Where Are All the Black Cooks in America's Rich Culinary History?

Rich in culture and historical detail, Toni Tipton-Martin's The Jemima Code acknowledges a culinary legacy too long overlooked.

The Jemima Code

Publisher: University of Texas Press
Price: $45.00
Author: Toni Tipton-Martin
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-09

When food journalist Toni Tipton-Martin's career took her to Cleveland, Ohio, she met test cook Vera Beck. The encounter changed Tipton-Martin's life. Beck was "a self-taught kitchen genius armed with recipes handed down through word of mouth through generations of rural Alabama cooks. Her talent flowed from a photographic memory and her five senses."

Tipton-Martin is a California native whose Southern-born mother served fresh fruit juices and tofu alongside cast-iron pans of cornbread. Before meeting Beck, Tipton-Martin sugared her grits, avoided pork ribs, and grew nauseated by the smell of cooking chitlins. Beck's traditional cooking forced Tipton-Martin to confront her biases. She realized herself a victim of what she came to call the Jemima Code, defined as:

An arrangement of words and images synchronized to classify the character and life's work of our nation's black cooks as insignificant. 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 artistry.

By the time Tipton-Martin conceptualized the Jemima Code, she had organized the Los Angeles Times' test kitchen library, where a search for cookbooks authored by African Americans turned up a single volume -- in the annual giveaway pile. Where were all the black cooks? Determined to find out, Tipton-Martin began canvassing rare book websites, amassing a collection of nearly 300 cookbooks. The Jemima Code utilizes 160 of these, walking readers through a tragically ignored aspect of American culinary history. Tipton-Martin describes her Herculean effort as "breaking the Jemima Code". This reviewer would argue Tipton-Martin's achievement is far greater: she has corrected the American historical record.

The Jemima Code begins in the 19th century, when Emancipation meant the first American cookbooks authored by African-Americans. Robert Roberts' The House Servant's Directory, written in 1827, offers instructions for serving large parties, including detailed information on place settings, repairing broken glass, and keeping flies off food. Malinda Russell's A Domestic Cookbook, written in 1866, includes recipes for formulating medicines and hair oil. Each is a fascinating glimpse into the past.

From 1900 to 1925, "Mammies" were everywhere. Headscarved and aproned, large and motherly, these stereotypes were de-sexed and safe. Aunt Julia's Cook Book, published in 1934 by the Standard Oil Company, features a photograph of two African-American women attired in immaculate white aprons and dark head scarves. Neither is identified; the caption reads: "Aunt Julia and Aunt Leola Compare Notes".

White-authored cookbooks also appear. Too often these take credit for a black cook's recipes, be it the kitchen help or a beloved "mammy". Many are written in "dialect", making for difficult reading today. Emma Jane's Souvenir Cook Book and Some Old Virginia Recipes, by Blanche Elbert Moncure, appeared in 1937. Dictated to a "Miss Sally" on the eve of her marriage, it includes a re-titled recipe for 1-2-3-4 Cake best not repeated here.

Equally stunning is the advertisement copy penned by the Omega Flour Company in the '40s. A recipe booklet is features an enormous African-American woman stirring a bowl. Standing beside her is little white girl in a party dress, smiling adoringly. According to Tipton-Martin, that little girl is actually "a novice housewife". Other Omega Flour ads feature photographs of "Lillian", cook for "The Clarence B. Hansons, Jr." of Birmingham, Alabama. Lillian's nutbread, baked using Omega flour, delights Hansons visitors. Also pictured is "Eva", bowl in hand. Eva stands before a large, fine estate. The copy reads: "The Home of Mr. and Mrs. Douglas A. Lee, Shreveport ... whose Friends envy them their Eva... like other cooks for the South's first families, she uses... OMEGA flour!"

Not every Southern cook worked beneath an oppressive white thumb. New Orleans native Lena Richard self-published Lena Richard's Cook Book in 1939, appeared on television, maintained a mail-order soup business, and ran a cooking school. In 1941, Texan Lucille Bishop Smith published Lucille's Treasure Chest of Fine Foods, a box filled with recipe cards that included instructions for making -- and correctly pronouncing -- guacamole.

The hardworking Smith later established the Commercial Cooking and Baking Department at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college near Houston, Texas. She also taught in itinerant teacher training programs, worked to improve conditions in slums, and served as food editor of Sepia magazine -- and this is only a partial list of her achievements!

In 1942, a welcome departure from the white author/black cook dynamic appeared with Rebecca's Cookbook. West worked for Eleanor Patterson, owner of the Washington Herald. Patterson wrote the introduction to Rebecca's Cookbook, then stepped aside so the gifted West to take over. With a voice by turns idiosyncratic and amusing, West offers an extraordinary range of recipes, including 39 pages of cocktails and appetizers, a special section for terrapin (turtle), and a surprisingly current recipe for red snapper: sauté in olive oil -- unheard of in '40s-era America -- then finish in a tomato cream sauce.

The years 1961 through 1970 ushered in the birth of soul Food. Eugene Walters, writing in Time-Life American Cooking: Southern Style, identified three indispensable ingredients necessary for preparing soul food: "imagination, laughter, and love".

In a collection of vibrant personalities, Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor's Vibration Cooking or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl is a sassy standout:

What kind of pots are you using? (italics author's) Throw all of them out except the black ones. The cast-iron ones like your mother used to use. Can't no Teflon fry no fried chicken. I only use black pots and brown earthenware in the kitchen. White enamel is not what's happening.

I had no idea that Charleszetta Waddles, aka Mother Waddles, had written a cookbook. The Mother Waddles Soul Food Cookbook appeared in 1970.

Waddles founded the The Perpetual Soul Saving Mission for All Nations, Inc. in Detroit, Michigan in 1957. In 1970, she published The Mother Waddles Soul Food Cookbook. Your reviewer didn't know this when Mother Waddles visited Morris Adler Elementary School. She did this often in 1974. I was six years old. Adler School had yet to be integrated -- we were a bunch of tiny white children, mostly Jewish, crowding around Mother Waddles, clamoring for our hugs. To see The Mother Waddles Soul Food Cookbook was to be that hugged child again, feeling the rough fabric of her blue uniform. Tipton-Martin writes Waddles struggled with her weight. I never noticed her size. Only the immensity of her affection.

One of the more bizarre entries is Elijah Muhammad's From God in Person: Master Fard Muhammad: How to Eat to Live, Book No. 2 Directed at the black Muslim community, this book suggests eating once daily. No pork, kale, sweet, or white potatoes are permitted. Diabetics are forbidden medication: "Just eat right. The sugar in your blood will clear up."

Celebrity contributions include cookbooks by Pearl Baily, whose unpretentious Pearl's Kitchen offers recipes for Lamb Chops Sumpin Else and Veal Chops Ad Lib, while Dick Gregory's Dick Gregory's Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat tries to steer African Americans away from traditional soul food toward natural foods and fasting.

Edna Lewis, grande dame of American cooking, makes her first appearance with The Edna Lewis Cookbook, published in 1972. Lewis was an early advocate of seasonal eating, fresh vegetables, and quality meats and poultry. But it was The Taste of Country Cooking, published in 1976, that brought Lewis widespread fame. A vivid evocation of Lewis' childhood in Freetown, Virginia, a farming community founded by freed slaves, The Taste of Country Cooking tells the story of a year through farming, hard work, celebration, and above all, cooking.

Tipton-Lewis had the great good fortune of knowing Lewis, with whom she shared her wish of cracking the Jemima code. Lewis was supportive, writing "Leave no stone unturned."

The Jemima Code appears as an American presidential candidate is running on a blatantly racist ticket. It was impossible to read this book without thinking of Donald Trump. How I wish The Jemima Code, described events so long past they were foreign to us.

I can say Toni Tipton Martin left no stone unturned, and that Miss Lewis, as she was known, would be proud.

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