Food-writing pioneer explores African American cuisine, in all its splendor, in new cookbook
“Where are the black food writers?” asks Toni Tipton-Martin.
A native Angeleno, author and community activist, Tipton-Martin has frequently wrestled with that question during her 31-year food-writing career. In the 1980s, the Los Angeles Times hired her as a food reporter. A few years later, she made history with the Cleveland Plain Dealer when she became the first African American woman to edit the food section of a major newspaper.
Being a food journalist of color was a lonely existence then, and is only marginally less so now, but Tipton-Martin, through her writing and advocacy, has been a leading voice in trying to change that.
“She’s been a real pioneer, often against terrific odds, in an industry that was not very welcoming to people of color,” said author Ruth Reichl, who worked with Tipton-Martin at The Times. “She forged a path for a new, and hopefully more inclusive, generation.”
Tipton-Martin has spent much of her career challenging notions about and redefining the boundaries of African American cuisine, and her new book — “Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking” — continues that work.
“I’m proving a point,” Tipton-Martin said of the book. “The African American culinary canon is larger than we know.”
In the introduction she writes, “The Biblical Jubilee marks restoration of a people through deliverance, rest, and land conservation ... our culinary Jubilee is also about liberation and resilience. Our cooking, our cooks, shall be free from caricature and stereotype.”
“We know about soul food and middle-class cooking,” Tipton-Martin said. “But we’re still learning about what African American foodways mean in a broader context. We weren’t a group of voluntary immigrants that could proudly demonstrate our foodways to other people on our own terms.”
The meticulous research that informs the book stretches the culinary horizon to a place that abounds with possibility; in its 100-plus recipes, “Jubilee” gives a comprehensive, panoramic view of African American cuisine in its multifaceted splendor.
Rather than circumscribing a set of dishes or recipes that define African American cuisine, in “Jubilee” Tipton-Martin declares that African Americans are now free to cook whatever they want — because that’s what their predecessors have been doing for the last 200 years.
“I’ve had some interesting, and perplexing, conversations about the recipes that I’ve included in this cookbook,” Tipton-Martin said. “For example, when I mention that I have an entire section on lamb, people usually say, without missing a beat, ‘But, black people don’t eat lamb.’”
So, yes, there are lamb recipes in addition to more familiar Creole, low country, soul food and Southern food dishes. “Jubilee” also looks around the globe for inspiration. Gingerbread waffles, green beans amandine, gremolata and grits are dishes Tipton-Martin finds on the African American table.
“When I came along, the only black food writers worked for black magazines and black newspapers, and these were the only sources describing a black aesthetic beyond soul food,” Tipton-Martin said. She continues and amplifies their work in “Jubilee.”
Beyond her scholarship and recipe-writing, Tipton-Martin also taps into a long tradition of African American entrepreneurs who have one eye on success and the other on helping others in their community.
“I am trying to use my work to inspire the next generation, by holding the door open for them,” she said, noting that food photography, restaurant design and consulting are also meaningful career paths outside of traditional kitchen jobs. So, for her, hiring Jerelle Guy — an African American woman who shot the book’s studio food photography — was as much an aesthetic choice as one rooted in her belief about the power of cookbooks to accelerate change.
Uplifting the black community may seem like a strange ambition for a cookbook but, as Tipton-Martin documented in her 2015 book, “The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks,” this is nothing new.
In 1921, a group of black women operating under the appellation “City Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs” used limited resources to publish a cookbook in response to a race riot that had devastated the black community in Tulsa. From the proceeds of that cookbook, the group raised funds for a bail relief program, a home for African American girls and a community space for meetings and recreation. By the mid-1940s, they had raised enough money to pay off all their debts.
“I’m using real African American role models, mostly women, to inspire the next generation. In addition to cookbooks, there were many more viable income streams that our ancestors used to buy their freedom, buy their kids’ freedom, to move into the middle class and, in some cases, become quite wealthy,” Tipton-Martin said. “I can’t think of any greater accomplishment than using one’s cooking skills to buy one’s freedom. None of this is far-fetched. It’s part of our past.”
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