James Beard Award Winner
Showcasing one of the world’s largest private collections of African American cookbooks, ranging from rare nineteenth-century texts to modern classics by Edna Lewis and Vertamae Grosvenor, this lavishly illustrated collection speaks volumes about America’s food culture.
"The Jemima Code is no ordinary book. It’s a heaping helping, a long overdue acknowledgment. . . ."
—The New York Times Book Review
Women of African descent have contributed to America’s food culture for centuries, but their rich and varied involvement is still overshadowed by the demeaning stereotype of an illiterate “Aunt Jemima” who cooked mostly by natural instinct. To discover the true role of black women in the creation of American, and especially southern, cuisine, Toni Tipton-Martin has spent years amassing one of the world’s largest private collections of cookbooks published by African American authors, looking for evidence of their impact on American food, families, and communities and for ways we might use that knowledge to inspire community wellness of every kind.
The Jemima Code presents more than 150 black cookbooks that range from a rare 1827 house servant’s manual, the first book published by an African American in the trade, to modern classics by authors such as Edna Lewis and Vertamae Grosvenor. The books are arranged chronologically and illustrated with photos of their covers; many also display selected interior pages, including recipes. Tipton-Martin provides notes on the authors and their contributions and the significance of each book, while her chapter introductions summarize the cultural history reflected in the books that follow. These cookbooks offer firsthand evidence that African Americans cooked creative masterpieces from meager provisions, educated young chefs, operated food businesses, and nourished the African American community through the long struggle for human rights. The Jemima Code transforms America’s most maligned kitchen servant into an inspirational and powerful model of culinary wisdom and cultural authority.
2016 James Beard Award in Reference and Scholarship
2nd place in the Book Category of Les Dames d'Escoffier's M.F.K. Fisher Awards for Excellence in Culinary Writing
BCALA Outstanding Contribution to Publishing Citation
The 2016 Art of Eating Prize for Best Food Book
New York Book Show First Place Award in General - Special Trade
- Foreword: A Gallery of Great Cooks, by John Egerton
- Foreword: Why Cookbooks Matter, by Barbara Haber
- Nineteenth-Century Cookbooks: Breaking a Stereotype
- 1900–1925. Surviving Mammyism: Cooking Lessons for Work and Home
- 1926–1950. The Servant Problem: Dual Messages
- 1951–1960. Lifting as We Climb: Tea Cakes, Finger Sandwiches, Community Service, and Civil Rights
- 1961–1970. Soul Food: Mama's Cooking Leaves Home for the City
- 1971–1980. Simple Pleasures: A Soul Food Revival
- 1981–1990. Mammy's Makeover: The Ever-Useful Life
- 1991–2011. Sweet to the Soul: The Hope of Jemima
There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give to our children: One is roots, the other is wings.
By the time I was thirty years old, I could count my southern life experiences on one hand. When you grow up in a tiny family in Los Angeles, sheltered by expatriates who left skid marks when they quit the South, it is easy to believe that your family drama does not play east of the San Bernardino Valley. As a child during the civil rights era, I lived in exile— sheltered from the narrow perspective of Negro subservience and “proper place,” liberated from the burden of low-class living. My parents built new and improved lives near the Pacific coast.
Not that the social, cultural, and culinary dimensions of southern living were unrecognizable out west. Sweet tea and fresh-squeezed lemonade washed down Aunt Jewel’s crisp fried chicken, smoked pork bones seasoned Nannie’s Sunday greens, and Mother always baked her cornbread in a big black cast-iron skillet. But that was just dinner; everybody we knew in Baldwin Hills ate that.
I didn’t care all that much for pork ribs and became easily nauseated by the potent smell of chitlins, which blasted through the air like a dragon’s fiery breath every time our neighbors from Tennessee opened their front door. Perhaps the most obvious evidence of my western upbringing was my unapologetic admission that I sprinkled sugar on my grits. As far as I could tell, precious few of my culinary notions qualified as southern, and it was entirely possible that I could have stumbled blindly through the rest of my life without ever discovering the Jemima living in me—if not for Vera Beck.
Vera called to mind one of those African American matriarchs familiarly thought of as saints—a woman in her twilight years whose culinary expressiveness was like a gift she bestowed on the people she loved. Whenever I think of her—and it is often—I see a proud, generous, loving, tenderhearted, talented, exceptional cook. She made the best biscuits, chowchow, fried green tomatoes, and Mississippi mud cake I have ever tasted. And although she earned her living as my test-kitchen cook in Cleveland, at one of the few major daily newspapers that dared to preserve the tradition, she was a self-taught kitchen genius armed with recipes handed down by word of mouth through generations of rural Alabama cooks. Her talent flowed from a photographic memory and her five senses. Such gifts have all but disappeared from contemporary kitchens.
As I got to know Vera better, she forced me to circle back and confront a personality quirk that Virginia Woolf described as “contrary instincts.” I thought I was content—a thirty-something food editor living far away from home on the eastern shore of Lake Erie, enjoying amazing and exotic world cuisine. I had come of age as the daughter of a health-conscious, fitnesscrazed cook whose experiments with tofu, juicing, and smoothies predated the fads. Both my mother and my grandmother knew a lot about cooking, but they didn’t dispense kitchen wisdom regularly. Vera read my unfamiliarity with her southern-accented fare as a sign of incomplete social conditioning. Later on, I came to see that I was a casualty of the Jemima code.
Merriam-Webster defines a code as “a systematic statement of a body of law; especially one given statutory force; a system of principles or rules (as in moral code); a system of signals or symbols for communication . . . used to represent assigned and often secret meanings.” To decode, the dictionary goes on to say, is “to convert (as a coded message) into intelligible form; to recognize and interpret (an electronic signal); to discover the underlying meaning of.”
Black codes once defined legal place for former slaves. As Americans, we still live with all sorts of standardizing codes—dress codes, moral codes, codes of conduct, codes of law, bar codes. Recipes are codes.
Historically, the Jemima code was 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 culinary artistry.
Throughout the twentieth century, the Aunt Jemima advertising trademark and the mythical mammy figure in southern literature provided a shorthand translation for a subtle message that went something like this: “If slaves can cook, you can too,” or “Buy this flour and you’ll cook with the same black magic that Jemima put into her pancakes.” In short: a sham.
Exposure to this Machiavellian deception begins early in life, like a communicable childhood disease. Negative pictures of black women first invade the subconscious through literature, television, or film. The stereotyped caricature, described succinctly by Rebecca Sharpless as rotund and head-ragged, grinning broadly, speaking in crude dialect, comforting white children, and always putting the needs of other people before her own, is incubated in schools, where written history and its lessons on slavery reinforce and substantiate the dim, demoralizing portraits of black women as “noble savages” managing domestic responsibilities for their white mistresses. This endless cycle ravages self-esteem, identity, sense of belonging, and cultural pride, leaving scars for generations that are invisible but not insignificant—as tuberculosis does.
It is true that black women did much of the cooking in early American kitchens. It is also true that they did so with the art and aptitude of today’s trained professionals, transmitting their craft orally. Society has been slow to accept oral history as a legitimate record. But since my ancestors were denied the opportunity to learn to read and write, they transferred important cultural traditions from one generation to another through face-to-face, personal exchanges. They told stories on the front porch, during special occasions, and at celebrations. They transferred cooking techniques while working side by side or sharing a meal together.
“African American children, mostly female, began their cooking apprenticeships at a young age, closely observing older cooks within their family and extended family,” the historian Frederick Douglass Opie writes in Hog and Hominy: Soul Food From Africa to America (2008). “Over time, adults would assign chores of ever-increasing difficulty to acclimate the child to the art of cooking.” Opie’s observations come to life in the stories told by former slaves and recorded by the Federal Writers Project (FWP; 1935–1939) of the Works Progress Administration, and in those relayed in Susan Tucker’s “artful oral history,” Telling Memories among Southern Women: Domestic Workers and Their Employers in the Segregated South (1988).
Harriet Barrett told an FWP interviewer in Texas, “Dey put me to cooking when I’s a li’l kid and people now says dat Aunt Harriet am de bes’ cook in Madisonville.” Ella Wilson, who grew up a slave in Arkansas, described the rigors of her culinary education this way: “I had to get up every morning at five when the cook got up and make the coffee and then I had to go in the dining-room and set the table. Then I served breakfast. Then I went into the house and cleaned it up. Then I tended to the white children and served the other meals during the day.”
Such routines seem devoid of classic culinary proficiencies until we consider the wide-ranging tasks young apprentices would have observed to get all that food on the table—from mundane acts like fanning away flies from the dining room table, to killing, gutting, and plucking feathers from fowl. After starting out as something like sous-chefs, they matured into exceptional kitchen leaders, evaluating the supplies and ingredients left by the mistress, memorizing the instructions for making dishes, and sometimes fixing supper for their own families after dark with only a “pine knot torch” for light, as a former slave named Betty Powers recalled. Sylvia King, a former slave who was born in Morocco and received culinary training in France, did all these things and then some in Texas—working in the gardens and orchards, drying fruit, making cider, seasoning hams after curing—but still found herself alternating between field work and the spinning loom.
Respect for this work has been slowly gaining recognition from scholars and independent writers, thanks in part to the Southern Foodways Alliance’s oral history project and its mission to preserve and celebrate the American South’s complex food history and its unknown artisans. Compelling explorations and analysis by the scholars Psyche Williams-Forson, Rebecca Sharpless, and Anne Bower also are prioritizing African American women’s culinary legacies.
Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power (2006), Williams-Forson’s thought-provoking study of black women and their relationships with the “gospel bird,” turns attention away from the caricatured image of Aunt Jemima and its implication that black women were “worthless figures capable only of menial servitude.”
As Rebecca Sharpless explains in Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865–1960 (2010), kitchen workers seasoned the lives of others and made their existence pleasurable with “elaborate, delectable feasts” created from recipes modified to suit the local climate, available ingredients, the tastes and religious preferences of the household, and other circumstances—with fruits, vegetables, meats, and staples that extended “beyond their ancestral roots.” They made do under the most adverse circumstances, providing sustenance for their own loved ones from their employers’ leftovers as well as ingredients bought with the cash wages earned with their labor. And they also salved wounds, nurtured spirits, and imparted wisdom over steaming plates of nourishment.
“In so doing, they contributed to one of the most noteworthy parts of southern American culture,” Sharpless emphasized.
Talented, inventive, nurturing—how is it that these are not the predominant images of African American cooks? Why don’t we celebrate their contributions to American culture the way we venerate that of the imaginary Betty Crocker? Why wasn’t their true legacy preserved? Can we ever forget the images of ignorant, submissive, selfless, sassy, asexual domestics with inborn culinary gifts? Is it possible to replace the burnedinto-our-eyes, mostly unflattering pictures of generous waistlines bent over cast iron skillets? Will we ever believe that strong African American women, who toted wood and built fires before even thinking about kneading bread dough or mixing cakes, left us more than just their formulas for good pancakes?
The jury is still out on these questions.
In the meantime, the cookbook authors introduced in The Jemima Code present a new picture, one that replaces the Aunt Jemima asymmetry, granting recognition to a group of people with little traditionally documented history.
In my California youth, before I moved to Cleveland and came under the influence of Vera Beck, several experiences, considered in retrospect, pointed me toward a focus on black cooks and inspired me to become a novice collector of rare cookbooks written by African Americans. In 1985, a few years after graduating from journalism school at the University of Southern California, I got a chance to find my voice as a food writer at the Los Angeles Times. By the time that Ruth Reichl came on board as the food editor, I had spent hours standing in our test kitchen across the counter from its director, Donna Deane, watching, listening, smelling, and tasting every dish she prepared. I sorted and organized the cookbooks in our library and, on most days, pored over the A-to-Z recipe files, researching and soaking up everything I could about cooking. The shelves sagged from the weight of recipe books from such faraway lands (and times) as the former Austrian Empire, but few titles mentioned the food of my culture. Even the southern cookbooks were silent on the subject.
I wondered, “Where are all the black cooks?” I decided to find out.
After a long period of thinking and some hand-wringing I realized that precious few of the people I wanted to interview about the techniques that my ancestors had used skillfully in big-house kitchens and had applied creatively to slaveholders’ rations were still living. Nonetheless, black cookbooks might confirm their impact on American food, families, and communities.
A cookbook may be informally defined as a collection of directions translated into understandable language so that anyone can make the dish being described. These directions, also known as recipes, range from simple to extremely complex. They usually follow a standardized formula, such as the one outlined by Joan Whitman and Dolores Simon in Recipes into Type: A Handbook for Cookbook Writers and Editors (1993): title, headnote, ingredients list, instructions, number of servings, notes, and variations.
Recipes are protected by copyright, but copyright law does not protect ones that are mere listings of ingredients. Changing a single ingredient or step in the method is an accepted way to create a new dish and thereby establish a new claim of ownership. By this standard, a cook who, for example, substitutes lime juice for lemon juice in a published recipe, or changes the language that describes the process for handling pie crust, has created a new, “adapted” recipe, according to the U.S. Copyright Office.
As a result, creations that mixed African and Native American technique with American ingredients and European recipes disappeared into cookbooks written for mainstream white audiences. A cookbook, however, is rarely purely utilitarian.
Historians and scholars recognize recipes and cookbooks as important research tools for understanding women and their work. Janet Theophano’s definitive study Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote (2002), presents myriad ways that women use cookbooks as scrapbooks with recipes—to recount the stories of their lives, encoding images of themselves by using food as a metaphor.
A cookbook author lures the reader into the kitchen through all sorts of tools: portraits, poetry, culinary authority, and the promise of delicious food. She writes in a particular tone, using a specific selection of words arranged according to a particular stylistic mode (such as memoir, journal, community compilation, or souvenir journal). The work opens a window into her community and can impart knowledge about her region, its economy, social divisions, current events, and important personalities. A cookbook author tells stories that preserve history, memories, celebrations, and identity; that advocate for social causes, such as education, suffrage, child welfare, abolition of slavery, eradication of poverty, or improved social welfare; that use highlights of her own life to memorialize her work, her family’s favorite recipes, and the secrets of her friends; and finally, that aim for the greater good—as projects of patronage, religious comfort, or preservation of cultural legacy.
This theory seems tailor-made for works written by African American servants. With limited access to other artistic forms of creative expression, preparing and sharing a decadent caramel cake or batch of crisply fried chicken displayed their talent and spread their knowledge, a way to “set the record straight,” as the literary scholar Doris Witt explains in her important reading of black women, food and identity, Black Hunger: Soul Food and America (1999). Recipe collections could be means of personal and cultural realization: “The cookbook offers both the famous and the anonymous a force through which to create self and history, a means to become a poet, an historian, an ethnographer, and even, as the example of Dick Gregory would suggest, a political satirist.”
If black authors were at all like other writers, I thought, their cookbooks would preserve the treasury of dishes prepared and served over the years in the home and in public food establishments of all kinds—“an authentic example of a culture, an expression of the taste, style, and habits of a particular people at a particular time,” as the cookbook consultants Hays, Rolfes & Associates and Perre Magness explain in their 1986 guide How to Write and Publish a Classic Cookbook.
Over time, I uncovered a documentary record that allowed for a reinterpretation of black cooks as professionals with technical, organizational, and managerial core values; Jemima clues, I called them. Their cookbooks substantiate the kind of skills that are taught in the best culinary academies, that I observed in newspaper test kitchens, and that display learned wisdom. These proficiencies include knowledge of fundamentals (food safety, hygiene, and scientific principles); artistic abilities such as food styling, garnishing, and decorating dishes so that they are sensorily pleasing to the eye and the palate; tested methods of cooking with both high-quality and inferior ingredients, or with regional and “exotic” heritage foods; and haute cuisine laced with wine and herbs.
Also hidden in these treasures are important African techniques that slaves brought with them to plantation kitchens—several of them had been theorized in the 1930s by the Brazilian intellectual Gilberto Freyre and were subsequently revisited in a 1971 cookbook by Helen Mendes, The African Heritage Cookbook: A Chronicle of the Origins of Soul Food Cooking, with 200 Authentic—and Delicious—Recipes.
Mendes, a social worker, chef, and scholar, had tired of the “implication of white authorities that Black Americans had no culinary past.” To establish a legacy beyond homage, she wrote a treatise on an African “cook’s education,” which began for her when, as a toddler, she walked through the forest lands with her mother and young brother to pick fruits and gather herbs, wild tubers, mushrooms, and edible greens. In her book, she identifies ingredients, utensils, and the cooking fundamentals she practiced—roasting over an open pit, boiling, stewing, steaming, baking, frying, jerking (salt drying), and smoking.
These remembered traditions appear in the pages of black cookbooks in forms that made life easier and saved time and resources. Examples include simple breads mixed with cornmeal and water and cooked over an open flame, battered and fried vegetables (fritters), and stews made ahead in one pot, plus basic tips on keeping muffins from sticking and scalded milk from scorching, and for knowing the best month to pickle onions.
Not long after the revelation that there are cookbooks establishing African American culinary authority, a smallish, plainly packaged Dover paperback appeared in the book giveaway that the Los Angeles Times food staff held to thin out the new volumes that flooded the newsroom each year. The New Orleans CookBook, by Lena Richard, offered no biographical information about the author—not even her picture. I plucked it from the pile anyway. The way I figured it, a book of Creole recipes might provide some insight. Little did I know that Richard’s writings would be the first of many gifts of African American know-how.
My cookbook library grew gradually during my years at the Times and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Then, in 2005, the University of Alabama Libraries published a bibliography of the David Walker Lupton African American Cookbook Collection, a “treasure trove of rare and obscure books, many of them self-published, that too often pass ‘under the radar,’” curators said at the time. This valuable resource became my shopping list when Doris Witt published it in Black Hunger, and I used it to hunt down vintage editions in secondhand shops and Internet bookstores.
Using search engines set up for used, rare, and out-of-print books, I set a monthly schedule, entered the title and author of one of the books on the list, then waited for something obscure to pop up.
The first book that did was Eliza’s Cook Book, a collection of middle-class recipes curated in 1936 by the Negro Culinary Art Club of Los Angeles. The starting bid: $1. I was ecstatic, and set my watch to the same time on the countdown clock so that an alarm would remind me when the auction was set to end. At the appropriate time, I typed in my maximum bid and then frantically refreshed the page every couple of seconds as the amounts accrued. As the final seconds ticked away, a bidding war escalated the price for Eliza: $100, $225, $350. I held my breath and entered $400. And waited. “Congratulations! You’ve won!” appeared on the screen. The book arrived by mail within a few days.
Life went on like that for several more years. I eventually owned nearly three hundred African American cookbooks, including a few not listed in the Lupton bibliography. Some of the works were trade published. Others came to print on their own. All were dignified, but dwarfed by beautifully photographed hardcover southern cookery books published by food industry luminaries.
These little rays of light organized themselves into the framework of this book and revealed an African American kitchen arsenal, handed down orally between generations by clearheaded, thinking cooks who practiced what the chef Michael Ruhlman described as “mental mise-en-place.” They understood systems and formulas, and could translate their talent for recipe development into words, even if few of them had the means, time, and resources to do so. Through them, I traveled back to harrowing but simple times when familiar dishes and storytelling about the old ways—grinding corn into meal, roasting wild turkeys, and baking sweet potatoes “so big,” Fannie Yarbrough remembered, that cooks would “have to cut ’em with an ax”— beckoned hungry folks to the table.
To break the Jemima code, I wrote 160 critiques of black cookery books published from 1827 through the 2010s, arranging them chronologically and according to the social themes, work ethos, or careers the authors represent. Where possible, I tried to let the authors speak in their own behalf.
In going through these books, I measured each author’s writing according to a methodology taught by Barbara Ketchum Wheaton at Radcliffe in the “Reading Historic Cookbooks” seminar. The process involves careful examination of every aspect of a cookbook—the introductory words of the author, the ingredients, methods of preparation, and production elements such as binding, paper choice, coloring, and fonts. Narrowing the focus to fundamentals and culinary techniques shifts the emphasis onto the diverse talents and practical competencies possessed by each author, and diminishes the make-do and “something outta nuthin’” processes behind chitlins, Hoppin’ John, and salmon croquettes, which usually preoccupy African American foodways research.
“To read a book in its entirety is like trying to eat dinner in just one bite,” Wheaton cautioned on the opening day of class in Cambridge. Similarly, each cookbook in this bibliography exposes a different characteristic of black kitchen workers and offers new ideas that refute the notion encoded in the Aunt Jemima construct, namely, that all black cooks, chefs, and cookbook authors work by natural instinct.
In “Nineteenth-Century Cookbooks,” household manuals authored by men during the early nineteenth century introduce the supervision and management priorities required to run fine New England houses, first-class restaurants, and hotel dining rooms. Recipe compilations by two free women of color rebut one of the “key mythologies” promoted by white Reconstructionera writers about black women cooks—that they cooked by a mysterious voodoo magic. As Doris Witt’s essay in African American Foodways: Explorations of History and Culture (2007; edited by Anne L. Bower) points out, both these cookbook authors, Malinda Russell and Abby Fisher, acknowledge the influence of southern cooking on their unique culinary styles yet distance themselves from the mammy stereotype. Russell, in fact, explains that she studied “under the tuteledge” of another knowledgeable black cook, stressing the “transcribability” of what is known by experience, testing, and practice, rather than some “culinary aura.”
Transcribability is a theme that continued into the late nineteenth century as household workers of all types presented themselves as industrious professionals, crafting award-winning recipes from imagination and limited resources, and according to scientific methodologies, while operating food businesses despite restrictive black codes that in some regions forbade them from selling door-to-door or trading in open markets.
“Surviving Mammyism” covers early twentieth-century cookbooks by chefs and domesticscience educators, shedding light on efforts by the African American upper class to reform the diets of poor African Americans in the South and to inspire cultural pride. In 1902, for example, John B. Goins of Chicago published The American Colored Waiter, a manual that, though not a cookbook, represented an attempt to treat service work “intelligently.” His copiously illustrated text includes detailed line drawings of carving strategies, place settings, and food presentation, as well as some general recipes. In addition, Goins instructed his contemporaries about practical service rituals while stressing important values and work ethics, including proper dress and punctuality.
In textbooks published between 1900 and 1926, domestic-science educators at historically black colleges spread the “gospel of industry and self-reliance.” The emphasis was on the growing preference for a healthier variety of ingredients, on the use of kitchen tools, and on cooking methods that shunned frying or dependence upon fatback for seasoning, as Opie explains in Hog and Hominy.
Despite these signs of social progress, advertisers and manufacturers continued to adorn recipe booklets with black faces that reinforced the stereotype of the “docile servant who was always ready to serve,” notes Marilyn Kern-Foxworth in Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (1994). Yet in a surely unintended consequence, the constant association of blacks with the preparation of tasty food affirmed an observation made in 1967 by Arthur Marquette in Brands, Trademarks, and Goodwill: The Story of the Quaker Oats Company: “The American Negro has always represented in American life the acme of the culinary arts, respected as in France are the chefs who belong to the Société Gastronomique.”
The domestic workers and prominent caterers highlighted in “The Servant Problem” used food and cooking to expand their culinary borders and solidify their middle-class status in the Jim Crow South, despite their “poignant absence” from cookbooks written by southern white women— including those by Jews, as Marcie Cohen Ferris explains in Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South. As “central figures” in synagogues and home kitchens, African American cooks prepared menus for private and family functions, blending African American flavors and cooking methods in what became an integrated kosher style.
The cookbooks written by black authors from the mid-1920s to 1950 demonstrate a multicultural recipe development designed for the taste buds of the upper class—both white and black—who enjoyed fried chicken, sweet potato pies, grits, greens, and barbecue at home with their families and at important social gatherings. These menus “had little to do with the recipes of Africa or the plantation foods of the antebellum South and were inspired by the prevailing taste and ideas of grand dining in Europe,” as Jessica B. Harris notes in High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America (2011). By midcentury, Harris continues, black cooks had “heralded a new age of African Americans in food”; they “used developing media outlets like Ebony magazine and new technology like television
to create national and international reputations and to teach the world about the growing scope and diversity of African American food.” These transformations are covered in “Lifting as We Climb.”
Unfortunately, the soul era of the 1960s, which enabled civil rights activists, soul food cooks, and artists to proudly claim the improvisational, make-do-style dishes of the ancestors, documented in the soul food cookbooks described in “Soul Food,” bound “black cuisine to poverty ingredients composed as an act of the spirit,” not the brain, as Adrian Miller points out in Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time (2013).
The authors discussed in “Simple Pleasures,” who published during the 1970s, tried to unring that bell by embracing the confidence and cultural pride of the black power movement, embellishing and deepening it with African foods, celebrations, and practices. These gutsy “new soul” cooks refused to be defined by the narrow perspective that black food meant only pork parts, greens, and cornbread, establishing permanence for African American heritage cuisine through culinary autobiographies that reflect personal preferences and reclaim ancestral wisdom—whether the food was stamped “southern,” “mama’s” or “home style.” Their books reflect a passionate pursuit of healthy cooking, balanced diets of moderation, vegetarianism, and life without pork. They trace their preferred, wholesome culinary styles to many sources and regions within the African diaspora: Afro-Caribbean, Louisiana Creole, and Lowcountry Gullah peoples as well as the American South generally. In “Mammy’s Makeover,” middle-class values, the embrace and practice of classic techniques, and a real sense of nostalgia prove one thing: 1980s authors observed and understood “fusion trends” and “nouveau cuisine” as a mechanism to give soul food the spirited uplift that it should be remembered for.
And with that, black cooks were set free.
It seems natural for this bibliography to end in the 1980s, even though my collection includes works published right up to the present day. Since then, authors have seemed less constrained by narrow themes that once limited their art. We have not yet reached the time when creative recipes by African Americans without southern flair are the norm, but I can tell you that twenty-first-century authors are reinterpreting our culinary lineage with just as much intelligence as slave cooks balancing the plentitude of big-house menus and spartan cabin cooking.
In the 1990s, as described in “Sweet to the Soul,” African American cooking was clearly not just soul food. We learned to cook convivially with celebrities and musicians, and conceived of cooking as a gift to others. Dishes for special occasions, swanky parties, church socials, and heart health mingled with those that wed southern cookery to French, English, African, and Caribbean modes.
Books published since 2000 jump-start the imagination and cover such diverse topics as organic and vegan soul, and the breathtaking cookery of an English farmhouse. Dessert anthologies satisfy the sweet tooth with treats collected at church gatherings and fund-raising socials. And the wide range of children’s cookbooks provides lessons in patience and self-reliance through smart recipes that hint at the science and chemistry of the craft. (These seem almost like a natural prelude to the “minimalist” trend, with its simple techniques and few ingredients.) Bread baking and grilling charm specialists.
I like to think my collection tells a new African American kitchen story, a culinary autobiography, as Traci Marie Kelley put it, with culinary truths and whispered wisdom that substantiate a heritage of greatness, exemplify culinary freedom for black cooks, and allow everyone to embrace Jemima’s bandana.
I believe the written legacy left by these new role models does what black cooks hovering in the shadows have always done: spur everyone on to distinction and instilling confidence, whether that path of culinary excellence leads to business, education, or the sustaining of community.
Finally, I hope that awakening this heritage offers an occasion for doing what a well-traveled and widely popular culinary expert, Duncan Hines, suggested in 1955: “Many southern ladies had Negro cooks to help them; and just how much we owe to their skill I have no way of knowing except that almost all of the finest southern dishes are of their creating or at least bear their special touch and everyone who loves good cookery should thank them from the bottom of their heart” (Duncan Hines’ Food Odyssey).
“The Jemima Code is no ordinary book. It’s a heaping helping, a long overdue acknowledgment of African-Americans who have toiled in this field since the country’s beginnings. With eloquence and urgency, Tipton-Martin makes the case that without the people of the African diaspora not only would America’s food be different, so would its culinary conversation.”
The New York Times Book Review
“[The Jemima Code is] that rare coffee table book that serves up important history and compelling imagery in digestible, bite-size chunks that still stick to your ribs.”
Michel Martin, NPR's Best Books of 2015
“In this beautiful compendium of two hundred years of nearly invisible work by African American cooks, Toni Tipton-Martin changes the American culinary narrative. She reveals the Jemima Code as what it is: a systemic denial of the culinary contribution of the community that largely shaped the American appetite. I feel lucky to have this book on my shelf.”
New York Times Magazine, and author of An Everlasting Meal
“Toni has gleaned a complicated and nuanced story of African American accomplishment. By gathering African American cookbook writers under one set of covers, Toni has framed their labor, their vision, their worldview.”
“If you want to know the truth about the complicated icon on pancake boxes, please check out The Jemima Code . . . Tipton-Martin asserts Black women's true contribution to fine food. ”
“An appetizing new book, bursting with illustrations, how-tos, jingles, and rare archival photographs.”
“The cookbooks featured in The Jemima Code exemplify a richness and diversity of African-American cooking and food knowledge far beyond traditional “soul” food . . . [they] help illustrate the sophistication and expertise that African-American women brought to the kitchens in which they worked. ”
Women in the World, New York Times
“Tipton-Martin presents a new look at the influence of black chefs and their recipes on American food culture. Her goals are two-fold: to expand the broader community’s perception of African-American culinary traditions and to inspire African Americans to embrace their culinary history.”
“Toni Tipton-Martin does a great job of setting the record straight with her book The Jemima Code . . . she classifies, introduces, explains, and puts into context many African-American cookbooks from the last hundred and fifty years or so, often illustrating the text with images and pages from the original works she discusses. She not only offers her own interpretations, but also allows readers to get a sense of the language, the style, as well as the visual and material worlds that the African-American authors of the past inhabited. Above all, Tipton-Martin demonstrates how these men and women were not victims, but expressed their own personality and agency in their work, striving to be accomplished cooks or maître d's.”
“By illuminating the past, food activist and author Toni Tipton-Martin is reframing the future. In her new book, The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks (the University of Texas Press), Tipton-Martin gives voice to the African Americans who worked in kitchens throughout the United States, revealing the wisdom, artistry, and values that characterize their role in culinary history. ”
“Many of these books haven’t much been seen outside of the state where they were published, or in the years since they appeared, let alone in each other’s company. Tipton-Martin’s affectionate compilation presents an unprecedented opportunity to track the evolution of black cooking in America.”
The Charleston Post and Courier
“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 Chicago Tribune
“An entertaining and informative survey of black culinary arts through the ages and a commentary on how slavery and servitude shaped its evolution.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“As a retrospective, the book’s succinct overview of a very wide topic makes it a fantastic reference manual.”
“Austin, Texas, journalist Toni Tipton-Martin’s African American cookbook compilation, The Jemima Code, released last September, is proof that its author is one of today’s smartest thinkers on food and culture.”
Garden & Gun's Southern Hot List
“One of the most essential, beautiful, powerful food books of our era.”
Helen Rosner, Executive Editor, Eater
“If you are a food lover, add James Beard award winner The Jemima Code, from journalist and food historian Toni Tipton Martin, to your reading list. It is a great compilation of 200 years of African-American cookbooks and the invisible cooks who have produced them. Food bears hidden gems about history and culture in America and beyond.”
“The history of food might be one of the richest stories in America’s history. Up until this point, however, some of the originators have been overlooked. The Jemima Code digs deep to unearth treasures and histories of black cooks, their books, and their recipes. We should all thank Toni Tipton-Martin for this incredible book.”
Marcus Samuelsson, author of Yes, Chef as well as chef-owner of Red Rooster Harlem and Streetbird Rotisserie
“In this beautiful compendium of two hundred years of nearly invisible work by African American cooks, Toni Tipton-Martin changes the American culinary narrative. She reveals the Jemima Code as what it is: a systemic denial of the culinary contribution of the community that largely shaped the American appetite. I feel lucky to have this book on my shelf.”
Tamar Adler, New York Times Magazine, and author of An Everlasting Meal