Award-winning journalist Toni Tipton-Martin's new book, The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks, is a tome featuring the histories of more than 150 cookbooks written by black American women and men since the mid 1800s.
In it, Tipton-Martin expresses difficult bits of history with a grace that can be hard to muster for the rest of us who grapple with social injustices more combatively.
"Socially, that's what we do, is beat up on each other," she says. "We live in a blaming society. So I think people come to this topic naturally expected to feel something negative, whether that's guilt or shame."
Tipton-Martin wrote the book to "give a voice to women who didn't have a voice," she says. The women she honors in her book were all cooks hired or enslaved by white families. Historically, the public acknowledgement of such women was a fetishized version of a mammy stereotype, like Aunt Jemima, who was created in the 1880s in the style of blackface minstrel shows to sell pancakes and syrup.
Archival portraits of the women featured in The Jemima Code are currently on display at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Tipton-Martin will speak Thursday at a reception to close out the exhibit, and Friday at The Durham Hotel.
"There's something alluring about their presence," Tipton-Martin says about the women featured in her book and in the photographs.
While working as a reporter for the L.A. Times in the 1980s, Tipton-Martin began researching her familial Southern roots in cookbooks. She initially found that there weren't enough African-American women documented in ways that defied the misinformed tropes of unskilled workers void of culinary talent and creativity. Thousands of dollars, three decades, and countless auctions and online sales later, she's amassed a trove of more than 300 cookbooks, which sits in a bulletproof safe.
When she began the project, Tipton-Martin says she felt drawn to the women she encountered in her research in an intimate, spiritual way. One of the first women she learned of was Malinda Russell, a free woman of color who self-published A Domestic Cookbook in 1866 to fundraise a "return home" to Tennessee.
"I didn't have any intellectual information attached to them," Tipton-Martin says. "I just felt passionate about telling their stories and making sure they were properly identified in history. But the more I got to know them, I started to develop a relationship with them. The more time you spend with them, the more the relationship grows."
The Jemima Code weaves the life stories and artistry present in the cookbooks with historical facts, as well as assumptions, to prove even the simplest ideas (that black women wrote recipes using French terms for their highly skilled, self-taught techniques) to the more complex (that society has wrongly given credit to white women for directing black cooks in their kitchens).
It's not easy for people to reconcile with their privilege or to acknowledge a history of oppression. The author explains that people commonly attend her events "prepared to be insulted."
"There's an automatic reaction—even people who are young enough not to know the terrible association of Aunt Jemima and servitude.
"That doesn't just mean white people," she adds. "Black people are still trying to come to grips, which is evident in my audience. I'm not selling this book in a lot of black spaces, because the hurt there is very deep."
Tipton-Martin, instead, graciously calls people in rather than calling them out.
"What I really mean is that by acknowledging [these women], remembering them, and honoring them, it doesn't have to mean that you've been chastised for being cruel, selfish, ignorant of the facts, or ashamed."
With straight talk, Tipton-Martin still conveys the emotional importance of this sort of reconciliation at her events and in her book. For this, she and the women featured in it are perhaps uncracking the code for culinary recognition.
"What we've tapped into is a nurture that's been missing in all of us socially. The women took care of us through their cooking at their table. This book has given people permission to remember them."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Culinary Reconciliation"