Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from “The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks” (University of Texas Press, 2015).
By the time I was 30, I could count my Southern life experiences on one hand. As a child in a tiny family in Los Angeles, I lived in exile during the civil rights era — sheltered by expatriates from the narrow perspective of Negro subservience and “proper place,” liberated from the burden of low-class living.
Not that the social, cultural and culinary dimensions of Southern living were unrecognizable out West. Sweet tea and fresh-squeezed lemonade washed down Aunt Jewel’s crisp fried chicken, smoked pork bones seasoned Nannie’s Sunday greens, and Mother always baked her corn bread in a big cast-iron skillet. But I didn’t care for pork ribs and became easily nauseated by the potent smell of chitlins, which blasted through the air every time our neighbors from Tennessee opened their front door.
Perhaps the most obvious evidence of my Western upbringing was my unapologetic admission that I sprinkled sugar on my grits. As far as I could tell, precious few of my culinary notions qualified as Southern, and I could have stumbled blindly through the rest of my life without ever discovering the Jemima living in me — if not for Vera Beck.
Vera called to mind one of those African American matriarchs familiarly thought of as saints: a woman in her twilight years whose culinary expressiveness was like a gift she bestowed on the people she loved. She made the best biscuits, chowchow, fried green tomatoes and Mississippi mud cake I have ever tasted. And although she earned her living as my test-kitchen cook in Cleveland, at one of the few major daily newspapers that preserved the tradition, she was a self-taught kitchen genius armed with recipes handed down by word of mouth through generations of rural Alabama cooks.
As I got to know Vera better, she forced me to confront a personality quirk that Virginia Woolf described as “contrary instincts.” I thought I was content — a 30-something food editor living far from home, enjoying amazing and exotic world cuisine. My mother and my grandmother knew a lot about cooking, but they didn’t dispense kitchen wisdom regularly. Vera read my unfamiliarity with her Southern-accented fare as a sign of incomplete social conditioning. Later on, I came to see that I was a casualty of the Jemima code.
Black codes once defined legal place for former slaves. 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. The encoded message assumes that black chefs, cooks and cookbook authors — by virtue of their race and gender — are simply born with good kitchen instincts. It diminishes the knowledge, skills and abilities involved in their work and portrays them as passive and ignorant laborers incapable of creative culinary artistry.
Throughout the 20th century, the Aunt Jemima advertising trademark and the mythical mammy figure in Southern literature provided a shorthand translation for a subtle message: “If slaves can cook, you can, too,” or “Buy this flour and you’ll cook with the same black magic that Jemima put into her pancakes.” In short: a sham.
The caricature is incubated in schools, where lessons on slavery reinforce and substantiate the dim, demoralizing portraits of black women as “noble savages” managing domestic responsibilities for white mistresses. This endless cycle ravages self-esteem, identity, sense of belonging and cultural pride, leaving scars for generations that are invisible but not insignificant.
It is true that black women did much of the cooking in early American kitchens. It is also true that they did so with the art and aptitude of today’s trained professionals, transmitting their craft orally. Because my ancestors were denied the opportunity to learn to read and write, they transferred important cultural traditions from one generation to another through face-to-face, personal exchanges.
Ella Wilson, who grew up a slave in Arkansas, described the rigors of her culinary education to an interviewer for the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. “I had to get up every morning at five when the cook got up and make the coffee, and then I had to go in the dining room and set the table,” she said. “Then I served breakfast. Then I went into the house and cleaned it up. Then I tended to the white children and served the other meals during the day.”
Such routines seem devoid of classic culinary proficiencies until we consider the wide-ranging tasks young apprentices would have observed — from mundane acts like fanning away flies from the dining room table to killing, gutting and plucking feathers from fowl. After starting out as something like sous-chefs, they matured into exceptional kitchen leaders, evaluating the supplies and ingredients left by the mistress, memorizing the instructions for making dishes, and sometimes fixing supper for their own families after dark with only a “pine knot torch” for light, as a former slave named Betty Powers recalled. Sylvia King, a former slave who was born in Morocco and received culinary training in France, did all these things and then some in Texas — working in the gardens and orchards, drying fruit, making cider, seasoning hams after curing — but still found herself alternating between field work and the spinning loom.
Respect for this work has been slowly gaining recognition from scholars and independent writers, thanks in part to the Southern Foodways Alliance’s oral history project and its mission to preserve and celebrate the American South’s complex food history and its unknown artisans. “Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power,” Psyche Williams-Forson’s 2006 study of black women and their relationships with the “gospel bird,” turns attention away from the caricature of Aunt Jemima and its implication that black women were “worthless figures capable only of menial servitude.”
As Rebecca Sharpless explains in her 2010 book “Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865–1960,” kitchen workers seasoned the lives of others and made their existence pleasurable with “elaborate, delectable feasts” created from recipes modified to suit the local climate, available ingredients, the tastes and religious preferences of the household and other circumstances — with fruits, vegetables, meats and staples that extended “beyond their ancestral roots.” They made do under the most adverse circumstances, providing sustenance for their own loved ones from their employers’ leftovers as well as ingredients bought with the cash wages earned with their labor. “In so doing, they contributed to one of the most noteworthy parts of southern American culture,” Sharpless writes.
Talented, inventive, nurturing — how is it that these are not the predominant images of African American cooks? Why don’t we celebrate their contributions to American culture the way we venerate that of the imaginary Betty Crocker? Why wasn’t their true legacy preserved?
In 1985, before I moved to Cleveland and came under the influence of Vera Beck, I got a chance to find my voice as a food writer at the Los Angeles Times. Among other work, I sorted and organized the cookbooks in our library. The shelves sagged from the weight of books from such faraway lands (and times) as the former Austrian Empire, but few titles mentioned the food of my culture. Even the Southern cookbooks were silent on the subject.
I wondered, “Where are all the black cooks?” I decided to find out.
Eventually, I realized that precious few of the people I wanted to interview about the techniques that my ancestors had used skillfully in big-house kitchens and had applied creatively to slaveholders’ rations were still living. Nonetheless, black cookbooks might confirm their impact on American food, families and communities.
With limited access to other artistic forms of creative expression, preparing and sharing a decadent caramel cake or batch of crisply fried chicken displayed their talent and spread their knowledge, a way to “set the record straight,” as the literary scholar Doris Witt explains in 1999 in “Black Hunger: Soul Food and America.” “The cookbook offers both the famous and the anonymous a force through which to create self and history, a means to become a poet, an historian, an ethnographer, and even, as the example of Dick Gregory would suggest, a political satirist,” Witt writes.
Over time, I uncovered a documentary record that allowed for a reinterpretation of black cooks as professionals with technical, organizational and managerial core values; Jemima clues, I called them. Their cookbooks substantiate the kind of skills that are taught in the best culinary academies, including knowledge of fundamentals (food safety, hygiene and scientific principles); artistic abilities such as food styling; and tested methods of cooking with both high-quality and inferior ingredients, or with regional and “exotic” heritage foods.
Also hidden in these treasures are important African techniques that slaves brought with them to plantation kitchens, including those Helen Mendes detailed in her 1971 “The African Heritage Cookbook: A Chronicle of the Origins of Soul Food Cooking, With 200 Authentic — and Delicious — Recipes.”
A social worker, chef and scholar, Mendes had tired of the “implication of white authorities that Black Americans had no culinary past.” To establish a legacy beyond homage, she wrote a treatise on an African “cook’s education,” which began for her when, as a toddler, she walked through the forest lands with her mother and young brother to pick fruits and gather herbs, wild tubers, mushrooms and greens. In her book, she identifies ingredients, utensils and the cooking fundamentals she practiced: roasting over an open pit, boiling, stewing, steaming, baking, frying, jerking (salt drying) and smoking.
Not long after I realized there were cookbooks establishing African American culinary authority, a smallish, plainly packaged Dover paperback appeared in the book giveaway that the Times food staff held to thin out the new volumes that flooded the newsroom each year. “The New Orleans Cookbook,” by Lena Richard, offered no biographical information about the author — not even her picture. I plucked it from the pile anyway. The way I figured it, a book of Creole recipes might provide some insight. Little did I know that Richard’s writings would be the first of many gifts of African American know-how.
My cookbook library grew gradually during my years at the Times and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Then, in 2005, the University of Alabama Libraries published a bibliography of the David Walker Lupton African American Cookbook Collection, a “treasure trove of rare and obscure books, many of them self-published, that too often pass ‘under the radar,’ ” curators said at the time. That valuable resource became my shopping list, and I used it to hunt down vintage editions in secondhand shops and Internet bookstores.
I eventually owned nearly 300 African American cookbooks, including a few not listed in the Lupton bibliography. Some of the works were trade-published. Others came to print on their own. All were dignified, but dwarfed by beautifully photographed hardcover Southern cookery books published by food industry luminaries.
These little rays of light revealed an African American kitchen arsenal, handed down orally between generations by clearheaded, thinking cooks who practiced what author Michael Ruhlman later described as “mental mise-en-place.” They understood systems and formulas, and could translate their talent for recipe development into words, even if few of them had the means, time and resources to do so. Through them, I traveled back to harrowing but simple times when familiar dishes and storytelling about the old ways — grinding corn into meal, roasting wild turkeys, and baking sweet potatoes “so big,” Fannie Yarbrough remembered, that cooks would “have to cut ’em with an ax” — beckoned hungry folks to the table.
Tipton-Martin is an award-winning food and nutrition journalist and community activist who lives in Austin. She will join our Free Range online chat with readers on Wednesday at noon at live.washingtonpost.com.