Breaking ‘The Jemima Code:’ The role of African-American women in America’s food culture | St. Louis Public Radio

Breaking ‘The Jemima Code:’ The role of African-American women in America’s food culture

Nov 12, 2015

"The Jemima Code."
Credit University of Texas Press

Aunt Jemima is a contentious figure in African-American history. She is the namesake of the famous Missouri-born pancake mix and, also, a racial epithet akin to the similarly contentious "Uncle Tom." So why did author Toni Tipton-Martin, renowned culinary writer, name her anthologized collection of African-American cookbooks after her?

“The point of the code and the book for me as an African-American woman is to demystify the image of Aunt Jemima, not to tear it down,” Tipton-Martin told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh. “There have been calls for that, to completely disregard her. But as a food professional, it is more important to me that we reclaim the values that really did exist in these women and their lives.”

In fact, Tipton-Martin started her research with the Bible, where the name Jemima is used affectionately.

The cookbooks showcased in Tipton-Martin’s collection exhibit that African-American women have cooked creative masterpieces for centuries, sometimes with a small amount of supplies, and have been trailblazers in the realm of food business. The book is light on recipes, making the focus more completely on these women.

Listen as Tipton-Martin describes her project and the role of these women in the American culinary palate:

Toni Tipton-Martin
Credit University of Texas Press

“One of the things that became apparent to me early on in this project was the incredible memory that people who cannot read or write would have to practice in order to manage recipes in ‘the big house’ where they would be cooking with ingredients they don’t traditionally have access to. And then, going back to their meager existence in their slave village and producing food out of their ingenuity, their African history and working all of that together with foods they’d find in the natural environment.”

What makes African American cooking different? Nuanced spices, says Tipton-Martin. Salt is another component, she said, which is undergoing some revision now.

“Some of what we need to transition people out of is just because grandmother made it that way, because of the ingredients she was working with, we no longer have to do that,” Tipton-Martin said. “Food can stand on its own.”

While Tipton-Martin wants to get away from the “intuitive” argument for African-American cooks for the most part, she also says that the process of food-making has lost an important part of that intuition in the kitchen.

"To cook for someone is an expression of love for them. We've completely lost that in today's day and age."

“To cook for someone is an expression of love for them,” Tipton-Martin said. “We’ve completely lost that in today’s day and age. We’ve turned cooking into slaving in the kitchen. It is hard work, you have to go to the grocery store and make sure it is already pre-prepped for you, you just want to get it on the table quick. There’s a therapeutic release when you’re cooking and chopping and those aromas are coming up off the cutting board and smelling the changes in the beef as it becomes more and more done in the sautéing process. We’ve completely lost touch with that intuitive part of cooking.”

Related Event

What: Left Bank Books presents Toni Tipton-Martin: The Jemima Code

When: Thursday, Nov. 12 at 7:00 p.m.

Where: Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid Ave., Saint Louis, MO 63108

More information.

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.