When journalist and activist Toni Tipton-Martin amassed close to 400 cookbooks chronicling a culinary history of otherwise forgotten and overlooked African American cooks, chefs and culinary creators, she chronicled her findings into a massive creative project — a well-read and well-received book later known as “The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks.”
And now, with the success of that book, and a 2016 James Beard Award later, Tipton-Martin returns with “Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking” (Clarkson Potter, $35), released Nov. 5.
Her latest work is less of a continuance of what she laid out in “The Jemima Code” and more a bridge, a pathway even, to understanding the complexities and grand diversity that is often not underscored when talking about African American food and those who cook it.
“At its core, African American cuisine reflects the blending of two distinct culinary styles,” she writes. “One was crafted by ingenious and industrious field hands in the slave cabin, from meager ingredients, informed by African techniques. The other signifies the lavish cooking — in the plantation kitchen or in kitchens staffed or owned by people educated formally and informally in culinary arts.”
Tipton-Martin, originally from Southern California, writes at length about her frustration she has seen both in popular culture and food media with chiefly “soul food” attributed to black people as the solitary marker of culinary prowess.
But her upbringing and research per her extensive book collection suggests otherwise. This was something she wanted to catalog and showcase. What results is an assemblage of recipes hailing from all over the country and a variety of cultural influences from the greater African Diaspora.
For instance, there are the crispy crackers dotted with sesame seeds, known as benne wafers popularized via the Sea Islands in South Carolina, bite-size curried meat pies per those of Caribbean and African descent, Creole cafe au lait and a smattering of breads — biscuits, cornbread, sweet potato rolls, cinnamon rolls. Each of the recipes represents a cultural touchstone with clear historical roots and ties.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
To anchor the structure of her cookbook, Tipton-Martin drew inspiration from a drafted book proposal entitled “Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of U.S. History.” Arturo Schomburg, for whom the prestigious Schomburg Center for Black Culture in New York was named, in recognition of his scholarship, penned the proposal for the never completed book.
The anatomy of Tipton-Martin’s cookbook weaves through one that might be familiar to anyone who has had to conceptualize a meal from beginning to end — light bites or appetizers to whet one’s appetite, hot or cold drinks with alcohol or sans; soups and salads, main entrees; meat, seafood and sweet treats to wrap up the meal.
Schomburg’s outline and recipes from Tipton-Martin’s collection of rare African American cookbooks dating back as far as 1827 also informed a crucial aspect present alongside many of the recipes: sidebars. These tangential explanations provide needed context to recipes in their original form, recipes that have in many cases been updated and translated for modernity’s sake.
The lasting impression any reader will take away from Tipton-Martin’s cookbook, one that easily could be seen as a vast ethnographic resource instead of merely a collection of recipes, is that the true breadth of African American culinary history is more boundless than it appears on the surface.
It is more than the relied upon and easily accessible pot of greens seasoned with ham hock or smoked turkey and bubbly macaroni and cheese, which are both essential in their own right and represent something ephemeral for many families. To limit that definition, however, according to Tipton-Martin, is to discount a swath of people and silence their stories, visions, legacies and culinary strides and triumphs.
There are also endless routes to paying homage to the black contributions to the culinary world and there are countless echoes of past heroes to look to for the gifts they offered up. According to Tipton-Martin, we should rest our gaze on these men and women, widen our hearts to imagine what it means to cook and be beyond what we already know and assume. And how being African American is a part of that in indelible, undeniable ways.