04 December 2015

The Jemima Code

I love Toni Tipton-Martin. She is a kindred soul, a cookbook collector.  I read that she keeps many of her cookbooks in a gun safe! A true collector would appreciate such care. Frankly, more gun safes should be stuffed with cookbooks...but I digress.

If you are a cookbook collector, and if you collect a lot of old Southern cookbooks, there is one thing that often stands out in older books. The "author" of said cookbook would thank her own cook. Why? Well generally, because the recipes came from the cook, not the author. News flash...if you watch someone make cornbread, ask questions, then write down the recipe, it is not your recipe, it is your transcription.

Toni Tipton-Martin has amassed a huge collection of cookbooks by African American authors. She has made it a calling to highlight the accomplishments of theses often overlooked culinary pioneers.  In The Jemima Code, she highlights many of the books from her collection. While there are several recipes, the book is more of a history than an actual cookbook. Her cookbook is forthcoming! To understand the hypothesis of this book, the best description comes from the author, herself:

"Black codes once defined legal place for former slaves. Historically, the Jemima code was an arrangement of words and images synchronized to classify the character and life’s work of our nation’s black cooks as insignificant. The encoded message assumes that black chefs, cooks and cookbook authors — by virtue of their race and gender — are simply born with good kitchen instincts. It diminishes the knowledge, skills and abilities involved in their work and portrays them as passive and ignorant laborers incapable of creative culinary artistry.

Throughout the 20th century, the Aunt Jemima advertising trademark and the mythical mammy figure in Southern literature provided a shorthand translation for a subtle message: “If slaves can cook, you can, too,” or “Buy this flour and you’ll cook with the same black magic that Jemima put into her pancakes.” In short: a sham."
Here is a simple recipe from Katharin Bell's Mammy.  In the self-published text from 1927, Bell fully credits her cook, Sallie Miller. Bell can see that there is great genius in Miller's recipes and approaches them in a reverent manner.  As one often sees in early Twentieth century cookbooks, the instructions are a bit sketchy.

Shrimp and Tomato Salad

Chop shrimps and tomatoes together with a little celery and mayonnaise and serve on lettuce leaves.

Basically, this is exactly how I make shrimp salad, with the addition of scallions!  Does one need more.

If you care about food, Southern food, history, or cookbooks, Toni Tipton-Martin's The Jemima Code is a must have.


I know we all love online shopping and it has its advantages. When I ordered The Jemima Code, I rather expected a regular, lackluster, university press book.  I was surprised!  It is big, beautiful, and wonderful.  Now, I would have purchased this book no matter what.  But coming across this book in an actual store, seeing it, picking it up, flipping through it...this act holds the potential to sell more books that simply seeing its flat image on a cell phone screen. Bookstores DO matter.

The second thing is purely personal.  Screw you Toni Tipton-Martin!  It is hard enough to locate these books as it is.  Now you just made everyone want to find these old gems and the prices are going to out of control, and I am never going to find reasonable copies of books I have been looking for forever. But I forgive you....


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