Soul food

Breaking the Jemima Code, one recipe at a time

Toni Tipton-Martin has amassed a collection of over 300 rare cookbooks that show the rich legacy of African American cooks in American cuisine.

For over a century, Aunt Jemima has served as an iconic image of the African-American cook. Walk into any grocery store, and you’re sure to find her grinning broadly from a shelf in the baked goods aisle. She’s more than an advertising trademark. Her caricature has perpetuated harmful stereotypes about African-American cooking: that it’s purely instinctual and lacks artistry, and that African-American cooks were historically little more than ignorant laborers. Due in part to this “Jemima code,” the contributions of African-American women who did much of the cooking in early American kitchens have been marked as insignificant. Their influence on Southern cooking and culture has been diminished, if not erased.

Working to dismantle that “code” is food journalist and author Toni Tipton-Martin, who set out to find the African-American cooks who had been written out of history, and amassed a collection of over 300 recipe books. From that extensive search, her new book The Jemima Code was born.

The book showcases a collection of over 150 cookbooks by African-American cooks, chefs, and authors. “The project affirmed for me what I had observed in my own community, which was that these women were intelligent, and learned on the job the way that chefs do,” said Tipton-Martin in a phone interview with Women in the World. “I was looking for a way to prove what I knew from experience and, along the way, cookbooks emerged as a solution.”

Toni Tipton-Martin. (Naomi Logan Richard/White Glove Photos)

The cookbooks featured in The Jemima Code exemplify a richness and diversity of African-American cooking and food knowledge far beyond traditional “soul” food. There are home remedies and shopping tips, as well as precise information about agriculture and food science. Recipes call for fresh farm-to-table ingredients and whole grains. “They built their knowledge using a great diversity of food,” said Tipton-Martin. “That isn’t to say that the ‘soul’ food created under poverty conditions isn’t worth recognizing, preserving, and honoring, but it doesn’t represent the total African-American cooking experience.”

The cookbooks also help illustrate the sophistication and expertise that African-American women brought to the kitchens in which they worked. “We honor and celebrate celebrity chefs today for the food they cook at work, not the food they’re cooking in their homes,” she said, “but the idea has been that what African-Americans cooked at work was just ‘what we cooked for white people’.”

The recent account of celebrity chef Paula Deen’s longtime cook, Dora Charles, is a stark reminder of the complicated relationship between white chefs and their African-American employees in the South. Charles went public with details about her work in Paula Deen’s kitchen after racial discrimination charges, which were eventually dismissed, were brought against Deen. Charles has recently published her own cookbook, “A Real Southern Cook: In Her Savannah Kitchen.”

Tipton-Martin emphasized that the “Jemima” stereotype is detrimental for all cooks, regardless of race, because it diminishes the artistry of African-American cooking. “When they decided to segregate black from white Southern cooking, black people got stuck with the laborious side of it,” she said. “Terms like ‘slaving in the kitchen’ keep people from going into the kitchen and learning how to cook. We lost the idea that it’s creative. The whole element of culinary art gets lost when you pigeonhole the work of the enslaved as only labor.”

Toni Tipton-Martin hopes her new book will encourage open communication about race and food culture.

Tipton-Martin’s mission to dismantle the “Jemima code” mythology involved more than her re-writing of African-American culinary history. Before its recent manifestation as a book, The Jemima Code was a traveling exhibition that allowed Tipton-Martin to gain an up-close look at race relations across the country. “I started to notice in the Q&A period, that some people weren’t comfortable talking, but they would come talk to me afterwards,” Tipton-Martin said. “People wanted to share with me that they’ve had these amazingly intimate relationships with African-Americans that had raised them in ways that their own parents hadn’t. They just wanted me to know where their love was.”

Through The Jemima Code, Tipton-Martin’s mission is to encourage open communication about race and food culture. “This is a way for people to embrace those women that were intentionally left out of history and degraded in order to elevate another group of people. So, my hope is a lot bigger than an impact just on African-Americans. I think it liberates us all,” she said. “The Jemima Code has helped me see just how deeply troubled we all are about race relations in this country. A lot of this noise we are hearing is generations of the same frustration, sometimes based on just one encounter with somebody. So my hope is that if you can find one person in this book, of the 200 that are in there, that resonates with you, maybe we can begin to break down those barriers, one at a time, in the same way they went up, one experience at a time.”

The Jemima Code is available here. For more information on The Jemima Code project, visit the website


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