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 food figures well known today, cooks and writers like Edna Lewis, Leah Chase, Jessica B. Harris and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, and authors whose fame may have faded with time, such as Freda DeKnight, Rufus Estes, Abby Fisher and Lena Richard.
“They are real people with real voices and important things to say,” said Tipton-Martin, of Austin, Texas.
In an interview, she 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 United States.
“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.
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.