The Jemima Code

November 26, 2009 at 1:45 am, by

VERA BECK: GRACE AND CORNBREAD

By the time I was 30 years old, I could count my Southern life experiences on one hand. When you grow up in a tiny family in Los Angeles, sheltered by expatriates who left skid-marks when they quit the South, it is easy to believe that your family drama does not play east of the San Bernardino Valley. As children of the civil rights era, we lived in exile – sheltered from the narrow perspective of Negro subservience and proper place, liberated from the burden of low-class living. My parents built new and improved lives in the sands of the Pacific.

Not that the social, cultural, or culinary dimensions of Southern living were unrecognizable out West. Sweet tea and fresh-squeezed lemonade washed down Aunt Jewel’s crisp fried chicken, smoked pork bones seasoned Nannie’s Sunday greens, and Mother always baked her cornbread in a big, black cast iron skillet. But that was just dinner; everybody we knew in the middle class community of Baldwin Hills ate that.

I didn’t care all that much for pork ribs and became easily nauseated by the potent smell of chitlins that blasted through the air like a dragon’s fiery breath every time our neighbors from Tennessee opened their front door. Perhaps the most arresting evidence of my Western upbringing was my unapologetic admission that I sprinkled sugar on my grits.

As far as I could tell, precious few of my culinary notions qualified as Southern banners, and it was entirely possible that I would stumble blindly through the rest of my life without ever discovering the Aunt Jemima spirit living in me, if it hadn’t been for Vera Beck.

Vera resembled one of those African American matriarchs who once upon a time were thought of as saints – a woman in her twilight years whose culinary expressiveness was like a gift she bestowed upon the people she loved.

Whenever I think of her – and it’s often – I see a proud, generous, loving, tenderhearted, talented, exceptional cook. She made the best cornbread, chow chow, fried green tomatoes, and Mississippi mud cake I ever ate. And, although she earned her living as my test kitchen cook at one of the few major daily newspapers that dared to preserve the tradition, she was self taught and followed recipes handed down by word of mouth through generations of rural Alabama cooks.

Hers was a tradition that was less instinct and more five senses, but skill nonetheless; one that earned respect from the likes of well-known American cooking authority James Beard, and one that has all but disappeared among contemporary cooks.

As I got to know Vera better, she forced me to circle back and confront the peculiarity Virginia Woolf described as contrary instincts. I thought I was contented – a thirty-something food editor living far away from home on the eastern shore of Lake Erie, enjoying amazing and exotic world cuisine – the daughter of a health-conscious, fitness-crazed cook whose experiments with tofu, juicing and smoothies predated the fads.

In the few short years we had together at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Vera taught me a few life lessons while showing me the way to light and flaky buttermilk biscuits.

She confirmed what I already had begun to fret about: that growing up as I did – outside the counsel of competent cooks who dispensed first-hand kitchen wisdom the way they apportioned hunks of ham to their children from bubbling pots of collard greens – made me an unfortunate casualty of the cruel social conditioning I call the Jemima Code.

While it is correct that black women did much of the cooking in early American kitchens, it is also true that they did so with the grace and skill of today’s trained professionals, transmitting their astonishing craft orally, from generation to generation.

When we consider the work accomplished by Vera Beck and generations of obscure cooks just like her, we should see a nearly extinct breed that honed their kitchen skills the way culinary students do today: by observation and apprenticeship. They expressed both art and skill when they cooked. They made do, certainly, but they also seasoned our lives and made our existence pleasurable – even under the most adverse circumstances. They cooked our meals from scratch, sewed our clothes, salved our wounds, nurtured our spirits, and imparted wisdom over a steaming plate of nourishment – and they did so while miraculously maintaining jobs outside their homes.

So, how is it that these are not the predominant images of African American cooks? Why don’t we celebrate their contributions to American culture the way we venerate the imaginary Betty Crocker? Why wasn’t their true legacy preserved? Can we ever forget the images of ignorant, submissive, selfless, sassy, asexual, despots? Is it possible to replace the mostly unflattering pictures of generous waistlines bent over cast iron skillets burned into our eyes? Will we ever believe that strong African women, who toted wood and built fires before even thinking about beating biscuit dough or mixing cakes, left us more than just their formulas for good pancakes?

I hope so.

In Her Kitchen

Cornbread with Cheese and Chiles

Ingredients

  • 2 cups yellow cornmeal
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 (14.75-ounce) can cream-style corn
  • 1 (4-ounce) can diced green chiles, drained
  • 1/4 cup chopped green onion
  • 1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

Instructions

In a large mixing bowl, combine cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, soda and salt. Mix well. Melt the shortening in an 8-inch cast iron skillet. Pour shortening, buttermilk and egg into the dry ingredients and mix with a wooden spoon until just moist. Stir in the corn, chiles and green onion and pour half the batter into the hot skillet. Sprinkle with cheese. Top with remaining batter. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven 30 minutes or until done.

Recipe and photograph courtesy of The Plain Dealer, 1978.

In Her Kitchen
  1. Joe Crea    December 9, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    Toni — What a thoughtful, beautifully crafted piece. Sincere compliments. Quiet as she was, I remember Vera as an elegant lady with an ardent spirit. The shot of her with Mr. Beard is itself a treasure. Hope this finds you, Bruce and the brood all doing well in this New Age…
    > really well.

  2. Toni Tipton Martin    December 10, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    Thanks, Joe. I hope this little homage brings back wonderful memories to everyone she touched.

  3. Kim Malone Bobb    June 11, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    Vera Mae Beck (or “Tee-Tee”, as we called her) was my aunt. This article brings back wonderful memories of the food she cooked with love for us on our annual trips down south. Whether it was the fluffy biscuits she made from scratch each morning, the fish she fried after we caught it in the creek, or the blackberry or peach cobblers she made after we picked the fruit right off the bush or tree – it was all done in the same manner that I remember her – with love!

  4. Carolyn Robinson Williams    June 11, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    Toni-
    Searching the internet today and found this wonderful surprise. Thanks for remembering my mother in your articles. It brings back great memories.
    Daughter,Carolyn

  5. Chanda Bendord Johnson    August 9, 2012 at 11:30 pm

    Toni,
    Thank You for remembering my Grandma and all the memories, and smiles it brought back when she would come home to Alabama to see her family. She was a Great cook,and Grandma. She taught me how to cook for my family and also that great Carmel Cake.

    Grand daughter,
    Chanda Johnson

  6. Beverly Malone    December 13, 2012 at 8:33 am

    OMG…My Tee Tee was so special in the kitchen. She could cook anything and it would be scrumptous. I lived next door to her after she retired in Cleveland and moved back south and living next door to her was like next door to a resturant. You could smell her cooking next door and you knew something “GOOD” was cooking next door and she would call and say “Ya’ll come over and taste this”–OMG I could not wait to get the phone call and we would literally DROP everyhing and run next door to sample her cooking. I LOVED HER SO MUCH–so many food memories and fun!

  7. Toni Tipton Martin    May 18, 2013 at 8:31 am

    I apologize for taking so long to respond to your warm thoughts, Beverly, Carolyn and Chanda. She spoke of you all everyday. I loved that telephone call, too. When I was pregnant with my third child, she would make me the most delicious Southern breakfast, all my favorites – biscuits, fried catfish, grits, fried green tomatoes and eggs. She said that will all of my crazy dieting, somebody had to take care of that baby! I hope you and your family are well following the storms this week in Athens.

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