Toni Tipton-Martin tackles the 'Jemima Code'

kpurvis@charlotteobserver.comMarch 11, 2014 

Southern food expert Toni Tipton-Martin champions African-American women’s contribution to our country’s foodways.

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Toni Tipton-Martin finds hope for the future in the dusty pages of old cookbooks. A culinary journalist based in Austin, Texas, she’s built a project out of historic cookbooks and artifacts that relate to African-American women and food.

Tipton-Martin’s “The Jemima Code” includes a traveling exhibition, a blog and a book, due out in 2015, that focuses on 150 historic cookbooks.

A former president of the Southern Foodways Alliance and currently president of Foodways Texas, she answered five questions about “The Jemima Code,” Southern cooking and cookbook by an African-American author that she hopes is rediscovered.

Q: What’s the easiest way to explain “The Jemima Code”?

A: The Jemima Code project is to reclaim the wisdom, knowledge, skills and ability that African-American cooks demonstrated in their daily work lives. But it was obscured by the trademark image of a slave in a bandana.

Q: What do you think is the hardest part for people in discussing the issue of black and white cooks in Southern kitchens?

A: It’s difficult for us as Americans to face the ugliness of race relations … When I try to reclaim any part, it can feel like I am taking something away from their white counterparts. And that’s not the goal. I’m mostly asking for acknowledgment of their presence.

Q: Have you had any surprises in your research on Southern cooking?

A: One food surprise for me occurred at the Southern Foodways Symposium in a debate about putting sugar in your cornbread. Somebody was arguing that it’s a subtle sign you’re not Southern. But if you’re black and it doesn’t have sugar, it’s not cornbread.

Q: Is there one historic African-American cookbook you wish we could rediscover?

A: In 1912, a chef instructor at Hampton University in Washington wrote a textbook type of cookbook (”The Southern Cookbook,” by S. Thomas Bivins). It’s the basis from where I measure the knowledge of African-American cooks at the time. It shows they were educated. We’ve always been perceived as cooking by instinct, by voodoo magic. This book shows we learned like everyone else.”

Q: What’s the most fun you’ve had in the kitchen lately?

A: I encountered the most beautiful cauliflower at the grocery store. When I took it home, I was stripping off the leaves to throw them away and the Jemima Code spirit (make do and don’t waste) came over me. I cut the leaves into a chiffonade, sauteed them and made them into a Brazilian version of collard greens, couve.

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