Toni Tipton-Martin was a food writer at the Los Angeles Times when she gazed at the cookbooks in the newspaper’s test kitchen and wondered: “Where are all the black cooks?” She decided to find out. Now, after years of research and amassing an impressive collection of more than 300 cookbooks, she shares both that memory and the answer in a handsome 264-page work titled “The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks” (University of Texas Press, $45).
This lavishly illustrated book moves from “The House Servant’s Directory,” an 1827 guide to household management by Robert Roberts, to 1990’s “Jerk: Barbecue From Jamaica” by Helen Willinsky. “The Jemima Code” includes books by some food figures well known today, people like Edna Lewis, Leah Chase, Jessica B. Harris and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, and authors whose fame may have faded with time, like Freda DeKnight, Rufus Estes, Abby Fisher and Lena Richard.
“They are real people with real voices and important things to say,” the Austin, Texas-based author and community activist said in a telephone interview.
Tipton-Martin spoke of the language many of these authors used, even through translators, and how there were times when “white people allowed themselves to be in the background” and let “the person, the personality” of the authors “shine without degrading them or mocking them.”
“That was a beautiful synergy to experience. But, also, it was very sweet for me to hear the hope that many of these authors expressed for the greater society through the uplift of black cooks. They understood it then in the same way I do now. That when we uplift these people, it doesn’t just uplift them; it uplifts us all. That’s why the book is dedicated ‘For us all.’”
The book includes an abbreviated list of works published from 1991 through 2011 as well. “We don’t live in a post-racial culinary society, not yet,” Tipton-Martin said. But she thinks African-American cookbook authors over the past two decades have been freer to write what they want.
“The Jemima Code” is more than a book about books. Through chapters with titles like “Surviving Mammyism,” “Lifting as We Climb,” “Soul Food” and “Sweet to the Soul,” Tipton-Martin uses the cookbooks to tell a story of race and identity in the U.S.
“The Jemima code” of the title — the name refers, of course, to the Aunt Jemima character created to sell food products — was “an arrangement of words and images synchronized to classify the character and life’s work of our nation’s black cooks as insignificant,” Tipton-Martin writes in her introduction. “The encoded message assumes that black chefs, cooks, and cookbook authors — by virtue of their race and gender — are simply born with good kitchen instincts; diminishes knowledge, skills and abilities involved in their work, and portrays them as passive and ignorant laborers incapable of creative culinary artistry.”
Her blunt assessment? “It’s a sham,” she writes.
Tipton-Martin is not alone, of course, in voicing this complaint. DeKnight wrote in her 1948 cookbook, “A Date With a Dish,” that “it is a fallacy, long disproved, that Negro cooks, chefs, caterers and homemakers can adapt themselves only to the standard Southern dishes, such as fried chicken, greens, corn pone and hot breads.” And Harris, in her 2011 book, “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America,” wrote: “The disrespect for our food and for the people who cook it has been a battle that has raged for decades.”
What does Tipton-Martin hope her book will accomplish?
“I really hope that a true appreciation for the two sides of every story will help us to appreciate our differences and that we can use these people and their stories as a way to build bridges between ourselves – culturally, across class differences,” she says.
“And here’s what I mean by that. For years, for generations, African-Americans have known about police aggression in the community against black males, but nobody really believed in that story, nobody heard the outcry from the community until we knew the individual young men by name, and that has personalized each of their stories. We now know Trayvon (Martin). We know Eric Garner. We know Mike Brown. They’re humanized. We can’t any longer paint them with broad brushstrokes into categories that are unfavorable.”
Tipton-Martin plans to return to the kitchen with these authors, whom she refers to affectionately as “the ladies and a few gentlemen.” Her next book has the working title of “Jubilee: 500 Recipes That Celebrate This Heritage.” She’s working with friends on testing and adapting the recipes for modern cooks.
“Now that the cooks are free, we’re going to go back and begin to cook with them,” she said.
CREOLE COOKED RED BEANS
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 3 to 3 ½ hours
Makes: 8 servings
Adapted from Lena Richard’s “New Orleans Cook Book,” which is featured in “The Jemima Code.” Ashley Young posted this recipe on a blog related to a Richard exhibit at New Orleans’ Southern Food and Beverage museum. Smoked or fresh ham shank can be used. Young’s tip? Patience. Slow cooking will transform the texture of the beans from firm to “gloriously mushy” in 3 to 3 ø hours, she says.
2 cups dried red beans
2 quarts water
1 large onion, diced
1 green pepper, cored, seeded, diced
ø pound pickled meat or ham shank
3 tablespoons shortening
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
1 ø teaspoons salt
Pepper to taste
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1. Soak beans overnight in a large pot or bowl in enough water to cover by 2 inches. Drain. (You can skip the soaking, if you like. The beans will need to cook about 30 minutes longer.)
2. Pour the beans into a large pot along with the 2 quarts water; add remaining ingredients, except the salt, pepper and parsley. Heat to a boil; reduce heat and simmer, with the lid slightly askew, until beans are soft and soupy, 3 to 3 ½ hours. With 10 minutes of cooking time remaining, add 1½ teaspoons salt and pepper to taste. Just before ready to serve, add parsley; taste for seasonings.
Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 60 minutes
Makes: 6 servings
A recipe from Freda DeKnight’s “A Date With a Dish,” a cookbook featured in “The Jemima Code.” While the recipe is given in standard cookbook fashion, DeKnight follows it with suggestions for modifying the recipe or gussying it up for a party. (The 1 “pod” garlic in the first edition became 1 clove, chopped, in “The Ebony Cookbook: A Date With a Dish” of 1962.) Although DeKnight admonishes cooks not to cover the pan, we had good results cooking the rice in a covered Dutch oven.
1 small onion, chopped
1 small green pepper, chopped
1 pod garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon celery, chopped
3 tablespoons butter or bacon fat
1 cup whole grain brown rice
∑ cup tomato sauce or 3 tablespoons paste
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon paprika
2 cups boiling water
Saute onion, pepper, garlic and celery in the butter or bacon fat in a heavy skillet. (Do not allow to brown.) When tender, add unwashed rice. Stir until well mixed and all grains are semi-fried. Add tomato paste or sauce, seasonings and hot water. Stir until well mixed. Do not cover. Cook over a very low fire until rice is dry, light and fluffy, about 50 minutes. Grains should be whole and firm. (If it is necessary to stir when adding water, use a fork. Refrain from stirring, if possible.)
Crushed salted almonds or diced stuffed olives make this a glamorous party dish. (A bit of thyme or a bay leaf, cooked in the sauce, adds a spicy taste.)
Plain cooked rice may be used for Spanish rice. Simply prepare your Spanish sauce and add rice, mixing well. Let steam without cover 10 to 15 minutes.
Some folks like rice dry and some plenty of sauce. These things have to be worked out to suit your own family taste, which only you can determine. But wet or dry, a Spanish sauce simply does things to plain rice and brightens up the meal!
Prep: 30 minutes
Chill: 2 to 3 hours
Makes: 10 to 12 servings
Twelve of Lucille B. Smith’s recipes were included in 1948’s “A Date With a Dish” cookbook by Freda DeKnight, the food editor for Ebony magazine. For the mold, we used a large mixing bowl.
2 egg whites
∂ teaspoon salt
¼ cup powdered sugar
½ pint whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 round spongecake (sliced in ½-inch-thick pieces)
4 to 6 bananas
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Whip egg whites until stiff; add salt, and beat in the powdered sugar. Separately, whip cream; add vanilla, and fold whipped cream into beaten egg whites. Line a mold with spongecake. Peel and slice bananas thinly. Add lemon juice to bananas, and fold into cream and egg white mixture. Fill mold ¾ full of cream and fruit mixture. Cover with additional spongecake. Press cake down lightly into place. Freeze 2 or 3 hours. Slice and serve with whipped cream and bananas or nuts.