case you were wondering: yes, the title of Tipton-Martin’s book refers to Aunt Jemima, the bandana-clad cook whose image appeared on pancake mixes of yore.
“Images of Jemima — originally a household servant — have been around since the 1800’s,” Tipton-Martin explained to an audience at her BookPeople launch last September. She noted that, while the pancake people have altered their rendering of Jemima, there used to be a time when, “… Jemima’s skin was darkened and hair was added to her face to make her seem ape-like.”
According to Tipton-Martin, this stereotype-laden portrait of Jemima began to function as a kind of secret code, communicating to women of color that they would always exist in servitude. “Who wants to go into the kitchen when you’re represented like that?” Tipton-Martin added.
It dawned on her that, in order to break the Jemima code, she would have to collect the stories of African American women who worked in kitchens over the past two centuries. Because their stories inhabited old cookbooks, Tipton-Martin wound up acquiring one of the largest African American cookbook collections in the world.
It is this collection that Tipton-Martin’s book mines, and it is what makes her work so novel. As she told me, “The Jemima Code reveals at least a dozen culinary proficiencies that have not previously been attributed to black cooks, such as management, organizational, and entrepreneurial skills. Through their books, we see them as educated, creative, and talented — not just as natural born cooks spinning culinary ‘magic’ instinctively.”
The cooks that Tipton-Martin discusses in The Jemima Code include mothers, activists and TV personalities who have been largely ignored by history. In light of this, I asked Tipton-Martin how she, herself, pressed on with culinary work, especially in the days before it began to receive mainstream recognition.
“For me,” she answered, “the idea of bringing people together by breaking down barriers over food is a mission. I am guided by scripture that reminds me daily that we cannot be reconciled with the Father until we are reconciled with one another.”
Though Tipton-Martin and I do not share the same religious background, I still appreciated the sentiment behind her statement: that, to get anywhere worth going, one must build bridges and seek to connect, harmoniously, with others.
Tipton-Martin acknowledged that bridges are difficult things to build, and she added that the racially charged material she explores elicits challenging responses from both sides of the riverbank.
“If you’re not pricked by it, then shame on you!” Tipton-Martin gently chided. She continued, “Food is not black. Food is not white. It kinda gets you thinking about what has been done to divide us.”
To learn more about African American cuisine, The Jemima Code and Toni Tipton-Martin’s newest project, Jubilee: 500 Recipes Celebrate African American Heritage, please check out excerpts from our interview below:
BL: How would you define African American cuisine?
TTM: African American cuisine has a very complicated history that begins when enslaved Africans were denied the right to write down their own recipes. Because of this complexity, I define African American cuisine as the food African Americans wrote down in their cookbooks as their own, or that which white women recorded for them because they wanted to pass down to their children the family recipes prepared by the family cook. The sad tragic truth is that African American cuisine as it would have perhaps existed without slavery, disappeared into a renowned regional cuisine — the food of the American South.
A failure of copyright law is part of the problem. It is understood that changing the method of cooking changes the ownership of the dish, so that an enslaved woman who was given ingredients and told how to bake a cake, but changed how she did it to account for humidity or other kitchen conditions, lost credit for her cake in written history, plantation journals and American cookbooks.
Fortunately, the techniques that the enslaved brought here as part of their African culinary memory are finally being recognized — practices like cooking over an open flame, in leaves, jerking and drying in the sun.
It’s not that these cooking methods are unique to African culture, but since we have not been given credit for doing having a cooking history of our own, it is difficult for some people to [acknowledge] that our culinary contributions extend beyond poverty and survival cooking.
The food cooked in middle class homes, in academic settings, in restaurants all defy this stereotype, but without published cookbooks and other first-person sources African American food is portrayed narrowly.
BL: Who were the most significant culinary influences of your childhood? How can they be felt in your current work?
TTM: I spent many of my early days in my grandmother’s kitchen playing with pie dough and licking the spoon. She was a fabulous cook and it is her legacy that I am working so hard to restore and preserve. From my website:
My grandmother Nannie was a sturdy woman of Choctaw descent who cooked the most delicious food … her raspy voice of affection still whispers two things to me: security and chocolate cake…. When I wasn’t perched on the branches of the towering avocado tree that shaded Nannie’s backyard like a 100-year-old oak, I was being lured into her kitchen by the intoxicatingly sweet cocoa perfume of a bubbling mixture as it percolated in the top of her Pyrex double boiler. Nannie saw my desperate anticipation for even a tiny taste, wiped her hands on the yellow gingham apron her twin sister Jewel had sewn for her – the one with the torn pocket and border of delicate garnet strawberries – leaned forward and handed me the bowl. I don’t remember much about the cake, but raw batter still seduces me today.… Several years ago… I decided to make [Nannie’s] cake … following the yellowed recipe she tore from a magazine, and buried in the back pages of her favorite cookbook.… It turns out the cake I naively thought Nannie just whipped from her imagination, came from the Noble-Purefoy Hotel in Anniston, Alabama — a decadence that was lovely to look at, but its dense cocoa layers didn’t translate well into this century. Too many years of eating commercial birthday cakes, hurry-up cake mixes, and bakery goodies, I guess. Nannie is gone and I’m still perfecting her recipe, and I adapted this Double Chocolate Fudge Cake from different recipes for fudgey pound cakes as a decadent conversation starter that lets me tell my kids about Nannie and the other members of her humble sorority.
>>> BAKE THIS CAKE
BL: Apropos of your grandmother’s legacy, you came out with The Jemima Code last year. To write it, you collected what you term as “nearly 300 rare black cookbooks which date back to 1827.” Tell me about a few of the individual cookbook authors featured in The Jemima Code.
Two of my favorite authors are Malinda Russell and Freda DeKnight.
Russell was a working mother who helps us see these women as apprentices who perfected their craft through observation and practice. They may have had an affinity for cooking, but they certainly were not “naturally” born. Like the women who taught her to cook, Russell is a role model and instructor, conveying her recipes in a poetic language that invites readers into the kitchen to cook alongside her.
Russell baked with fresh ingredients and used her goods to raise money for her family. She helps modern audiences see ways black cooks used food to gain their independence.
I love DeKnight because her book achieves the same goals that I have in writing The Jemima Code. She uses her expertise as a food editor to collect recipes from a diverse group of middle-class American cooks. She helps us see African American cuisine beyond the limits of soul food.
After wrapping up The Jemima Code, you turned your attention to a new book you’re writing called Jubilee: 500 Recipes Celebrate African American Heritage. How will that book’s themes differ from the ones you explore in The Jemima Code?
Jubilee’s themes continue those explored in The Jemima Code. That’s why it was so important to me that they be published within a year of each other. I have previously said that The Jemima Code is like a culinary Emancipation Proclamation for black cooks. It provides evidence of culinary experiences not normally associated with black cooks — like educated and middle class cookery, expertise in ethnic and regional foods, recycling and reclamation, cooking with wine. Jubilee puts that freedom into action, with recipes that are just that — positive, fun, and uplifting — dishes my ancestors created at work. It’s the same kind of cooking that celebrity chefs are known for today.
We don’t know what Rachel, Emeril, and Martha cook at home, yet we respect them for what they can teach us. By the late 1980s, authors begin to write about all sorts of subjects from bread baking to vegetarianism. They were no longer limited to providing recipes that were strictly southern or soul, however ingenious those dishes of survival might have been. I am adapting The Jemima Code recipes for modern kitchens so that we can re-create the foods they prepared when they had the time and resources to do so. It is truly about finding joy in our heritage.
What’s the most important thing you’d like people to know about about African American cooking?
The most important thing to know about African American cooking is it was created by intelligent and creative cooks, not natural-born geniuses laboring in other people’s kitchens. They practiced what chef Michael Ruhlman described as “mental mise en place,” which means memorizing hundreds of recipes without writing anything down, working with limited supplies and under stone-age conditions, and yet they developed masterful skills the way apprentices do — with on-hands training, and left a tradition of diverse cuisine as their legacy.