For centuries, we've been force-fed myths about the African-American culinary experience—distorted realities describing African-American cuisine as unsophisticated, or the supposed limited capabilities of black cooks. To begin to unravel these myths and re-write the script takes thorough research, which is exactly what award-winning author Toni Tipton-Martin resolved to do with her monumental book, The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cooks.
For Martin, the skewed perception of African-American cooking is a symptom of a system of oppression she calls the Jemima code. "Historically, the Jemima code was an arrangement of words and images synchronized to classify the character and life's work of our nation's black cooks as insignificant," she writes. These falsehoods fueled commercial images like "Aunt Jemima" and "Uncle Ben," which projected to whites an easily digestible stereotype of African Americans as "natural-born" cooks and servants, rather than culinary artists. The cumulative effect of these misconceptions is that it has long been easy for whites to leave African Americans out of culinary conversations, even if they are a key players in shaping the legacy of America's food.
Martin tired of the continued slights towards African Americans, especially since none of the myths squared with her personal experience. She grew up in the black, middle-class neighborhood of Baldwin Hills in Los Angeles, California. Though her family had Southern roots, and soul-food dishes graced her family table, she grew up eating a wide variety of foods. In 1985, Martin got a job as a food writer at the Los Angeles Times and worked under the tutelage of Ruth Reichl. Martin was exposed to a cornucopia of food cultures and their cookbooks, but she rarely saw anything reflecting her own culinary tradition. She wondered aloud, "Where are the black cooks?"
To answer that question, she began collecting cookbooks authored by African Americans. The earliest published book in her collection is a servants' guide written by Robert Roberts in 1827. As her food journalism career flourished—in 1991, she became the food editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer (the first African American to have that position at a major daily newspaper)—her cookbook collection continued to expand. Now, after more than 30 years of research and 300 cookbooks later, Martin felt the time was right to set the record straight on African-American cooks and cuisines.
Bear in mind, The Jemima Code is not a cookbook—it's a beautifully photographed, annotated bibliography that highlights 160 of the books in Martin's extensive collection. With thorough research of cookbooks published from the 1800s to the early 2000s, Martin serves up a more complex view of African-American gastronomy through the words of enslaved cooks, domestic servants, private cooks, restaurant cooks and proprietors, caterers, culinary instructors, and entertainers.
"African Americans have been treated as invisible, non-contributors to many culinary conversations, especially those about Southern food," Martin explains. Thanks to The Jemima Code, Martin makes plain what was previously hidden while also dispelling those enduring and painful untruths. She writes, "I know that we can not take back 300 years of harsh words and pictures, but I do believe it is possible to undo some of the damage just by looking at the vast diversity of talents and abilities displayed by African-American food professionals through the cookbooks they left behind. And thereby seeing ourselves."
I asked Martin to do the highly unfair task of picking five cookbooks out of her impressive collection that were real game-changers in terms of how we should think about African-American cooks and cuisine—books that introduce a wide variety of cuisines beyond just soul food. Below, we meet African-American women who are entrepreneurs, using their culinary knowledge and skills to power their creative businesses. We also meet trailblazers who shed light on the culinary connections between West Africa and the Americas. Most importantly, each of these extraordinary women shows us different ways to shatter the Jemima code.