The Jemima Code: An Interview with Toni Tipton-Martin

by Toni Tipton-Martin and Jon Warner

Toni Tipton-Martin's The Jemima Code presents over 150 African American cookbooks ranging from an 1827 servants manual to modern classics by Edna Lewis and Vertamae Grosvenor, all from Tipton-Martin's personal collection. For each cookbook, Tipton-Martin provides a brief review and critique, as well as sample recipes. The book's purpose, however, is not to create a simple bibliography of African American cookbooks but to showcase the learned-skills and ingenuity of black cooks. Throughout much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, African American cooks were subject to what Tipton-Martin calls the "Jemima code," an "encoded message [that] assumes that black chefs, cooks, and cookbook authors—by virtue of their race and gender—are simply born with good kitchen instincts; [the code] diminishes knowledge, skills and abilities involved in their work, and portrays them as passive and ignorant laborers incapable of creative culinary artistry." Through the use of cookbooks, Tipton-Martin hopes to "break" the Jemima code and highlight that African American cooks relied on hard work, creativity, and cooking techniques often passed down orally to craft their cooking talents—they were not simply "born with good kitchen instincts," but had to work for them.

What follows is a transcript of a recorded conversation The American Historian had with Tipton-Martin, where she describes the book's origins, goals, and what she hopes historians can learn from the book.

Photo by Jonathan Garza
Photo by Jonathan Garza

TAH: Would you mind describing your book to our readers? A lot of our readers are used to more traditional historical monographs and your book's a little different, right?

T: Yes, this is essentially an annotated bibliography. For my lay audiences I say this is a book about books. It began as a coffee table book about the neglected history of African American women, but the more research I did, I discovered that men received more recognition from historians over time. Also, publishers and literary agents rejected [the book] several times, so I changed it into different types of projects. When University of Texas Press came along, and we settled on this really lovely treatment of the material, the book more closely resembled my original vision. I wanted a really beautiful coffee table [book] that would stand against the negative, degraded image of black women, as represented by those early Aunt Jemima characters.

TAH: And you talk about that in your book, The Jemima Code. What is the Jemima code exactly?

T: We all live with codes everyday and we understand them to be an arrangement of words and symbols that mean different things to different people. In the case of the Jemima code, those symbols and words were descriptions of African American women living and working in the plantation South, some true, some not true. Essentially, the Aunt Jemima caricature is a myth, and that myth was built on the myth of the plantation mammy. And so I used that name intentionally to begin a dialogue about the ways that different people have responded to the Jemima trademark over the years.

TAH: And you say in your book that your main purpose is to break the Jemima code. How do you go about doing that and why do you use cookbooks?

T: I break the Jemima code the same way it was created: by aggregating multiple characteristics into one symbol to represent modern African American chefs and cooks. The difference is my characteristics, work ethic, and life values are true—taken from the words of the cooks themselves. And that truth is based on research I did as a journalist. I'm not an academician; I am a reporter who was following a story. At the same time, I was trying to find examples of my grandmother's life on the pages of southern history, and everywhere I looked she was either misrepresented, not represented, or poorly represented. That triggered my journalistic skills and I started looking for real resources. But I was a Los Angeles–born-and-bred beach girl, and I come from a small family so I didn't really have a lot of access to Southern women.

It occurred to me that cookbooks might be a way to trace their real words, should I be able to find any of them. And this was long before scholars were writing about the importance of cookbooks as a tool for understanding women's history and using them as a resource for understanding how women record their own identity.

TAH: Could you talk a little bit about how you use cookbooks to deconstruct the past? How are you able to create narratives about the past through these cookbooks?

T: First, I made it clear that I wasn't going to look at these works through my own personal bias as a descendent, or bias that measures history through the prisms of race, gender, and class. I resorted to the tools of Journalism 101, just looking for the five W's and certain elements that were consistent throughout each book, such as: How did they identity themselves, where did they live, the who, what, when, where, why? Then, I was invited to attend a workshop called Reading Historic Cookbooks at Radcliffe [Harvard], which actually taught me a concrete formula for how to review them. The workshop added another layer of objectivity for me, even though ultimately I was encouraged to insert my own feelings and responses to the material, but not overly so.

TAH: How long did it take you to collect all of the cookbooks that you have?

T: Well, if we were going to measure time from the very first book I ever collected, then it would be... thirty years.

TAH: Thirty years, wow.

T: But I didn't really begin collecting them in earnest until the last ten years or so, because of the internet. Prior to that I would just have to find one or two, stumble upon them in antique bookstores when I traveled, look in used and second-hand stores, or rely upon friends to bring them back to me from their travels. But the first book I collected, Lena Rechard's cookbook [New Orleans Cookbook] from 1939, I picked that up in a book give-a-way at the LA Times in the 1980s.

TAH: Are there any other particular cookbooks that stick out to you, that resonate either personally or because of the story that they tell?

T: Probably the Robert Roberts's book [The House Servant's Directory, 1827]. What really strikes me, and why I'm drawn to cookbooks like his, is their ability to convey characteristics that the rest of us can aspire to. Those early folks were managers of their environments, they were professionals, and they dealt with hygiene and food safety, and possessed technical skills. They were entrepreneurs who had to understand Business 101—managing their inventory and having a sales pitch and making eye-contact—in some cases these were slaves who weren't even allowed to look white people in the eye walking down the street, and yet they went into the market place and conducted business. They were educators who wanted to ensure the uplift of their communities so that each one reaches back and takes another. These earlier books are important because we have so little in the way of written history for black people in general, but certainly for black household workers—that's why the early books are the ones that are most important to me.

TAH: Do you see any sort of shifts in the culinary tradition of African American cooks through the two hundred years of cookbooks that you have?

T: No.

TAH: No?

T: What I am able to see is that there are two primary perceptions of African American cooking. There is the soul food style that began in the slave cabin with people who were practicing remembered techniques from Africa and applying them to indigenous ingredients and meager supplies. That kind of survival cooking carried those same people and their decedents through migration and out of the agricultural South and into more industrialized areas. They were still living poor, so that kind of cooking continued. By the time we get to civil rights and the soul movement, where people were really claiming "black is beautiful," then we start to actually carry those same foods as a banner, and today they're treated as—I can't speak for the whole society—but a lot of us see those foods as celebration foods. Foods to help us remember.

The other style is the food created by enslaved cooks cooking at home in sorrows kitchen as Dr. Jessica Harris has called it, but also creating elaborate meals for whites in the big house, as caterers or as entrepreneurs. There are dishes that are generally thought of as white because they reflect cooking when the resources were more available and plentiful—what we know to be the southern style of cooking. But, this notion completely ignores the fact that there were trained black chefs and middle-class blacks who created and served elegant food. We have only been given credit for the ingenuity associated with poverty cooking, not the food we prepare every day at work—the way we honor the food of today's celebrity chefs.

TAH: What do you hope that readers take away from your book? What are some of the lessons you hope to impart?

T: There's a couple. The primary message is that African Americans have cooked not by a natural instinct, that we were just born with. But they learned to cook through practice and apprenticeship and on-the-job training, which are terms that are never applied to what we've done. I'm not rewriting history and saying that they did something miraculous or new and different. What I'm suggesting is that we have not given credit where credit is due. And if these were white cooks, then we would have portrayed their chores and tasks very differently.

I will say that it is easy to misunderstand someone cooking by natural instinct. Without measuring tools it would appear that these are people cooking with their senses alone. I'm suggesting that things in their natural environment became their tools, especially their hands. They understood the weight of an ingredient, or they visualized a thumbnail, fingernail size amount of an ingredient. They were cooking scientifically they just didn't have names for it. When they say "I'm going to go put on a pot of beans," they are really making a stock. I really want people to come away from this book with a new appreciation and respect for the work as it was done.

The second hope relates to the first. We're living in a time in which we're being encouraged to go back to the old way and to cook for ourselves because highly processed, industrialized foods are making us all sick. We need to learn how to cook for ourselves again, and African Americans who cooked for generations make great teachers.

Thirdly, I want this book to inspire economic opportunity for young people. Cooking has value and is a viable career. The less we perceive it as something only people with a mystique can do, or that it's terribly laborious and something that equates to "slaving in the kitchen," then more people will want to do it, whether they are black or white.

My final hope is somewhat Pollyanna-ous in nature. I hope these [African American chefs] help us recognize the similarities between us culturally, so we can appreciate and tolerate our differences. There is a message of reconciliation in this book. We want young people to pursue careers in food studies, food archeology, restaurant design, and food anthropology, and the topics go on and on and on. It isn't necessary for kids to feel like they are relegated to hospitality, but I'm trying to ensure that people understand that we can't be pigeonholed racially.

TAH: I have one last question for you. You mentioned that you are a journalist, not a historian. Is there a particular topic or a particular angle that you wish historians took when they investigate African American cooking?

T: Oh wow, what a hard question!

No one has asked that. Let's see, what would I like historians to do? I would like historians to go back through the literature to determine whether with this new approach of looking at African Americans in the kitchen through an unbiased lens allows new stories to emerge. An example comes by way of the Charleston Post and Courier. The reporter who reviewed the book said that she thought that every single story, and every single author in this book was a thesis waiting to be written. And that's the best way to summarize it. There are so many characteristics that can be extracted from these people, and people who understand the written history better than I do can perhaps take it to an entirely other level of revelation.

Toni Tipton-Martin is a culinary journalist and community activist, a coauthor of A Taste of Heritage: The New African American Cuisine, contributor to Culinaria: The United States, and editor of a new edition of The Blue Grass Cook Book by Minnie C. Fox. Her collection of over 300 African American cookbooks has been exhibited at the James Beard House, and she has twice been invited to the White House to participate in Michelle Obama's programs to raise a healthier generation of kids. Tipton-Martin is a founding member of the Southern Foodways Alliance and Foodways Texas. She divides her time between Austin, Texas, and Denver, Colorado.