Toni Tipton-Martin finds hope for the future in the dusty pages of old cookbooks. A culinary journalist based in Austin, Texas, shes built a project out of historic cookbooks and artifacts that relate to African-American women and food.
Tipton-Martins 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, shell be in Charlotte next week for two talks. We asked her five questions. Kathleen Purvis
Q: Whats 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: Its 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 thats not the goal. Im 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 its a subtle sign youre not Southern. But if youre black and it doesnt have sugar, its 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). Its the basis from where I measure the knowledge of African-American cooks at the time. It shows they were educated. Weve always been perceived as cooking by instinct, by voodoo magic. This book shows we learned like everyone else.
Q: Whats the most fun youve 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 dont 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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