How This Writer Is Pulling Back the Curtain on Food and Race

Toni Tipton-Martin (Photo: Jonathan Garza)

“I like to say that food writing pursued me,” says author, educator, and activist Toni Tipton-Martin. And when you consider the incredible work Tipton-Martin has accomplished since somewhat accidentally becoming a food writer, it certainly seems like there was some destiny involved. Destiny and a lot of hard work.

Tipton-Martin originally wanted to cover hard news, but she got her start writing about food for a weekly paper in Los Angeles, and that job set the course for the rest of her career. Within two years, Tipton-Martin landed in the food department at the Los Angeles Times, and by 1991, she was the food editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, making her the first African-American woman to hold that position at a major daily newspaper.

“It wasn’t all happenstance,” notes Tipton-Martin. “I always took it very seriously.” Despite pretty meager responsibilities at the weekly paper, Tipton-Martin was ambitious and pursued small but interesting stories, such as an interview with Wally Amos of Famous Amos cookies. Later, when assigned to the nutrition beat at the Times, Tipton-Martin took night classes in physiology and nutrition, not because it was required but so she’d be more competent in what she was writing about.

Along the way, Tipton-Martin became increasingly interested in the history of female African-American cooks and perhaps, more important, how they’re perceived both inside and outside the African-American community. She started collecting cookbooks by African-Americans and eventually amassed nearly 300 titles, with the oldest dating back to 1827. But this was no ordinary cookbook collection. These books told a story, one in which African-American female cooks played a defining role in American culinary history. It’s a fascinating, important, and mostly untold story, and it was up to Tipton-Martin to get the word out.

In 2009, Tipton-Martin started The Jemima Code, a blog in which she could use her cookbook collection to shine a light on the true history of African-American female cooks. Not only were these women uncredited — depending on the timeline, their white owners or employers typically got credit for their recipes — but they were often completely misrepresented in society. Rather than being seen as intelligent, skilled, capable, and creative, African-American female cooks were perceived as “passive and ignorant laborers incapable of creative culinary artistry” and “by virtue of their race and gender … simply born with good kitchen instincts.”

The process by which this happened is what Tipton-Martin calls the Jemima Code, a nod to the confusing and inaccurate messaging of the Aunt Jemima syrup advertising campaign. While the image and branding of Aunt Jemima enforces the notion that African-American women belong in a subservient, domestic role, Tipton-Martin sees potential for it have a more positive impact. On the Jemima Code website, she writes: “I prefer to think of the trademark as an affirming reminder of the women who worked outside of their homes, not just doing the cooking, cleaning, and caring for families, but doing so with the grace and skill of professionals — marketing shorthand for “greatness and perfection” as in “if you want perfect pancakes, buy yourself some Aunt Jemima products.”

The cover of The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks by Toni Tipton-Martin. (University of Texas Press)

Along with her blog, Tipton-Martin created a touring photography exhibition based on her cookbook collection, and last year, she published The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks (University of Texas Press). The book presents and examines more than 150 cookbooks in an effort to reveal the true reality of African-American female cooks, but it’s also part of Tipton-Martin’s larger goals, which involve communicating the truth of the African-American experience and using that truth as a source of inspiration and empowerment within the community. 

Tipton-Martin pursues these goals simultaneously through her nonprofit, the SANDE Youth Project, an Austin, Texas-based outreach organization that promotes the connection between cultural heritage, cooking, and wellness. The main goal, explains Tipton-Martin, “is empowerment, whether that’s empowering young people toward economic opportunity, empowering people to take better care of their health, or empowering the community to embrace more tolerance of one another.”

One of SANDE’s signature events is Soul Summit, and Tipton-Martin is excited to announce that this year’s event will focus on children and take place in the middle of July, as part of a summer camp program at Austin’s George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center. In addition to cooking and other food activities, Tipton-Martin plans to have the kids create a cookbook.

“If we send them into their neighborhoods or to their families and they come back with a recipe, then it teaches them about interviewing, it teaches them about attentive listening, it teaches them about writing,” says Tipton-Martin. “It will teach them math and science, because they’ll be dealing with the recipes, so I think that’s going to be a really wonderful culmination project.”

In her limited spare time, Tipton-Martin is working on yet another ambitious project, The Joy of African American Cooking, which will be published by Rizzoli later this year or in 2017. It’s a massive 500-recipe cookbook and features modernized versions of dishes from The Jemima Code. Modernizing the recipes isn’t about making them trendy or chef-y, notes Tipton-Martin. It’s about making them accessible to a contemporary audience, which is yet another way to help set the record straight on the crucial role of African-American female cooks in American culinary history.

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