This excerpt from The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks (copyright © 2015 by Toni Tipton-Martin) is used by permission of the University of Texas Press. For more information visit www.utexaspress.com.

 

Ef oona ent kno weh oona da gwine, oona should kno weh oona come from.

-Gullah proverb

If you don’t know where you are going, you should know where you come from.

-English translation

Jemima Code book coverIn 1994, Mrs. Wilkes’ Boarding House was world renowned; its owner, Sema M. Wilkes, a living legend. That year, a whopping 165,000 copies of her updated classic, Famous Recipes from Mrs. Wilkes’ Boarding House in Historic Savannah, were in circulation. The new edition of the spiral-bound book added fifty-three recipes, reprints of news articles, celebrity fan letters, and photographs of Mrs. Wilkes posed with her husband, Mr. Lolis H. Wilkes, along with her famous dishes and various awards. But it was a grainy, sepia-toned picture of Mrs. Wilkes that caught my attention.

Mrs. Wilkes stands in the foreground, dressed simply in a button-down sweater, her arms crossed behind her back. Three black women are posed at her heels, their street clothes barely visible underneath the standard-issue housekeeper’s uniforms. Crisp white aprons are tied around their generous waists. All the women bear the same stoic glare. It is not clear where the picture was taken. Nothing suggests the kitchen or the dining room. Naked walls surround them.

I am not sure what the publisher intended to convey with this snapshot. An unbiased reading says that even in modern times, black women are the soul behind this successful southern food enterprise. In an era when mainstream cookbooks with titles such as The Opinionated Palate, The Artful Eater, and Great Cooks and Their Recipes signaled a growing “foodie” culture, and the title of chef was broadened to include skilled cooks who managed the kitchen–or not–it is hard for me not to think that it is the black women who belong out in front. Let me explain.

Mrs. Wilkes was admired for her brand of southern hospitality at home and abroad. The food and travel writers Jane and Michael Stern described the home-style cooking they enjoyed there as “filling, not fancy, tantalizing, not trendy”–huge dishes of Boiled Rice with Hot Peppers, Homemade Spiced Pork Sausages with Brown Gravy, Southern Fried Chicken with Cornbread Dressing and Georgia Cane Syrup, Hoppin’ John, Fresh Okra with Tomatoes, Candied Yams with Raisins and Lemon, coleslaw, pickles, corn muffins and biscuits, and “an entirely outstanding Sweet Potato Pie.” A Brussels audience gave Mrs. Wilkes and her daughters a standing ovation for their Gone with the Wind dinner, the Savannah News-Press reported in 1986. The Japanese discovered Mrs. Wilkes three years later when Brunswick Stew and Savannah Red Rice took center stage at a special food fair called “Georgia on My Mind.” Condé Nast Traveler magazine named Mrs. Wilkes’s dining establishment, an icon of southern cooking, one of the fifty most distinguished restaurants in the United States.

Commingling in the kitchen built this empire, and it is the same cultural blending that melded European and African techniques with the indigenous ingredients of the Americas into something hallowed: southern cuisine. Scholars have described the synergy that took place in early American kitchens as “African grammar,” “wok presence,” and “creolization.” Chefs in the 1990s applied arts and music terminology to the rich exchange, giving it a label that stuck. They called it “fusion cuisine.”

In their Fusion Food Cookbook (1994), the chef Hugh Carpenter and the photographer Teri Sandison presented 150 recipes and more than 100 photographs of vividly flavored dishes so intricately woven it is hard to tell where one culture begins and another ends. The culinary historian Jessica Harris went a bold step further, declaring that creolized cooking predated fusion cuisine, in Beyond Gumbo: Creole Fusion Food from the Atlantic Rim (2003).

The fusion trend made it possible for African Americans to reclaim disrespected dishes in their own, unique way. The restaurant and catering chef Jeanette Holley, for example, wore her African American fusion sensibilities like a culinary badge of honor. Born to a Japanese mother and a black father, she built her reputation on the best of what each culture had to offer. Ginger and rum spiced sweet potato pie. Asian spices such as star anise, coriander, and Szechwan peppercorns dusted barbecued pork spareribs. In a 1994 article for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, she described it as a style in which “dishes borrowed parts from each other to develop a new language of their own.”

Other examples of this “great flavor revolution,” as Carpenter characterized it, sprang from the pages of black cookbooks published during the 1990s. As handcrafted, artisanal, and exotic ingredients became readily available in the marketplace, a coterie of authors wriggled free from the labels that had once tethered them to cabin cooking and the soul food of migrants. This was the decade when historians, chefs, church ladies, health agencies, vegetarians, musicians, barbecue pit masters, a magazine editor, a supermodel, and a former boxer adapted familial tastes to the latest trends for a broader readership. For them, blending different elements as an artistic, creative expression was a pleasure, making the Wilkes’s perspective seem all the more outdated.

The cookbook author Dori Sanders esteemed the old ways as new in a collection of fabulous country-cooking recipes adorned with endearing reminiscences from her family’s farm stand. Taking cues from the oral tradition of her ancestors, she proposed a return to the South, embraced community traditions and family values, and rejoiced in a heritage of seasonal eating that was neither homogenized nor mongrel–one that merged present-day appetites with the flavors of the farm. “Down home healthy” books embraced the low-fat and low-sodium ingredients popular among the health conscious in order to make cultural favorites like macaroni and cheese more wholesome. Soul food aficionados ensured permanency for their cookery with precise instructions that put fixed actions to inner culinary thoughts so that novices could throw down in the kitchen with a soul cook’s state of mind. I even joined in the reformation, coauthoring a cookbook that integrated essential elements of the black past with the classic techniques of schooled African American chefs.

The mainstream couldn’t help noticing. In a 1993 report, the New York Times food columnist Florence Fabricant observed the sophistication of African American fusion cooking. From interviews with black head chefs at fine restaurants in San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C., she determined that blacks were ascending to the top ranks of restaurants in nonracialized kitchens and were cooking culturally neutral food. Black cooks were still preparing the soul food and barbecue that epitomize cultural-heritage cooking, she wrote. Black chefs took cues from heritage cooking and from classical French dishes and techniques, such as blancmange and making good stock. “For hundreds of years there have been black cooks in America. Now there are also black chefs. In the past few years, more blacks have begun achieving prominence and recognition as professionals in fine restaurants, diversifying a field that was once almost exclusively white, male and, in the most prestigious restaurants, European,” she observed. “At the same time, this generation of chefs is also turning out food that tends to be colorblind.”

In that same year, a committee of food, wine, and restaurant experts partnered with the 100 Black Men of Sonoma County to honor the “talent, inspiration and accomplishments” of great chefs at a chic wine country dinner. Matanzas Creek Winery hosted “Celebrating America’s Top Black Chefs,” a fête that honored, among others, the author and restaurateur Leah Chase. In the following year, a young award-winning chef named Patrick Clark, who had been tickling palates in New York and Los Angeles with silky and seductive sauces and exotic vegetables such as fiddlehead ferns, joined the honorees.

I met Clark in 1990 while writing a story for the Los Angeles Times. Our paths crossed again when I wrote his profile for A Taste of Heritage: New African American Cuisine (2002). Sadly, he passed away suddenly while we were working on a cookbook proposal for his harmonization of haute and southern cuisines (Roasted Saddle of Rabbit, Wild Mushrooms and Parsnips, and Chilean Sea Bass with Zucchini, Chanterelles, and Curry Oil). Clark wanted to show the world the myriad ways his creative gait raced forward, but did so without treading on his African American past. The Patrick Clark Family Trust and the chef Charlie Trotter published Cooking with Patrick Clark: A Tribute to the Man and His Cuisine in 1999.

For the last twenty years, cultural culinary dignity has enriched black cookbooks with reasoning that riffs on the well-known philosophy of the great French food writer Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: “Tell me what you cook and I’ll tell you who you are.” Modern authors publish in a climate where fresh ingredients and innovative approaches appeal to new audiences, and at a time when nostalgia for old-fashioned practices looks smart and the color-blind are politically correct–a time when our collective palates think home-cooked anything tastes good again.

Society has once again found a common denominator in the soul foods of the South. Integrating black cultural foods into trendy restaurant menus is now chic. The foods that represent modern eating (local, organic, sustainably and ethically produced) are the victuals of yesterday’s poor with a newly hip personality. The nation’s young hot chefs have discovered greens, fried chicken, watermelon, and swine. Homemade pickled okra appears on menus. Pork belly and cheeks, pig tails and pig ear sandwiches, fascinate the uninitiated–so much so that trend watchers announced a tongue-in-cheek threat of a hog shortage: “aporkalypse.”

But the times are not yet postracial. Black female food industry workers are still disparaged. Celebrity chefs and prominent authors are mostly men.

In 2002, Texas A&M University’s student newspaper, the Battalion, published a political cartoon that resembled the kind of degrading Jim Crow–era imagery that appeared routinely on manufacturer’s labels and in advertising, magazines, and southern daily newspapers. Only worse. The illustration depicted a large black woman wearing an apron, holding a spatula, and chastising her son at test time. Testing is serious business for politicians, school districts, and parents in the Lone Star State. Evidently, black boys performed pretty poorly that year.

Neither the student, nor his or her editor, nor the journalism advisor questioned the suitability of using a bigoted turn-of-the-century image to portray a modern mother’s concern for her son’s poor academic performance. The black students did. They brought the lapse to the attention of school officials and, in the words of the newspaper’s faculty adviser, Ronald E. George, “commenced fax warfare alleging racism where there was none.”

In an op-ed commentary that ran in newspapers all over the state, George told of a particularly racist outburst that a Houston television reporter had made against African Americans (off camera) thirty-two years earlier. George’s point, in providing such a stark example of unmistakable prejudice, was to defend his editors, students, and their staffs against accusations of racism. He invoked the vulgar language and debasing images used by his colleague in hopes of making clear to readers that he understood the difference between “ignorance, bigotry and hate” and an “insensitive,” “unfortunate” mistake.

I’m not so sure.

It is true that we live in a society that values diversity, abhors “pulling the race card,” and promotes “no color line” policies, but the A&M cartoon experience says that even with redoubled efforts, our best and brightest technology-saturated children cannot see beyond Jemima’s narrow cliché. In the absence of a written history that defies–or at least counterbalances–the stereotype, the picture of an African American woman in our national mind’s eye still resembles an insensitive exaggeration. At least for some.

I know that we can not take back three hundred years of harsh words and pictures, but I 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.

Today, African Americans are just as likely to engage in catering, food service, and retail as we are to explore food writing, food studies, or food archaeology. Restaurant architecture and design intrigue us. Creative entrepreneurs develop hog maw shops, chitlin delivery services, and their own private labels of canned and packaged southern or soul food. African American “foodies” host wine dinners, book clubs, and couples classes. We spice up cocktail parties and health with diasporic dishes. We believe in sustainability and in knowing your farmer. We are importers of free-trade coffee and chocolate. We make wine.

The insightful Persian poet and theologian Rumi brought it all together this way: “Fresh, perfect fruit is the last thing to come into existence, but it is in fact the first, for it was the goal.”

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Toni Tipton-Martin

About Toni Tipton-Martin

Tipton-Martin is a culinary journalist and community activist, a coauthor of A Taste of Heritage: The New African American Cuisine, contributor to Culinaria: The United States, and editor of a new edition of The Blue Grass Cook Book by Minnie C. Fox. Her collection of over 300 African American cookbooks has been exhibited at the James Beard House, and she has twice been invited to the White House to participate in First Lady Michelle Obama’s programs to raise a healthier generation of kids. Tipton-Martin is a founding member of the Southern Foodways Alliance and Foodways Texas.

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