A look at one of the largest private collections of cookbooks by African American authors

What do you think of when you hear the words “Aunt Jemima”?  While African Americans have shaped and defined the food culture of the United States for centuries, these rich and varied contributions have often been overshadowed by demeaning stereotypes such as the illiterate “Aunt Jemima.” 

Culinary journalist (and former Times writer) Toni Tipton-Martin has spent years compiling one of the largest private collections of cookbooks by African American authors. Her book, “The Jemima Code,” explores many of these cookbooks, unraveling what she has termed the Jemima code, a mythology compiled of various stereotypes of African American women into a “mammy”-type character. The book has  won a number of awards and honors, including the 2016 James Beard Foundation Award.

Tipton-Martin will be featured at a brunch and book signing from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday at Dulan’s Soul Food on Crenshaw in Los Angeles. We caught up with her to discuss her book, its success and its significance today.

“The Jemima Code” explores more than 150 books from rare 19th century texts to modern cookbooks. Why are they laid out in chronological order?

The book is chronologically organized because that makes the most sense, but it is interesting that they present themselves also as a social arc. We see the kinds of activities African Americans were pursuing in response to external forces against them at various times.

We can see that in the 19th century, during that time when people did not own their own lives, the most that they could do was try to express their humanity. You see that in the first book by Robert Roberts [“The House Servant’s Directory,” first published in 1827]. When he speaks to his young trainees, he talks to them about his work ethics and what he values —  time management, hygiene, self-decorum, promptness —  values we just don’t associate with that working class.

We can roll forward by decades and see that by the turn of the century, people wanted to be educated and they understood the value of that. Even if society was binding them to work in service, then they were determined to be educated about service, and to present themselves as learned servants.

The books were also responsive to the times.

As they get more freedom, under Jim Crow, when other cookbooks were disparaging them and mocking their intelligence, the authors’ response for each of these social events is a culinary response. And so the responses to the Jim Crow stereotyping in the industry are books about black history and the accomplishments we made, whether they were acknowledged or not. And the uplifting of the community becomes the messaging. 

How has the book resonated with readers?

This code cuts across racial lines, and it has impacted people in different ways. My experience with Southern white people is that they had to — and many people have described in emotional terms — suppress childhood memories associated with these [African American] women. As children, they might be standing in the kitchen with this woman that they love and worship, but outside in the front room and in the streets, people are burning crosses. The kids don’t know what to do with that, so they suppress it.

These are the kinds of emotions that have been tumbling out of people in every city I go. And they’re able to now reclaim the positive memories that they have of these women and what contributions they made to their families.

What about the African American community?

African Americans have not had as many of those experiences with this book. I’m hoping to intentionally visit sites where I can draw attention to the African American experience. I want black people to also be able to reclaim this woman. And I think their initial instinctive reaction is, “Oh, well she’s probably only a white historian trying to keep black women in that service box,” when that is the opposite of what I’ve been trying to accomplish.

“The Jemima Code” has received a number of awards. What do all of these awards, and the reception of the book, mean in the larger social context?

It has been very-well received. This creates a state of hopefulness for me. It was evident in the week before the [presidential] election, I was in North Carolina twice, to standing-room only crowds of mixed and diverse people, students, young people that were crying out to know more, to share with one another

What I saw was an evolution of readers engaging with material and having their own personal experiences with the code and realizing the manipulation of history and the mythologies created to divide us. People became extremely emotional in response to this book, and it was very hopeful to me. Those were signs of hope, that more people got in touch with the realities of racial division in this country. The more that those experiences occurred, the closer we would be to racial reconciliation.

But there’s still division.

It’s difficult to answer today in the glare of the results of the election. What I’m concerned about is that the dominating expression evidenced in the election isn’t just about race or class as “The Jemima Code” and other American mythologies articulate.  It goes back to the treatment of women, to the narrow dominance and control by a small group of people over a larger population. 

How does “The Jemima Code” fit into into the larger issues and explorations of identity and appropriation?

I have always been reluctant to endorse positions of “first” or “only” or “groundbreaking” or “watershed.” But the reality is that we knew that the publication of “The Jemima Code” was going to create opportunity for new voices to emerge and for those voices to not only be heard, but to be celebrated, embraced and respected. That when we all look at that cover in the beginning, we’re all in the same place. Whatever our individual place is, it’s disjointed. We are all at the state of realizing that there are two sides to every story, and our side has not always been heard or honored.

Marcus Samuelsson just released “The Red Rooster” cookbook based on his restaurant of the same name and its reflection of Harlem and its cuisine. Other regional and indigenous cuisines are increasingly being recognized and celebrated in cookbooks, articles and books, as well as restaurants.

That’s what Samuelsson is doing; he’s being recognized and respected for his uniqueness, rather than continually being pushed back into the soul food box. That [box] is the experience black people have all the time —  “that food you’re creating” or “that conversation you’re having” — when it doesn’t reflect the outer world’s expectation of what “blackness” means. He is being respected for his ability to claim the historical legacy, but also to adapt it. And that’s what my next book, and the next logical step, is for us.

What is your next project?

We did not include recipes in “The Jemima Code” because the material was already complicated enough. But now we want to take the authors featured in the book, which include Marcus, and focus on their recipes. I’ve been testing over 500 recipes for the book that is to come, titled “Jubilee.” It’s so-named because of the biblical expression of “freedom” in the Old Testament and what it meant for the Israelites to be free. And African Americans have also had jubilee celebrations. The diversity of the two enslaved populations, it’s symbolic to me. 

Love cooking as much as I do? Follow me @noellecarter

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