The Jemima Code

May 12, 2010 at 1:00 am, by


Everyone asks me the same question when I hand out my business cards:

“What did you think of The Help?”

Sheepishly, I admit that I haven’t read the best-selling novel. I can’t.

You should know that my calling card bears the image from this blog on the front, and a 1904 photo of a black cook on the back. That is because the women of thejemimacode are the backdrop of everything I do — from my writing and speaking to the nonprofit organization I’m building in Austin.  I’ve spent so many years researching real domestic servants, that it is taking some time for me to warm to the idea of another fictionalized accounting of their lives. I’ll tell you why.

When I began this project I promised never to purchase any of the plantation cookbooks that degraded African American cooks with distorted images and vernacular language. Nor would I collect any of the “black Americana” kitchen collectibles featuring bug-eyed household servants as salt and pepper shakers, and on dish towels, spoon rests and the like. (My ambition is to collect artifacts that improve the image of African American cooks, not destroy it.)  Trusted friends tell me that this new novel is fair and pleasant, but I have spent too many nights crying myself to sleep  from reading slave narratives at bedtime to bankroll overt racism. I’m not saying The Help is bigotry; I’m just mustering the courage to see for myself.

My anxiety can be traced to the horror I experienced when I finally obtained a copy of Emma Jane’s Souvenir Cook Book And Some Old Virginia Recipes, Collected By Blanche Elbert Moncure, only to discover its encoded sentiments. I optimistically hoped that the shared by-line to this book represented an end to the common practice of recipe books published on behalf of black domestic workers deemed too ignorant to record their own recipes. And, I was pleased that the introduction to this 80-page collection included Jackson’s photo — not a cartoon — with this innocent characterizatization: “a good and faithful servant who has lived in the writer’s family for over 50 years.”

Jackson, a real woman? Yes.

Moncure, her advocate? Probably not.

From here, Moncure went on to tell a fanciful tale about how Jackson came to be  known by the name printed as the cutline beneath her portrait: Emma Jane Jackson Beauregard Jefferson Davis Lincoln Christian. She followed the wistful tale of Civil War soldiers and “the little nigger baby” with Emma Jane’s culinary advice to the bride-to-be derisively:

“Well, Miss Sally, I sho‘ gives you all of my complements an‘ good wishes! Fur, when a young lady laike you is, begins to compensate matimony, de very bes‘ path she can take is dat one dat leads straight to de kitchen…But look here! Why is you a comin‘ to me, fur de informity? I aint no cookin‘ teacher! I is jes a plain uneddicated cook-o’man, what can’t even read her own name, much less a ‘ceat book! You have to go to college an‘ ‘tend dose Messy Sciences Classes dese days, to be what you calls a fuss class cook! So don’t come in dis kitchen, effen you wants to be in de fashion…Of cose, I been cookin’ fur a purty long time when you come to think of it…I recon I ought to be able to give you some ‘vice ennyways, what may come in handy — dat is — effen you lissins to it.”

I was not dismayed by the familiar storyline, but did I want it as part of my library? Did I enjoy reading it for entertainment? Not so much. What I did do was manage to distill a few bits of Emma Jane’s culinary wisdom and some of her thoughts about locally-sourced, seasonable foods, the way that the women of my muse prepared nourishing meals from discarded garbage. I’ll paraphrase.

  • We eat first with our eyes, so always pay attention to the table, whether it is just a plain pine kitchen table or a shiny mahogany table dressed with fine lace and candles. A floral centerpiece is good for digestion. The sight of it is good for sore eyes.
  • Making biscuits is easy, but pay attention! Have that oven hot. And I mean hot before you put those biscuits in there. A cold oven is responsible for more brick “bats” than most people think. The poor bride is blamed for it all, when in fact the oven is more to blame.
  • Some folks serve stewed oysters for breakfast down in this part of the country, but try to get them as fresh as you can for they can “kick up Hally-lu-ya” (make you sick) if they are old. Of course, the winter months are the best time of year to get the most flavorful taste. In the summer, they are poor and milky-like.
  • Don’t go to the store for your holiday turkey. They aren’t fit to eat. Go to a dependable person who knows his business (know your farmer) and let him pick, slaughter and prepare a plump hen for you. Half your preparation troubles will be over.

Maybe The Help won’t hurt after all.

What were your thoughts after reading it?

In Her Kitchen

Emma Jane’s Buttermilk Biscuits


  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup lard, cut into pieces and chilled
  • 3/4 to 1 cup buttermilk


  1. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, soda and salt. Cut the lard pieces into the flour mixture using two knives or a pastry blender until mixture is crumbly and lard is evenly distributed. Using a fork, stir in the buttermilk, adding just enough to make a slightly sticky dough. The amount may vary because buttermilk is thicker than milk. When dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl, pour out onto a lightly-floured board. Sprinkle with a small amount of flour and knead the dough about 10 times to make a light dough. Do not add too much flour or handle too much. Pat dough into a 1/2-inch thick disc (or use a rolling pin). Cut with a floured biscuit cutter. Place on a shiny baking sheet, about 1/4-inch apart, or in a baking pan just barely touching. Do not re-roll scraps. Gather into one biscuit or scatter the leftover pieces on the pan and serve as a snack. Bake in a preheated 450 degree oven 10 minutes or until light golden brown. Let cool 5 minutes before serving.

Number of servings: 12

In Her Kitchen

  1. MM Pack    May 12, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    Maybe you should read it, although I understand your hesitation. I was quite conflicted about it–some good and some very not, but for anyone who grew up in the south, it forces confrontation and analysis with many things in our past. It’s complicated, in the way that relations between southern black and white women have always been; the kitchen is important in the book, although the scope extends beyond food. I’ve been chewing over what I thought about this book for months and have had a hard time.

  2. Toni Tipton Martin    May 12, 2010 at 9:58 pm

    At least you are willing to admit you had a hard time. That’s the first step for all of us, don’t you think? Then we can at least talk about our similarities and differences and find some common ground. I love it! Thanks for your honesty.

  3. Jodi    May 13, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    Weird coincidence that the book appeared on my desk (I’m borrowing it from a friend) and your blog post was published — all on the same day. I’ll report back!

  4. Robin Kline    May 14, 2010 at 8:33 am

    Serendipity, Toni, that you ask the question as I just finished The Help yesterday. My impressions throughout were that it is a very well-crafted and told story. It also tore me up inside and picked that never-healing scab over the pain of these ‘small story’ events. Over the top injustice reels the heart, mind and roils the gut. But I am reminded also that great pain and great love lead to transformation, and so I stand witness–not closing my eyes. Hard stuff.

  5. Chele Cook    October 22, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    I was just introduced to you and you books and blogs.

    I must say that though I can see your heart is in the right place…I take issue with folks that wish to rip away the true faces of the Black Americans that have served this country for hundreds of years as slaves ,cooks and Mammys. Your personal shame and desire to forget is a cloak that you attempt to spread over the actual works of the Kitchen Slave and the Mammy.These hard working and itelligent people whom remebers all those recipes , seasonings and “how to do ” …do not deserve in any way your shame of them and desire to feel that the old dictions of speech should make their recipe books or books they helped to write NO KEEPABLE !!!

    These ladies and sometimes men were not only your equal but above your skills in that the did all of this without a fancy education.

    You should learn to REALLY respect them !! And not feel that you need to shame them with you own feelings of being less.

    In thier time they reached the Pinnacle of what they could strive for.House level slave. Comptent to run the kitchen for the WHOLE plantation.

    That is a Doctorate Degree in any languge !!

  6. dweiums    October 26, 2010 at 8:58 pm

    Hmmmm . . . Chele Cook – somehow I don’t think you quite get what is really being done here on the Jemima Code. There is absolutely no shame here, only reverence and a real celebration of many unsung cooks’ talent. Perhaps you should re-examine the site and Ms. Martin’s essays (not to mention those great updated recipes).

    On the other subject, I’m glad to hear someone else couldn’t bear to read ‘The Help’. I actually started and got half way through, but felt it just did not ring true on several counts. I do appreciate that it was her treasured memories of her childhood housekeeper that inspired her to write, but once again there are some unbelievable bits that I just couldn’t get past. I have to start my ‘it’s only a book’ mantra and finish reading it.

Leave a Reply

© 2012 Toni Tipton Martin