New volume features two centuries of African-American cookbooks

Toni Tipton Martin is the author of The Jemima Code. (Provided)

Bucking a centuries-old convention of attributing black cooks’ recipes to their white female employers, Bibby Tate and Ethel Dixon labeled every recipe in their 1988 cookbook to reflect the race of its creator. A “W” appeared alongside recipes such as creamed chicken on toast and quiche Lorraine, while hoecakes and crackling bread were marked “B.”

Sometimes, the authors – a white hostess and black artist – included “W” and “B” versions of the same dish: “B” tea cakes are made with lard, soda and buttermilk instead of butter, baking powder and milk.

“Colorful Louisiana Cuisine” is perhaps the most blatant attempt at puzzling out a definition of African-American cuisine featured in “The Jemima Code,” Toni Tipton-Martin’s new compendium of 160 black cookbooks. But almost every book in the volume grapples with what it means to be a thoughtful, practiced and disciplined cook in the face of the racist myth that every black woman is a naturally gifted cook, eager to don a do-rag and fry a down-home supper.

“The Jemima Code” is the culmination of a massive collecting project that Tipton-Martin embarked upon years ago as a food writer at The Los Angeles Times, where she found a copy of Lena Richard’s New Orleans CookBook in a giveaway pile. Her aim was to uncover and celebrate the individuality of the black home cooks and professional chefs whose lives had been obscured by stereotyping, as well as establish a culinary heritage that includes squash blossom omelets, tamale pie and brandied kidney beans.

Surely Tipton-Martin is as frustrated as the reader by the shallowness of some of the backstories in the book, which is structured much like an auction catalog. “Bessie Gant didn’t leave a preface, introduction, or headnotes to tell us where she was born or what motivated her to cook,” Tipton-Martin writes of Bess Gant’s Cook Book, published in 1947. Even though her catering work apparently brought her into close contact with Katharine Hepburn and Carmen Miranda, “We learn nothing about the kitchen where she must have worked.” Each capsule description is a graduate thesis waiting to be written.

But what “The Jemima Code” lacks in history and biography, it makes up for in philosophy. Many of these books haven’t much been seen outside of the state where they were published, or in the years since they appeared, let alone in each other’s company. Tipton-Martin’s affectionate compilation presents an unprecedented opportunity to track the evolution of black cooking in America.

Actually, forget evolution: It’s enough of a contribution to food scholarship that “The Jemima Code” certifies its existence. As South Carolinian Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor pointed out in 1970’s “Vibration Cooking of TheTravel Notes of a Geechee Girl,” white cookbook authors “very casually say Spanish rice, French fries, Italian spaghetti, Chinese cabbage, Mexican beans, Swedish meatballs, Danish pastry, English muffins and Swiss cheese. With the exception of black bottom pie and niggertoes, there is no reference to black people’s contribution to the culinary arts.” It’s rare to hear a white eater exclaim, “oh, I love black food!,” or “Let’s get black food tonight.”

If anything, there’s talk of soul food, a concept which has informed African-American cookbooks since the 1960s. Soul food has acquired unhealthy connotations in popular culture, but Tipton-Martin demonstrates through a series of cookbook vignettes that it has much to do with intelligent improvisation and emotional investment.

“Courage, fervor, and action convey the feelings of cooking soul,” Mahalia Jackson wrote in her 1970 cookbook (One of “The Jemima Code”’s secondary rewards are the cookbooks from African-Americans better known for their achievements in other realms, such as Pearl Bailey and Bobby Seale.) “These are the essentials of cooking soul, the recipes of black folks the world over.”

“The Jemima Code” is published by University of Texas Press. It retails for $45.