When you picture Aunt Jemima, what do you see? For a white person, it might be a soothing fantasy of a loving black servant putting warm, buttery pancakes on your plate. You might even feel a twinge of gratitude, as your harried mom might have skipped pancake making all together if it weren’t for Aunt Jemima’s magical mix. But to black people, the do-rag-wearing woman on the package says something else: “You are and always will be destined to be a servant,” explains food journalist and author Toni Tipton-Martin. “Your future offers nothing but thankless menial labor. Better learn how to acquiesce now.”
The fact that this one advertising character telegraphs such different messages to different races is what Tipton-Martin refers to as the “Jemima Code.” In 20th-century culinary history, Aunt Jemima is a mammy, a racist caricature of a simple-minded, sexless female domestic servant that was often projected onto real African American women who worked as stand-ins for white mothers. These stereotypes about mammies—who supposedly had no desires or talents outside of serving white families—were everywhere in the 20th century, not just on the box of Quaker Oats’ wildly popular pancake mix. Sick of these demeaning caricatures, Tipton-Martin researched and wrote The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks, published late last year by University of Texas Press, to explore the lives of the real black women, and men, who worked as cooks and chefs after the Civil War. Discovering their artistic and scientific contributions to the culinary world was her way of breaking the Jemima Code.
Tipton-Martin first picked up on the Jemima Code as a food writer at the “Los Angeles Times” in the late 1980s. While sorting the newspaper’s culinary library she noticed “the cookbooks attributed to African Americans in our collection did not reflect the images of the women that I knew in my community,” as she tells me over the phone from Houston. “Instead, I saw a stereotype, the way black women have always been portrayed. So I started collecting African American cookbooks as a way to hear the voices of real people.”
One obstacle she encountered was that throughout American history, black people have had less access to publishing than whites. Of the roughly 100,000 recipe collections that have been produced in the United States since the late 1700s, she’s managed to hunt down and collect around 300 cookbooks written by or attributed to African Americans, many of which are rare, self-published volumes. In addition, her research included deep dives into the archives at the David Walker Lupton African-American Cookbook Collection at the University of Alabama—which documents 450 volumes—as well as the Culinary Archive of the Clements Library at the University of Michigan and the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. All told, she reviews 160 cookbooks in The Jemima Code.
Cookbook publishing, Tipton-Martin writes, like scrapbooking, gave American women a means to express themselves and tell the stories of their lives, their community, and their region. For example, a recipe book might also include household tips and shared wisdom, poems, inspirational sayings or quotes, current events or celebrity gossip, bits of memoir including stories about friends and family, as well as photographs or drawings. Cookbooks were also compiled to champion causes, everything from child welfare and education to women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery. Religious tradition, cultural heritage, and even community divisions are captured in cookbooks, making them valuable historical documents.
While women-penned cookbooks celebrating Southern cuisine proliferated in the mid-1800s, white mistresses got all the credit, and their black cooks remained invisible. Of course, in antebellum South and the Jim Crow caste system that followed, white people who depended on black servants refused to acknowledge their cooks’ creative and intellectual input, particularly when it came to Southern culinary traditions. They insisted that although African American women could be trusted with child-rearing, cooking, and housekeeping, they weren’t savvy enough to survive without a mistress keeping watch over them. And if their incompetence was a given, as these white supremacists asserted, enslaved women and paid house servants must’ve cooked with “voodoo magic” and not actual skills, right?
“An enslaved African who changed a recipe could be severely punished if she didn’t do exactly what the mistress said,” Martin says, so when a slave made a mistake or didn’t have enough eggs, she might pretend something supernatural occurred. “It’s not fair to say that enslaved women’s own ancestry, history, and kitchen experience never seeped into their work. A slave’s hands became her measuring tools, and she cooked with her intelligence. It wasn’t because the god of culinary arts breathed this spirit into her.”
“A growing number of white employers found it impossible to separate their contempt for black servants from their dependence upon them.”
The character of Aunt Jemima was born in 1875—10 years after the end of the American Civil War—when a catchy song called “Old Aunt Jemima,” written by African American minstrel Billy Kersands, was introduced by a white performer. Based on an old slave field song, the tune became a tremendous hit and a minstrel-show staple, which was sung thousands of times by Kersands as well as white men in blackface. Either way, the singer in question would wear female drag, in a style inspired by a common caricature intended to limit the opportunities of recently freed blacks: A mammy.
In 1889, a white Missouri newspaperman Chris L. Rutt developed a self-rising pre-packaged pancake mix and, with fellow white entrepreneur Charles Underwood, bought the Pearl Milling Company. They came up with a quality product, but had a difficult time selling it in plain brown bags. That year, Rutt saw a minstrel show featuring “Old Aunt Jemima” and immediately bought the rights to the name and image of a chubby, old dark-skinned black woman wearing an apron and a bandanna wrapped around her head. His flour became Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Mix, which he and Underwood sold to the R.T. Davis Milling Company in 1890.
Aunt Jemima the Pancake Queen became a national sensation in 1893, thanks to Davis’ ingenuous promotion at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The company hired 56-year-old black actress Nancy Green to play Aunt Jemima at the fair. A former slave, Green was eager to leave behind a life of drudgery—as her other career options involved washing dishes or sweeping floors—in favor of the world of entertainment and advertising. With her warm, smiling persona, Green made pancakes, sang songs, and told nostalgic stories about the “good ol’ days” making breakfast for her plantation masters. Her pancakes were believed to be made of love and magic, not culinary artistry or domestic science.
That image of a fat, happy slave—who faithfully nurtures a white family while neglecting her own—lived on for 75 years through the Aunt Jemima Pancake line, purchased by Quaker Oats Company in 1925. Ubiquitous in ads, she promoted easy-to-make variations on pancakes, waffles, and other pastries in promotional recipe pamphlets, and an Aunt Jemima impersonator even received the keys to the city of Albion, Michigan, in 1964.
According to Tipton-Martin, the Aunt Jemima brand attempted to sell magic in a box to floundering white housewives with the idea “If slaves could cook, you can, too.” While Quaker Oats and other companies produced recipe booklets plastered with their fictional mammies, white Southern women published cookbooks to wax nostalgic about their actual mammy’s cooking, while openly insulting the same beloved servant. Such guides were intended for newlywed white women who were overwhelmed by the culinary demands of marriage because they had grown up in homes where black servants did all of the cooking.
More than one cover shows the housewife as a little girl looking up at a large, towering mammy. That oversize image of a subservient old woman was in direct contrast to real black domestic workers, usually underfed young women, who loved their own children and often resented their employers and the lack of other job opportunities. As Tipton-Martin explains, many of them were also gifted cooks who possessed both deep knowledge and craftsmanship that rarely got acknowledged as such.
In the antebellum period, enslaved people were prevented from learning to read and write, so black cooks shared their recipes and culinary know-how with the next generation through an oral tradition. When enslaved women prepared meals for the plantation big house, they were instructed to cook grand mid-day dinners from the finest foods available, including soups, meats like fried chicken and smoked pork, mashed potatoes and gravy, salads, pickles, biscuits, cornbread, and pies.
“When we look at the rare 19th-century African American-penned household-management books, we’re able to see just how deep the servants’ knowledge went,” Tipton-Marin says. “They had to memorize all of these crazy measurements, including how you arrange the fruit next to the nuts or how far the tablecloth could hang on either end of the table. They had to memorize those massive lists of foods that the masters imported, and learn to cook with new spices.”
Meanwhile, the enslaved workers had to “make do” with their small rations of cornmeal and salt pork, as well as vegetables like sweet potatoes and collard greens they grew in their gardens. These culinary traditions—such as frying cornmeal and water into hoe cakes—became known as “cabin food.” Later, freed slaves who migrated to urban centers in the north had limited opportunities and often had to take domestic work as maids and cooks. Like sharecroppers in the South, they learned to make “something out of nothing” with their employer’s leftovers and what little their paychecks could afford. These “make-do” dishes, Tipton-Martin writes, included chitlins (pig intestines), Hoppin’ John (black-eyed peas and rice), and croquettes (fried meat and potato roll).
“The advertisers wanted to remind African Americans that they were the hard laborers, but the residual effect is now white women think that, when it comes to cooking, they’re hard laborers, too.”
When the concept of domestic science emerged in the late 1800s, it allowed white women to legitimize the skills they had honed at home and eventually make money outside the house as kitchen scientists and instructors. As the home-economics movement flourished in early 20th century America, budding “domestic scientists” were often befuddled by African American cooking, which might lack written instructions or precise measurements. Trying to translate the recipes of their black cooks into this rigid format proved difficult when white women didn’t understand the African American dialect, their custom of passing down recipes orally, and their tradition of improvising in the kitchen. Jim Crow proponents wanted to keep black women in lowly positions as nannies, cooks, and housekeepers, and prevent them from turning their domestic skills into high-paid professions, so their talents were portrayed as inferior and mysterious.
“The relationship that existed between white people and black people in the South was very complicated,” Tipton-Martin says. “It was so nuanced, and it changed from region to region, from planter to planter, from house to house. In general, when women in the suffrage movement wanted to provide evidence of their intelligence, they highlighted the smart ways they were operating their homes to move into this new sphere of domestic science. But black women had been doing all the work.”
In her research, Tipton-Martin found that black cooks working as slaves and servants actually had all the skills and values a top-notch food professional needs, when it comes to organizing and managing staff, food safety and hygiene, technical proficiency and adhering to scientific principles, and artistic flair. They applied these skills to both high-quality and “poverty” ingredients and innovated in the realms of regional dishes, African or Caribbean heritage foods, and haute cuisine.
“With the backlash during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow caste system, the culinary arts weren’t excluded from those hypocrisies—those curious ways of needing someone but not wanting to admit that you need them and creating artificial barriers between each other, like those stupid ‘Colored’ signs,” Tipton-Martin says. “Just look at the whole idea that people who once were able to nurse your baby at their breasts were suddenly, in 1866, reviled as the carriers of tuberculosis.”
The inherent contradiction of Aunt Jemima, the witless and eager-to-serve pancake master, lasted 75 years until, in 1968, the character was slimmed down, made more youthful and lighter skinned, and her do-rag was replaced with a checked fabric headband. Still, she didn’t fully lose her servant look until 1989 when Quaker Oats reintroduced Aunt Jemima as a Betty Crocker-like character, a pearl-wearing grandmother with relaxed curls and no headwear. This Jemima could finally embody the housewifely intelligence granted to white women during the domestic-science movement of the 19th century.
Long before Aunt Jemima sold pancake mixes, white American women were asserting the kitchen as their dominion. In the colonial days, most Americans depended on recipe books from England and other countries in Europe. Amelia Simmons is credited with publishing the first U.S. cookbook in 1796, American Cookery, which used ingredients native to this country, including cornmeal and cranberries.
“A slave’s hands became her measuring tools, and she cooked with her intelligence. It wasn’t because the god of culinary arts breathed this spirit into her.”
Other white women followed in her footsteps, particularly in the slaveholding South. Mary Randolph’s 1824 The Virginia House-Wife, which catalogs the responsibilities of a mistress on a Southern plantation, inspired plantation wives to publish their own cookbooks in the 1820s. The isolated South became known for its distinct culinary traditions, which unintentionally merged African and European cuisines.
This is because, as the late John Egerton, founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance, writes in his foreword to The Jemima Code, “the black minority did most of the work and the ruling white majority took most of the credit.” In early Southern cookbooks, though, the implication was that the recipes were created by white women for other white women to use.
“Like other scholars, I am unable to tease apart the origin of dishes, who was the first, or who did it this way or that way, because the records are so distorted,” Tipton-Martin says. “Recipes were recorded by the slave owners as the property of the person who wrote it down. That said, it’s impossible, in my opinion, to separate the African and European American foodways in the South. They’ve coexisted for so long. The food we’re talking about that describes a region, not an ethnic group, and it comes from the people of the South, who were black and white.”
The first book containing recipes with an African American byline—one of only four published in the 19th century—was 1827’s The House Servant’s Directory by a man named Robert Roberts, the head butler in the Waltham, Massachusetts, home of an elite white Northerner family. His book of advice for the “downstairs” staff contained recipes for household remedies, like an egg-and-curd-cheese mixture used to mend glass and china or a leek formula that kept flies off pictures and furniture. It also detailed rules for serving breakfast, dinner, supper, coffee, and tea, as well as advice for shopping at the market and carving meat.
Roberts’ guide offered the first clear perspective on servant work, because it came from hands-on experience, instead of being filtered through a mistress’ viewpoint. Roberts, Tipton-Martin writes, explained his job with great dignity, and his manual—Andrew Jackson’s Nashville home has a copy—was so popular, it was reprinted in 1843. In a similar vein, another black service professional, Tunis Campbell, published a textbook, 1848’s Never Let People Be Kept Waiting, which provided a practical guide for running an elite hotel or restaurant dining room. It contained 102 basic recipes that any respectable restaurant could serve.
While these two black men were begrudgingly recognized by whites as knowledgeable enough to help train other servants, the cookbook publishing industry really belonged to white women, particularly after it exploded in the 1840s. At the time, middle-class America believed in the notion of Separate Spheres, in which men were supposed to be naturally skilled in the public arena, including working outside the home, dealing with money, and participating in politics. Women were thought to excel at matters of the home including domestic work, raising children, and maintaining a family’s moral values. But white women started to exploit the ideology of the Separate Spheres to get their housework taken seriously and create opportunities for themselves outside of the home as well. In 1841, Catherine Beecher paved the way with her A Treatise on Domestic Economy, for the Use of Young Ladies at Home, and at School, which explained, in professional terms, the skills needed to run a household and manage servants. The glut of cookbooks that followed divided the United States into distinct culinary regions: New England, the South, and the Midwest.
“What I discovered is an arc of community uplift and a desperate desire to restore, create, or validate the pride and dignity that was being removed from black people every which way.”
When the Civil War ended in 1865, many women found themselves without a husband to support them and their children, so their neighbors rallied to raise money for these war widows, submitting recipes for compilations that became known as “community cookbooks.” Quickly, the concept of selling such cookbooks as fundraisers spread to other social causes and became a means to support churches, schools, and educational programs. For this reason, the true history of cookbooks by African Americans may be impossible to fully document, as many local, self-published recipe books have been lost to time.
After the war, many freed slaves and former black domestic workers took the initiative to start small businesses that utilized the skills they developed as servants. Food, in particular, became a means to independence for African Americans, Tipton-Martin writes. Those who succeeded in business did so in the face of “black codes” meant to limit the freedoms of former slaves, which banned them from selling door-to-door or trading in certain markets. Some became street food vendors, offering their own cookies and cakes, pepperpot stews, freshly cooked ears of sweet corn, or rice fritters known as “calas.” Some, like Susie Taylor and Mary Ellen Pleasant, started cooking schools or catering companies. Others, like Myra Miller, Judy Reed, and Madeline Turner, invented kitchen gadgets.
Malinda Russell, who was born free in Tennessee, successfully established a Nashville pastry shop before the Civil War when local codes limited her freedom to move around and get educated. She fled to Paw Paw, Michigan, during the war, and in 1866, she published the first full cookbook by an African American, A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen, as a way to fund her trip home. Her book included 250 recipes including household formulas, medicinal elixirs, popular pastries from her shop, meats, and preserves.
The fourth and final known book containing recipes credited to an African American in the 19th century was 1881’s What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc. by Abby Fisher. A former slave, Fisher and her husband, Alexander, had founded a popular catering company in San Francisco, known for her award-winning pickles and preserves. Even though she didn’t know how to read or write, her loyal customers, affluent white women in the Bay Area, persuaded her to share her secrets in a book of 150 recipes printed privately by the San Francisco Women’s Co-Operative.
During the late 1800s, the domestic-science movement launched by Catherine Beecher spread throughout the cookbook-publishing industry. By the end of the century, magazines, cooking schools, kitchen laboratories, and clubs had sprung up all over the United States with the goals of standardizing level measurements for the home and applying scientific principles to all housewife tasks. Schools and kitchens promoted the idea of “tested recipes,” and what was once menial labor for women was elevated to an intellectual, academic status. The founders of new culinary institutes, like Fannie Farmer, regularly published their own cookbooks.
Slowly, following the footsteps of Roberts, Campbell, Russell, and Fisher, black food-industry entrepreneurs, cooks, chefs, and household servants in the early 20th century began to publish cookbooks to share their true talents and knowledge, both scientific and artistic, as well as their cultural pride. Historically black colleges developed their own domestic-science programs, teaching students “industry and self-reliance” as well as how to make beloved Southern staples without relying on unhealthy fats and frying.
In 1910, Bertha L. Turner, the California superintendent of domestic science, put together a “tested” recipe book to document the culinary traditions practiced by the black middle class. Tipton-Martin writes that Turner’s The Federation Cook Book marked a turning point, as the intended audience was black, not white, homemakers. In 1911, Rufus Estes, the master chef for the Pullman railroad-car company, detailed his personal success story in Good Things to Eat as Suggested by Rufus, the first recipe book by a black chef. The following year, S. Thomas Bivins, principal of the Chester Domestic Training Institute in Pennsylvania, published the tome The Southern Cookbook: A Manual of Cooking and Lists of Menus Including Recipes Used by Noted Colored Cooks and Prominent Caterers, which Tipton-Martin calls “proof that his generation had mastered the scientific cooking methodology of the era.”
It was also a time that African American art and literature flourished with the beginning of the New Negro Movement, also known as the Harlem Renaissance, in 1916-1917. Cooking became another means for black Americans to express their creative gifts and heritage, leaving “cabin cooking” behind.
“They would come home, and with whatever resources they had in their cabinet, make food for the Civil Rights foot soldiers who were going to be put in jail.”
“In the early 20th century, we begin to see black people starting to claim more of their creative side and using their art to dispute the stereotypes they knew exist about them,” Tipton-Martin says. “Through food publishing, black authors are presenting images contrary to how they were being represented in pop culture. That’s when we get Rufus Estes recording the novelty and intelligence of being a chef. Then we get these culinary art clubs and domestic-science teachers, who were in the business of training more workers. That’s where the intelligence on the craft really starts to come through because now a cook’s techniques have to be transcribed or transferable to someone else. The textbooks and cooking schools began to really allow black cooks to assert their creative side the way that black writers, musicians, and artists were in the 1910s. But the cooks are left out on the Harlem Renaissance story, aren’t they?”
At the same the Harlem Renaissance was booming, the greater American culture was reveling in gross caricatures of African Americans as dialect-speaking dimwits—and brands like Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix, Cream of Wheat, and other breakfast foods and baking ingredients helped perpetuate those ugly ideas with their advertisements and recipe booklets. These caricatures came out again when white women produced cookbooks that expressed, Tipton-Martin writes, “the frustration felt by a growing number of white employers who found it impossible to separate their contempt for black servants from their dependence upon them.” Using recipes drawn from a house servant, such cookbooks both praised the food and insulted the cooks.
Emma and William McKinney led the way in 1922, publishing a book inspired by his “mammy,” Caroline Pickett, called Aunt Caroline’s Dixieland Recipes. While the standard Southern recipes had ordinary names, those thought as ethnic dishes made with poverty foods had caricatured names to emphasize their blackness: Mammy’s Graham Muffins, Aunt Caroline’s Corn Bread, Uncle Remus Mint Julep, and Pickaninny Cookies. The recipes were, the McKinneys write, “drawn from the treasured memories of Aunt Caroline Pickett, a famous old Virginia cook, the ‘pinch of this’ and ‘just a smacker of that’ so wonderfully and mysteriously combined by the culinary masters of the Southland have been carefully and scientifically analyzed and recorded in this volume.”
“These artificial barriers were set up so that dishes that required the most affluent resources are attributed to white cooks, and the black cooks are given ownership over the food that you make with more humble ingredients,” Tipton-Martin says. “Aunt Caroline’s Dixieland Recipes is a good example of the confusion.”
Another example is 1937’s Emma Jane’s Souvenir Cook Book and Old Virginia Recipes, compiled by Blanche Elbert Moncure. It’s supposedly the voice of the unfortunately named servant Emma Jane Jackson Beauregard Jefferson Davis Lincoln Christian, who gives folksy advice in a thick dialect for a young white bride, putting herself down in the process. For example, she offers this defense for the offensively named “Fool-Nigger-Proof” Cake. “As I had said, menny a time, I ain’t no fancy cake maker, but here is a re-ceet dat ‘Ole Miss’ taught me. She called it one-two-three-four cake. I told her effen I made a suc-cess of de makin’ of it I would name it ‘De Fool-Nigger-Proof Cake’—so dat’s what it’s been to me, ever since.”
Another one of these supposed mammies, Aunt Priscilla, even got her own cooking column in a mainstream newspaper, “The Baltimore Sun,” in the 1920s, where she published traditional Southern recipes, presumably for white women to use, in an exaggerated slave dialect. But Aunt Priscilla—also credited with the 1929 cookbook Aunt Priscilla in the Kitchen—was actually a white woman, Eleanor Purcell, secretary to political columnist Frank Kent. Even though it was a form of minstrelsy, Tipton-Martin points out that it broke with the long tradition of simply taking and publishing African American recipes without giving black cooks credit.
Countering these stereotypes, African American cooking schools and culinary clubs continued to produce their own cookbooks with upscale recipes for the middle class, written in standard English. These include 1936’s Eliza’s Cook Book: Favorite Recipes Compiled by the Negro Culinary Art Club of Los Angeles and 1939’s Recipes and Domestic Service: The Mahammit School of Cookery, by Helen T. Mahammitt.
“In 1936, the Culinary Negro Art Club of Los Angeles published their cookbook to boast about their middle-class lifestyle,” Tipton-Martin says. “They wanted people to know that they didn’t function in that residue of slavery. It’s fascinating that these dignified cookbooks coexisted with the mammy cookbooks.”
Three years later, a trailblazing black caterer and cooking-school founder self-published Lena Richard’s Cook Book, which promised to reveal the secrets of Creole cooking including dishes like court bouillon, crawfish bisque, vol-au-vent (puff pastry), chicory coffee, seasoned red beans, jambalaya, and gumbo. In the introduction, Richard also made it clear she intended to give black cooks skills to leverage for higher wages. Popular white caterer James Beard, who later became known as the father of American gastronomy, and white food editor Clementine Paddleford petitioned the publishing industry to reprint Richard’s book; in 1940, Houghton Mifflin republished her cookbook, as New Orleans Cook Book, removing her name from the title and her picture from the frontispiece. Richard went on to become the head chef at restaurants in upstate New York and Colonial Williamsburg before she pioneered her own cooking show, which aired in 1949 and 1950, on New Orleans’ first television station, WDSU.
“Middle-class African Americans complained about soul food, saying ‘We should leave that plantation menu aside.’”
The first actual black cooking column was written by Rebecca West in “The Washington Times-Herald.” West was a domestic servant who traveled the globe during World War II with her mistress, Eleanor “Cissy” Patterson, who was one of the first female publishers of a major daily. West shared her adventures and experimental recipes in an unexaggerated rural vernacular, always with professionalism and dignity. Patterson, West’s biggest champion, helped her publish an early cooking memoir, Rebecca’s Cookbook, in 1942.
The war created opportunities for African Americans to serve in the military and work in factories alongside white people, which made Americans a little more open to integration. In 1946, a recipe developer for food manufacturers named Freda DeKnight became the first black American food editor for “Ebony,” a new magazine that focused on African American culture. She made it her mission to show that African American cooks in history were resourceful and clever culinary innovators whose talents went above and beyond “peasant food.” For her 1848 cookbook, , she spent 20 years collecting more than 1,000 tips, recipes, and menus from black chefs, caterers, domestic cooks, and housewives—from unknowns to celebrities—to dispel white misconceptions and encourage African Americans to join the cooking industry. Two years later, she became the brand spokesperson for Carnation evaporated milk, even though Date had eschewed then-trendy processed convenience food.
In the 1950s, cooks were essential behind the scenes of the Civil Rights Movement, providing fuel to sustain activists at so-called secret or hidden kitchens. At the time, black activists driving around the South to help register small-town people to vote couldn’t even stop at roadside diners without putting their lives at risk. Georgia Gilmore turned her living room into an underground restaurant where she fed Martin Luther King, Jr., and his followers Southern comfort food such as pork chops and stuffed peppers. Selling baked goods at beauty salons, she raised $200 a week to fund a carpool during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. Some of the cooks who worked in such clandestine activist kitchens eventually published cookbooks, including Harry Hart, Jessie Payne Clementine Hunter, Lessie Bowers, and Dorothy Height.
“I started my research with the Civil Rights Movement because those cooks were the oldest ones still living and lucid enough to speak with,” Tipton-Martin says. “They told stories of cooking after a long day at their job or making sandwiches after working cleaning an office building all night. They would come home, and with whatever resources they had in their cabinet, make food so that the foot soldiers who were going to be put in jail that day would have something to eat. Their kitchens harkened back to enslaved women, who found other sources of food in the wild to make sure that workers who were out in the field all day and night had more nourishment to sustain them.
“What I discovered in this whole book is an arc of community uplift and a desperate desire to restore, create, or validate the pride and dignity that was being removed from black people every which way,” she continues. “You can see it at the beginning, in the way Roberts talks to his protégé. You can see it in the two businesswomen at the end of the 1800s who were thinking about what it took for them to build up a community to raise enough money to go back and get other people freed. And it just rolls on and on until you get to the era of Georgia Gilmore.”
The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro, compiled by Sue Bailey Thurman in 1958, served as a precursor to the Black Pride movement. Organized by the calendar year, this cookbook connected recipes to African American celebrities, traditions, and significant historical events and places. In addition to dishes, the book is packed with sketches, advertisements, speeches, mini-bios, news articles from the past, and even song lyrics.
In Northern and Western cities, black people who’d migrated from the South and longed for the tastes of home soon started selling their own “ethnic” food like fried chicken, barbecue ribs, collard greens, sweet potatoes, grits, gumbo, and Hoppin’ John at dive bars and barbecue stands, which gave them a rare opportunity in urban business. This type of cooking became known as “soul food,” with “soul” being an adjective for pride in black culture.
“When we get to 1960,” Tipton-Martin says, “when African Americans are really fighting for their liberation, they claimed the survival food that carried them not only during enslavement, but also when they migrated out of the South and were still living in poor conditions in cramped, segregated neighborhoods. That food carried them, but it is not the total realm of what African Americans can do.”
“When women in the suffrage movement wanted to provide evidence of their intelligence, they highlighted the smart ways they were operating their homes. But black women had been doing all the work.”
The popularity of soul food cuisine in the 1960s gave a lot of black cooks an opportunity to put out recipe books as they never had before, but in the world of gastronomy, it also ghettoized their skills. The improvisational nature of soul-food cooking made it hard for cookbooks to adhere to the inflexible requirements of domestic science and distinguish the cuisine from what was thought of as Southern fare. And because soul food largely left out fruits, vegetables, and buttermilk, white and black middle-class people thought of it the same way they think about a McDonald’s hamburger now—a cheap, unhealthy low-class pleasure to indulge in sparingly.
“Soul food is controversial because it exposed opinions that long existed within the world of food, the idea that you cooked one way in the house and one way in the cabin,” Tipton-Martin says. “Middle-class African Americans complained about soul food, saying ‘We should leave that plantation menu aside.’ Meanwhile, Elijah Muhammad took a philosophical approach to try and convince people to give up soul food. In literature, Ralph Ellison had a whole storyline about his shame at wanting to eat a sweet potato. The soul food movement really just exposed, on a different level, conversations that the middle class or blue-collar workers were having all along.”
Responding to this backlash, the definition of “soul food” expanded in the 1970s to include healthier dishes and explorations of the medicinal nature of plants. Some new soul-food authors asserted ways to reduce sodium, sugars, and fats; limit processed foods; and use in-season fruits. Others emphasized the nutritious ingredients that could be found in soul-food cooking: greens and other vegetables, beans, whole grains, and small servings of meat.
That same decade, black cooks researched the ethnic origins of popular Southern recipes to trace their roots back to Africa and the Caribbean as well as China, Spain, and Jewish communities, shedding the “mysterious” nature of their food heritage. According to Tipton-Martin, that ethnic food movement reflected a moment when black cooks felt free of the burden of trying to assimilate or prove anything to white people.
“Now,” she says, “you can actually go and explore your African roots. Books started to emerge in the ’70s to satisfy that curiosity. Those techniques and elements had existed in soul food and cabin food, but nobody knew how to really articulate that before we did the scholarship to talk about what it was to cook African.”
In the ’70s, Edna Lewis and sisters Norma Jean and Carole Darden took up the mantle for wholesome African American country cooking in the Southern tradition. “Southern cookbooks still carried the soul-food banner to an extent, but then you started to see Edna Lewis, the Darden Sisters, and others talking about that food as a reflection of country cooking, which is an important distinction,” Tipton-Martin says. “To say that soul and poverty food is only the castoff food, neglects the fact that on a farm, you have buttermilk and access to wild game. Quail were not on the slave table. But in time, they were on the black table.”
By the 1980s, black cooks were empowered to explore the full range of culinary experiences from the high art of haute cuisine and experimental recipes to a range of ethnic foods as well as down-home fare. Aunt Jemima, now a housewife, had finally lost her stranglehold.
“I say that in the ’80s, people are free, because now that they’ve explored their African roots and started to understand the fusion cooking that was present from the beginning,” Tipton-Martin says. “After that, the African American authors just followed the same social pattern of cookbook publishing. Their cookbooks had a lot of haute cuisine, the adoration of chefs, and unique, eclectic ingredients. They reflected individual personalities with a lot of memoir. Finally, African American food publishing was starting to show the diversity that had existed in all other kinds of cookbooks. Black people were finding their own voice and being appreciated for their unique story, whereas before they had been painted with a broad brush stroke.”
Concurrently, in the world of mainstream cooking, the low-skilled, busy housewives who had embraced processed convenience foods during the 1950s were starting to reject them in the 1970s, as the natural-food movement took hold. However, the women’s liberation movement of that decade equated cooking with housework drudgery, which women wanted to free themselves of—a sentiment that lasted until the more recent movement toward wholesome, unprocessed food.
“When I first started working on this book, one of my white friends told me she wanted me to write it because her mother tried to avoid the kitchen at every cost,” Tipton-Martin says. “Once my friend became a mother herself, she realized that she did not want to be a victim to packaged foods, but her mother couldn’t talk about it because she believed in this idea of ‘slaving in the kitchen.’ So an aspect of the Jemima-code message seeped into the broader community. Sure, the advertisers wanted to remind African Americans that they were the hard laborers, but the residual effect is now white women think that, when it comes to cooking, they’re hard laborers, too. Today, we have all these interesting businesses that are outgrowths of that, like the companies that sell you the ready-to-make meals with chopped-up vegetables so you can have the convenience of someone else doing it for you.
“People are returning to those lost culinary arts so that they’re not victims to prepared and packaged food—I mean, we want prepared food if it’s from Whole Foods,” she continues. “But we’re at this place now where people do need some essential cooking skills, otherwise going to the farmers’ market is futile. At this point in time, the notion of slaving in the kitchen is finally coming to its natural end.”
(To learn more about African American cooks and their cookbooks, pick up Toni Tipton-Martin’s book “The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks” from University of Texas Press. If you buy something through a link in this article, Collectors Weekly may get a share of the sale. Learn more.)