America’s food culture comprises an undeniable mix of influences from around the world. African-American women have a significant impact on the foods we eat and have eaten for centuries. Unfortunately, that impact has often been overlooked or overshadowed by racial stereotypes like that of “Aunt Jemima” and other tropes—fetishized mammy stereotypes and caricatures that coopted African-American culinary traditions. In The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks, author Toni Tipton-Martin challenges us to look beyond the encoded message that “black chefs, cooks, and cookbook authors—by virtue of their race and gender—are simply born with good kitchen instincts,” because it diminishes their knowledge, skill, ability, and pure culinary artistry.
It is true that for years African-American women worked in early kitchens throughout the United States, both as slaves and then as low-paid workers. There is a false notion that those talented cooks were directed by their white masters or employers when, in fact, most managed their own kitchens capably—often with the precision of modern-day chefs. Early recipes, like many traditions, were passed down as oral histories, which make them difficult to document—particularly because many African Americans were barred from learning to read and write. Once they were able to compile the knowledge in family notebooks or cookbooks, those women (and a few men) were almost never able to make a profit from sharing their life’s work. But slowly recipe collections began to see the light of day.
Tipton-Martin has spent years collecting over 300 cookbooks written by African-American authors (one of the world’s largest private collections of cookbooks of the genre) compiling information in The Jemima Code from over 150 of those, in an effort to illustrate their impact on American food culture and traditions and to inspire African Americans to embrace and celebrate their culinary history. John Egerton (founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance) wrote in the book’s forward that Tipton-Martin delved deep and discovered the gifted cooks “who quietly broke the Jemima code and have taken their rightful place among the best of America’s culinary professionals.”
The earliest recipe collections featured in the book date back to an 1827 house servant’s manual—considered the first book published by an African American on the subject—and Tipton-Martin’s compendium extends to modern volumes by celebrated authors like Edna Lewis and Vertamae Grosvenor. The collection is arranged chronologically and chapter introductions provide important information on the cultural significance of the featured cookbooks, including histories of the authors themselves. She also includes pictures of the book covers and some individual recipe pages.
Tipton-Martin won the James Beard Foundation’s award for Reference and Scholarship, which is a reflection of its relevance and the quality of its content. The author says, “My hope for this book, as it was for my ancestors and these authors, is that when we know more about them as individuals, we can then learn to respect them, to learn from them, to be inspired by them. And to return to the kitchen at a time when we’re all being encouraged to take better control of our health by cooking for ourselves and consuming less fast and processed food.” As you read The Jemima Code, you will learn just how much you didn’t know about an entire culture’s food traditions and you will be inspired to take those recipes into your own kitchen—ensuring their relevance for years to come.
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