"The Jemima Code" by Toni Tipton-Martin chronicles two centuries of African-American cookbooks, profiling the authors, describing the books, placing the works in a broader cultural and historical context. She gives these authors and their books the proper attention — and respect — they deserve.
"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," writes Tipton-Martin, of Austin, Texas, in the book.
"It was important for me to dispel the myth in the same way it was created," she said in an interview. "Here, I tried to the best of my ability to see them through a professional lens and what it took for them to do their work and what the work means for the rest of us today."
More than 150 books are included in "The Jemima Code." The 10 books listed here (organized in chronological order) resonate most with Tipton-Martin.
"At the time, publishing was so rare they wanted a particular kind of message to be conveyed," she said of these works. "And since they couldn't be published in the trade, they were free to publish whatever their truth was."
"The House Servant's Directory," by Robert Roberts (1827). This book on household management, "along with 105 recipes for household remedies, cleaning products and some dishes" is "the first book of any kind by an African American, that we know of, to be trade published," writes Tipton-Martin, who chose this work, in part, because it clearly expresses his values, work ethic, personal character and management style.
"A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen," by Malinda Russell (1866). The author, a "free woman of color" who identifies herself as "an experienced cook," wrote the book to raise money so she could return to her home in Tennessee. "She shows us how to use a culinary career to liberate herself and her children from poverty," writes Tipton-Martin.
"Good Things to Eat, as Suggested by Rufus," by Rufus Estes (1911). This is the first cookbook by an African-American referred to as a chef. "That's not a term we often associate with African-American cooks," Tipton-Martin said. "Rufus speaks to the beauty of the craft."
"Aunt Julia's Cook Book," by Aunt Julia and Aunt Leola (1934). This is a pamphlet of Southern recipes published by the Standard Oil Co. of Pennsylvania. It is, writes Tipton-Martin, "a bizarre combination of recipes tucked alongside advertisements for car batteries, petroleum products, pesticides, motor oil, tires and car engine accessories." There's a photo of the two authors in the kitchen holding a cookbook, an "awesome" visual that runs counter to the many misconceptions of African-American women held by some white authors at the time, Tipton-Martin said.
"Eliza's Cook Book: Favorite Recipes Compiled by Negro Culinary Art Club of Los Angeles," by Beatrice Hightower Cates (1936). "This is a sophisticated gem — a miraculous and lovely example of African-American flair in the ever-present asymmetry of the Jemima cliché," Tipton-Martin writes. "During the years when Hollywood confined black actresses to roles spoken in broken black dialect or to portraying sassy maids, these upscale recipes of the black middle-class showed that there was another side to black female cooks: a sophisticated side."
"Recipes and Domestic School of Cookery," by Helen T. Mahammitt (1939). "The author does not seem to be motivated to improve the reputations of domestic servants. The objective is simple: She wants to fill the world with wonderful cooks and successful entrepreneurs," writes Tipton-Martin. "I want to know all about the social life, the race relations, the experience of a black woman being able to operate a cooking school in Omaha in the 1930s."
"Lena Richard's Cook Book," by Lena Richard (1939). This New Orleans chef and restaurateur self-published her book first, then Boston's Houghton Mifflin republished it in 1940 as the "New Orleans Cook Book" (but, as Tipton-Martin writes, without the elegant portrait of Richard found on the front-piece of the original edition). Tipton-Martin loves the fact that Richard became a friend of James Beard, arguably the best known food authority of the day, and had her own cooking show on New Orleans television. But what really struck her was Richard's choice of words, her language and her desire to teach which she articulates in her book.
"The Chef," compiled and edited by Frances W. Roston (1944). This cookbook was sponsored by the City Federation of Colored Women's Clubs in Tulsa, Okla., to pay off the mortgage on the Colored Girls Receiving Home, a clubhouse for underprivileged girls. The cookbook, Tipton-Martin noted, was written in the wake of the 1921 Tulsa race riot. "What this says to modern readers is that no matter how difficult and impossible your circumstances, you can find a way. And they paid off that mortgage," said Tipton-Martin.
"A Date With A Dish: A Cookbook of American Negro Recipes," by Freda DeKnight (1948). DeKnight was the first food editor for Ebony magazine. She gathered recipes and stories and profiles from across the country for this book, which was later revised and republished as "The Ebony Cookbook." Tipton-Martin noted that DeKnight's hope was to broaden the perception of her people by focusing on the foods of the middle class. She pulled together a diverse group of people from all across the country.
"The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro," compiled and edited by Sue Bailey Thurman (1958). This book was sponsored by the National Council of Negro Women "to promote 'diversity and democracy,' celebrate black achievement, entertain and educate." "It foreshadowed the notion of 'black pride' for up-and-coming authors, but surprisingly, amid all the historic intelligence conveyed, the book was not constructed to give a full history of African and African-American culinary traditions," said Tipton-Martin.