It’s already been a big moment for her: Last year, she was named to the top of the masthead of the popular magazine, which also produces a cooking show on PBS in which she will appear, and the acclaim for her 2019 book, “Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking,” has rolled in, along with more book contracts.
Tipton-Martin says she plans to use the award’s $50,000 grant to fund a mentorship program for women in food journalism. The project she envisions pulls together the threads of her own groundbreaking career as the first Black editor of a major American newspaper food section, her passion for storytelling about Black food culture, and her desire to open to the public her historic Baltimore home, which houses her massive cookbook trove on which her book “The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks” is based.
We recently chatted with Tipton-Martin about the ways food media is changing (and the ways it’s not), pandemic eating and her ambitious plans.
How has your pandemic year been?
It seems for every exhilarating moment there’s been a downer, so it’s been a very strange mix of good and bad. I’ve had limited mobility. I had to be in the hospital for a week before I started at Cook’s Country. Somehow, I tweaked something in my back and had a horrible sciatic nerve response. I’m still not fully walking — so no power walking or running, which I’ve always found so restorative.
And on our home renovations, we had a significant contractor problem. Let’s just say we learned a lot about misrepresentation, and our six-month project is going into its second year. There are so many ways I would love to use this historic home to share my work, and there was a time period where I wasn’t sure that could happen. But the happy ending is that I’ve finally completed the parlor to use as a set in my Cook’s Country segments, and the new contractors are amazing.
You hinted on social media that you have yet another TV project in the works. What else is on your plate?
I do have several announcements — actually, there are two: One, we’ll be using the house and my nonprofit to mentor up-and-coming women food writers. In the same way I have relied on the elders, I’m putting together an advisory council of celebrated women in food writing, and we will be offering programming within the house, and virtually, too, to mentor and nurture the next generation.
And at America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country, we are developing a separate TV show that will pick up where “Jubilee” left off. I will travel to different regions in the country doing deeper dives into recipe development, techniques and recipe theory. We’ll explore not just who was erased, but what foods they delivered. It will bring together my own rigor in history with the company’s rigor in recipe development.
I’m supposed to be writing a memoir on top of all this, but I’m revising that concept. My personal professional story has continued to evolve.
You appeared in an episode of the new Netflix series “High on the Hog,” and spoke about something you have written about: the way images of Black people have been used in marketing of food products. I wonder what you make of the changes in the past year, with brands like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s getting rid of that imagery.
The use of our faces as an expression of quality is a fraught experience. Historically, African Americans have not benefited from that economically. We have not reaped the financial benefit. With the influencer system — and I’m not a part of that system — my hope is that young people are benefiting. I hope now when you see us represent a product line it’s because we are being financially supported for our time and our talent and representation.
The award you are getting is a tribute to Julia Child. Do you feel a connection to her?
The connection to Julia Child will be a surprise to those who have heard me speak of Edna Lewis, who I have always talked about as my inspiration. But Julia existed in my culinary education before Edna Lewis did. When I was a young journalist trying to find my voice, I quickly discovered the importance of French cuisine. So I embarked on some self-education — I would attend food events, watch food TV, and I started buying cookbooks.
I attended a meeting of a California dairy council, and Julia and Paul were in the back of the room. As this group was talking about nutrition and all these other issues, she called out, “Why isn’t anyone talking about the fact that food is supposed to be delicious?” And her words stayed with me — the way she challenged the establishment, and the idea that healthy food can be delicious and delicious food can be healthy. My respect and appreciation goes way back.
This year has seen a reckoning in the food media world about the underrepresentation of Black journalists and journalists of color, as well as the way food from different cultures is presented. As a veteran of this industry, do you see meaningful change happening?
Well, Dawn Davis [the top editor at Bon Appétit] and I started roles of editor in chief of major magazines on the same day, so there is definitely progress being made. But I’ve been around the industry long enough to know that apart from the self-inflicted wounds of some editors behaving badly, there are issues about appropriation — that’s an industry-wide concern.
Most people don’t think that cookbooks have always been an act of plagiarism. That goes back to Amelia Simmons [the first American cookbook author, whose recipes included native foods], and that practice has persisted. If you change a method or an ingredient, a recipe becomes your own and the originator is erased. The problem is that we have been erased throughout the industry. Our work has been marginalized. And this is where I’m going to thread all my work together — the idea of bringing along more journalists is to improve our own ability to tell our own stories. And not just through first person, narrative storytelling — which is important, too — but work that can stand up to questioning and that is rooted in research and interviews.
What was your pandemic food experience like? We you scrounging in your pantry or doing takeout?
My food pandemic experience was similar to most people’s, I imagine — I wasn’t able to go to the gym, so I’ve got those few pounds. Because of the construction, I had a limited kitchen and I found myself rolling pie crust with a wine bottle, like the elders who found a way to make do.
One of the joys of working for Cook’s Country is that the recipes are delicious and fail-proof, and there are enough that can be prepared in a limited kitchen. We’re going to be adding more vegetarian recipes, more vegetables, more fish — that’s a reflection of my own eating lately and having grown up with a pescatarian mother.
I know you said earlier that you aren’t an influencer, but personally, I’d like to be influenced by you. Is there anything you’re really excited about, anything — an ingredient, a flavor, or a book or a movie?
Another spoke on my tire rim is that I am expected to publish a cookbook built on “Jubilee” about cocktails, so I’ve had a lot of fun experimenting with adult beverages lately. I came back from Texas with a new vodka — and then there’s Uncle Nearest whiskey [a female-led brand named after the first known African-American master distiller]. I try to make sure it’s all tied together, history and representation. I’m always looking for ways. So yes, I’m making cocktails!
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