‘The Jemima Code’ explores African-American history through cookbooks

Even if you weren’t born in this country, you can probably imagine Aunt Jemima.

Thanks to the still-popular brand of pancakes, the image of a smiling black woman with a head wrap will come to mind.

Like Uncle Ben, whose image also continues to grace grocery store shelves, she’s warm and kind. She evokes loyalty and dependability. In past eras of domestic servitude, she would have been considered an ideal worker in any home.

Since we don’t live in such an era, we’ll just keep her pancake mix handy in the pantry, for those mornings we can’t quite conjure the same self-taught mastery in the kitchen that advertising executives in the 1880s knew she represents.

It’s baffling that these products still bear such archaic images, but there’s a powerful code at work here, one that Toni Tipton-Martin is determined to dismantle using a very specific course of study: African-American cookbooks.

Tipton-Martin, who now splits her time between Austin and Denver, has one of the largest collections of African-American cookbooks in the country. How many books is that? Just more than 300.

You probably have someone on your block who has 300 cookbooks, but the fact that there are so few African-American cookbooks is only the first unsettling insight you’ll discover in Tipton-Martin’s new book, “The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks,” ($45) which was published last week by the University of Texas Press.

Tipton-Martin will speak about the book at 7 p.m. Thursday at BookPeople and next month at the Texas Book Festival.

After Tipton-Martin started collecting the books more seriously, including buying some on eBay for $400 or more, she crafted a proposal for a book and hired an agent. The proposal was rejected again and again, so she started posting to thejemimacode.com. Immediately, the name of the site caused readers to ask what was so harmful about such a seemingly benign fictional character.

“The Jemima Code implies that, by virtue of their race and gender, black women are simply born with good kitchen instincts and are passive, ignorant laborers incapable of creative culinary artistry,” Tipton-Martin says. The caricature communicates that she is illiterate and lacks formal education. She’s asexual enough to foreclose any wayward thoughts among the men of the house and stern enough to control the children without threatening them.

“She was the dominant white majority’s response to the prospect of black parity — or even superiority — in the kitchen,” wrote the late John Egerton, a founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance and a mentor for Tipton-Martin, in a forward to the book. “As black women grew more self-assured and instrumental in the culinary arts of the post-bellum South, their white mistresses and masters had to find an explanation for this anomaly; in a culture that considered all blacks to be inferior, there was no room for exceptional intelligence and skills.”

The introductory essays from Egerton and culinary historian Barbara Haber set the stage for Tipton-Martin to dive straight into her collection. For four years, she researched the books she had gathered, gleaning as much information as she could about the authors and contributing cooks and putting them in context with one another and what was happening around the country at the time.

The chapters are divided chronologically, starting with “The House Servant’s Directory,” the first African-American cookbook, published in 1827 by a man named Robert Roberts, and the next, Tunis Campbell’s “Hotel Keepers, Head Waiters, and Housekeepers’ Guide,” which didn’t appear until 20 years later.

Even though black women were in charge of mid- to upper-class kitchens and housekeeping in both the South and the North for much of the 1800s, many books on these subjects were written by whites. Black women were included in these books, not as contributors or valued sources of information but as something for which a reader needed instructions to know how to manage. In effect, they were no more important than the very recipes they created.

It isn’t until the early 1900s, the “Surviving Mammyism” era, as Tipton-Martin categorizes it, that all cookbooks — including the ones in her collection — start to reflect the scientific-based kitchen knowledge shared in cooking schools, kitchen laboratories, clubs and burgeoning food media at the time.

Several textbooks written in the 1910s and 1920s by African-Americans for African-Americans encourage sensibility without sentimentality. In the decades that followed, as blacks moved around the country and endured not only the Depression and World War II but the growing racial tension leading up to the civil rights movement, cookbooks contained more “trophy-like portraits of antebellum characters.” While blacks still ran many kitchens in the South, white authors published countless cookbooks appropriating their dishes and marginalized their contribution to food that all Americans ate, not just African-Americans.

However, blacks were slowly starting to gain more credibility. Take Lena Richard, who self-published a cookbook on Creole cooking in 1939. At the encouragement of James Beard and Clementine Paddleford, who read her first edition and loved it, the book was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1940. In 1947, Richard went on to have a weekly television cooking show in New Orleans nearly two decades before Julia Child went on the air.

During the violent, tumultuous years between 1951 and 1970, a new kind of cook — and cookbook — emerges: the activist cook that fed, quite literally, the civil rights movement. All the people who participated in meetings, marches, sit-ins and freedom rides had to eat — and many talented cooks raised money to support these efforts by selling food and baked goods. “The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro,” published in 1958, was a community cookbook from the members of the National Council of Negro Women and was notable because it was among the first that encouraged the notion of black pride. During the 1960s, that pride — in music, dance and cuisine — evolved and got a new name: soul.

Tipton-Martin examines a dozen books from the late 1960s with “soul” in their title, and they share a sense of celebration of black foodways that was hard to find in books up to this point. We start to see a discussion of “soul” versus “Southern” foods in books like Bob Jeffries’ “Soul Food Cook Book” in 1969. That same year, the editors of Tuesday magazine, which was circulated as an insert in the Sunday edition of dozens of newspapers, published “Soul Food Cookbook,” notable for its precision and detail used in the recipes.

Sandy Lesberg wrote “The Art of African Cooking” in 1971 without making the connection between African food and soul food.

In the 1970s, Edna Lewis, Ruth Jackson and sisters Norma Jean and Carole Darden charmed readers with family stories and recipes that were growing sweeter with nostalgia as the hardest years of the civil rights movement started to fade. A 1978 book called “Creole Feast” was the rare chef book that focused on the technical skills and savvy of the black cooks behind some of the most acclaimed New Orleans restaurants.

A number of books in “The Jemima Code” are not written by blacks but were sold as such. In the overview of “Aunt Priscilla in the Kitchen,” published in 1929, we learn that one of the Baltimore Sun’s most distinguished male writers was the author of a column by “Aunt Priscilla, herself.” He wrote the daily column using slave dialect and subservient tone.

One Austin book is featured in the collection. “Stories and Tales of Green Pastures” is a 20-page booklet from Austinite Mitchell Mays, who was a waiter and then maitre d’ at the legendary restaurant in South Austin. Mays’ wife, Marie, was one of the cooks. In 1972, he gathered recipes and stories of entertaining guests in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Mays’ contribution to the African-American cookbook canon might seem small, but it’s another voice in a conversation that has left out some of the most influential people in American cuisine. By examining the books that exist, Tipton-Martin says we can find “culinary truths and whispered wisdom that substantiate a heritage of greatness, exemplify culinary freedom for black cooks, and allow everyone to embrace Jemima’s bandana” — even the author herself.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Barbara Haber.

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