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Beyond 'Aunt Jemima': A Taste Of African-American Culinary Heritage

Oct 17, 2015
Originally published on October 19, 2015 2:09 pm

So if I say Aunt Jemima, you think what? Fluffy pancakes and waffles?

For sure.

Loving hospitality?

Perhaps.

But for some, the title, the image, even the updated version sans headwrap, evokes other feelings, including anger, over a racial stereotype of a black woman with no apparent life of her own. One who is happiest in the kitchen getting ready to serve her white folks.

Well, just who were the real Aunt Jemimas, the real black cooks and chefs whose craft and skill did so much to define American cuisine?

African-American cooking has had an enormous impact on American cuisine. But when America's culinary heritage is described or depicted, the cooks who helped make that history are rarely featured.

Instead, says food writer Toni Tipton-Martin, African-American cooks and chefs were largely lost to history.

"Their cookbooks, their efforts, their accomplishments, their love of the kitchen, their joy, their intelligence — all of that disappeared," she tells NPR's Michel Martin (no relation).

To find those missing men and women who whose craft and skill did so much to define American cuisine, Tipton-Martin turned to her cookbook collection.

Robert Roberts was not a chef, and his 1827 manual on household management has not historically been considered a cookbook, but Toni Tipton-Martin notes that it includes recipes and cooking tips.
From 'The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks' (University of Texas Press, 2015), courtesy of Toni Tipton-Martin. For more information visit www.utexaspress.com

Over the years, she'd gathered around 300 African-American cookbooks, dating back almost 200 years. Her new book, The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks, presents summaries, covers and a few recipes from that collection. Along the way, Tipton-Martin explores who wrote those books — and what they reveal about an underdocumented culinary heritage.


Interview Highlights

On the oldest cookbook featured in the book, which was written by a black man and published in 1827

That earliest book was written by... the butler for the governor's mansion in Massachusetts. His book existed on the margins of cookery books because, for a long time, it wasn't perceived to be a cookbook. It is what is known as a household manager's book, and there's been a negative connotation for that: It indicates or connotes that the only purpose that this man has in writing is to convey that to the next generation of workers. And so historically, these people have gone down in history as really just training up more servants, and that's the part that has been offensive to African-Americans.

Toni Tipton-Martin notes that the history of black food is not limited to "cabin cooking." Lena Richard, for instance, was a restaurant head chef, catering company owner and cooking school operator. She self-published her cookbook in 1939; it was republished twice in later decades, including the 1985 printing shown here.
From 'The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks' (University of Texas Press, 2015), courtesy of Toni Tipton-Martin. For more information visit www.utexaspress.com

But what I have chosen to do is see that work through a different filter. I've looked at them entirely based on what is required to do the work. And I like to say that we honor and appreciate today's celebrity cooks for the foods that they cook at work. We know what they cook on television... but we don't have any idea what they cook at home. And yet African-Americans have been confined into this perspective that says the only cooking we had was the cabin cooking. And I'm arguing through the evidence in these works that were published and printed by African-Americans that there was a different side, there was a middle-class side, there was a side of beauty that was created when the resources were available.

On the culinary trend of cooking with humble ingredients — the kind some African-Americans have been embarrassed to embrace

That's part of breaking the code and why it's important for all of us — because the stereotype is bleeding on to everyone. ... Don't forget to mention the popularity of pig-ear sandwiches and cooking with pork cheeks and pork belly, which we would have called fatback in our kitchen.

So there's a very confused space for African-Americans in terms of what is appropriate for us to claim and not claim. And I like to tell African-American audiences to be very proud of the fact that among the most popular, most healthful foods you can eat are foods that are associated with our traditional core diet... things like dark leafy greens and sweet potatoes and whole grains and watermelon, even.

On what she hopes to achieve with this book, and what she's working on next

[Researching the book] has changed my view completely in terms of what my ancestors accomplished and how I can now carry that message forward and communicate that through my own recipes. And so what we hope to have — what will follow this book once these cooks and book authors are free — then we will begin to explore those recipes. We don't spend a lot of time on the recipes in this book because this is really an effort to draw attention to them, and give them life. But the next book will be their lives on the page, through their recipes and what they created, and I'm really excited about that.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So if I say Aunt Jemima, you think - what? - fluffy pancakes and waffles? For sure. Loving hospitality? Perhaps. But for some the title, the image, even the updated version sans head wrap evokes other feelings, including anger, over a racial stereotype of a black woman who's happiest in the kitchen getting ready to serve her white folks. Well, just who were the real Aunt Jemimas, the real cooks and chefs whose craft and skill did so much to define American cuisine? Former Los Angeles Times food writer Toni-Tipton Martin wanted to find out. Her sources were the 300 or so African-American cookbooks she's collected that date back almost 200 years. And now she's sharing what she's learned in a lavishly-illustrated new book called "The Jemima Code: Two Centuries Of African-American Cookbooks." And Toni Tipton-Martin joins us now. Welcome - and in case anybody's wondering if I'm giving a relative special treatment, we are not, in fact, related, as far as we know, correct?

TONI TIPTON-MARTIN: That is correct. Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: The first cookbook that you talk about was actually published in 1827. Were these early cookbooks, in fact, written by or published by black people, particularly black women? The evidence suggests that actually many weren't.

TIPTON-MARTIN: We have to put ourselves back in that time period. That earliest book was written by a black person. He was the butler for the governor's mansion in Massachusetts. His book existed on the margins of cookery books because for a long time, it wasn't perceived to be a cookbook. It is what is known as a household manager's book. And there's been a negative connotation for that. It indicates or connotes that the only purpose that this man has in writing is training up more servants. And that's the part that has been offensive to African-Americans. But what I have chosen to do is see that work through a different filter. And I like to say that we honor and appreciate today's celebrity cooks for the foods that they cook at work. We know what they cook on television or on the Food Network, but we don't have any idea what they cook at home. And yet African-Americans have been confined into this perspective that says the only cooking we have was the cabin cooking. And I'm arguing through the evidence in these works that were published and printed by African-Americans that there was a different side. There was a middle-class side. There was a side of beauty that was created when the resources were available.

MARTIN: What do you make of the fact that nowadays, for example, now that there's a renewed interest in both American food and in cookery in general - one of the food trends is kind of making something of very simple ingredients or even the kinds of ingredients that you call, you know, poverty ingredients. And yet for some people, it's still kind of embarrassing for some African-Americans, or perhaps it's something that they don't necessarily really want to do in public or just be associated with certain ingredients, you know what I mean? So on the one hand, you have, like, these trendy chefs making, you know, salads out of watermelon and high-end mac and cheese, you know, on the menu. And yet other people are not sure that they want to eat it because they associate it with, I don't know, a stereotype. What do you make of all that?

TIPTON-MARTIN: Well, that's part of breaking the code and why it's important for all of us because the stereotype is bleeding onto everyone, right? So don't forget to mention the popularity of pig-ear sandwiches and cooking with pork cheeks and pork belly, which we would've called fatback, you know, in our kitchens. So there's a very confused space for African-Americans in terms of what is appropriate for us to claim and not claim. And I like to tell African-American audiences to be very proud of the fact that among the most popular, most healthful food you can eat are foods that are associated with our traditional core diet. Those would be things like dark leafy greens and sweet potatoes and whole grains and watermelon even.

MARTIN: Toni Tipton-Martin is the author of "The Jemima Code: Two Centuries Of African-American Cookbooks," and she joined us from member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Toni Tipton-Martin, thanks so much for joining us.

TIPTON-MARTIN: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.