Between the founding of the United States and the year 2000, only 200 or so recipe collections published in America bore the names of black authors. Before the 20th century, there were only four. This, despite the fact that an overwhelming number of professional cooks in American history have been black. Especially in the South, middle and upper class households left the cooking to slave women, and later, black domestic servants.
The Jemima Code honors the culinary contributions of those often overlooked and disparaged chefs, highlighting 200 African American chefs and more than 150 cookbooks, most rare and out of print. Author Toni Tipton-Martin spent a decade researching the role of African American cooks in food writing, and many of the books featured come from her extensive personal collection.
Tipton-Martin’s research traces the African influences intertwined in Southern cooking, as well as the cultural impact of racist stereotypes of black cooks as simple and untaught, working solely by some innate instinct. In it, Tipton-Martin writes: “Throughout the twentieth century, the Aunt Jemima advertising trademark and the mythical mammy figure in southern literature provided a shorthand translation for a subtle message that went something like this: ‘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.’” The cookbooks presented in The Jemima Code reveal a more complex picture of African American culinary professionals and their techniques and recipes across two centuries.
Here are just some of the recipes and cookbooks featured, which date from the early 19th century into the late 1980s.
This one instructed readers on how to run a 19th century New England home:
The House Servant’s Directory, Robert Roberts, Boston: Munroe and Francis, 1827; New York, Charles S. Francis, 1827. Facsimile edition, Waltham, Massachusetts; Gore Place Society, 1977
Malinda Russell's A Domestic Cook Book is thought to be the first complete African American cookbook.
From Domestic Cook Book (1866, top photo above)
All the recipes in this manufacturer’s cookbook were made with sorghum syrup, an inexpensive sugar substitute popular during the Great Depression:
The Farmer Jones Cook Book. Issued by Fort Scott Sorghum Syrup Company, Kansas, 1914
According to the foreword, Aunt Caroline was a "Dear Old Southern Mammy" who this cookbook's editor grew up with.
Aunt Caroline’s Dixieland Recipes: A Rare Collection of Choice Dishes. Compiled by Emma and William McKinney, Chicago: Laird and Lee, 1922
This 1927 volume is a collection of 450 recipes credited to Sallie Miller, the childhood cook of the book’s editor. It’s rare in that the recipes are credited to Miller, rather than claimed as “family history” by a member of a plantation family.
Mammy’s Cook Book, Katharin Bell, 1927
Though this book's cover makes it look like it might be full of simplistic, stereotypical recipes, “the publisher’s preface acclaims [author Lessie] Bowers as a trained professional whose book was the result of ‘long practical experience, a lively curiosity, and a real love for cookery,’ adding ‘The gourmet will find innumerable suggestions to spur her (or him) on,’” Tipton-Martin writes.
Plantation Recipes, Lessie Bowers, New York: Speller and Sons, 1959
Soul food cookbooks arose in the late ‘60s. Author Bob Jeffries explains in this cookbook that “the word soul, when applied to food, means only those foods that Negroes grew up eating in their own homes; food that was cooked with care and love—with soul—by and for themselves, their families, and friends.”
Soul Food Cookbook,. Bob Jeffries, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969
All images from The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks (University of Texas Press, 2015), courtesy of Toni Tipton-Martin.