The Jemima Code is a pop-up exhibit and book curated to explore the culinary treasures African American cooks left behind in the cookbooks they wrote. For this project, I collected nearly 300 rare black cookbooks, which date back to 1827, each one revealing proficiencies that talented but invisible cooks recorded in their own words.
Next year, the University of Texas Press and I will publish The Jemima Code, a book that explores more than 150 of these important cookbooks and honors those who nourished generations of Americans with meals prepared using fresh food from the garden, cooked with love at the kitchen hearth.
For this journal, I put on the aprons of these authors, cook their recipes and tinker with the tools they used in search of an answer to the question:
What can we learn from Aunt Jemima besides her recipe for really good pancakes?
These wise servants cooked creative masterpieces from meager provisions, educated young chefs, operated retail businesses, and nourished civil rights workers while salving wounds, nurturing our collective character and working outside of the home. Many of the authors self-published as a way to record their accomplished cooking in elegant homes, hospitals, catering companies, church basements, and raggedy road-side shacks, following innovative recipes that made other people healthy, wealthy, happy and full.
What is the Jemima Code?
Say the name Aunt Jemima and a couple of different opinions usually come to mind. One is that the chubby cheeked, brown face with the wide grin is a symbol left over from this country’s dark days of slavery and segregation. It should be completely eliminated from modern culture because it was crafted to keep black women in their place — in someone else’s kitchen.
I prefer to think of the trademark as an affirming reminder of the women who worked outside of their homes, not just doing the cooking, cleaning and caring for families, but doing so with the grace and skill of professionals — marketing shorthand for “greatness and perfection” as in “if you want perfect pancakes, buy yourself some Aunt Jemima products.”
So in an era when everyone from Food Network stars, to executive chefs, food scholars, nutritionists, authors and entrepreneurs tells us what we should eat and how we should cook it, it seems only natural that the nation’s most recognized cook should be stirring the pot, too. When we break the Jemima Code, America’s most maligned kitchen servant, Aunt Jemima is transformed into an inspirational and powerful symbol of culinary wisdom and authority — a role model.
Who am I?
My love affair with African American cooks and their recipes began more than 30 years ago when I was a food and nutrition writer for The Los Angeles Times. Although the most alluring chef and world cuisine surrounded me as Food Editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, it was the inspired stories of ordinary people I found most delicious. That passion for people dovetailed beautifully with the work of the Southern Foodways Alliance, where as president I refined my study of African American women’s culinary history, and led a recognition banquet for the women who cooked in hidden kitchens for the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama.
I have co-authored three cookbooks, and shared my passion for cooks and the community as a freelance writer and contributing editor to numerous magazines. I have been awarded several community service, nutrition writing honors, and grants, and I am a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier, the International Association of Culinary Professionals, and the Southern Foodways Alliance.
I also teach cooking and nutrition classes, give talks on African American culinary history, and I founded a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that uses cultural heritage, food, and nutrition to improve lives.
Why am I doing this?
Let’s face it: We live in an image-crazed society. So my hope is that this journal paints an honest portrait of authentically good cooks we can all turn to for advice. This blog reveals the kinds of things Mother or Grandmother or Mammy would have told you about the kitchen – their voices sharing knowledge through anecdotes, memoirs, receipts, cookbooks, plantation ledgers and logs, diaries, and records left behind in clubs and civic organizations. Some were pioneers in public health, nursing, and midwifery; others were survivors thriving in freedmen’s communities. Many shared a common entrepreneurial spirit as caterers, restaurateurs, and authors. The rest simply loved to cook. Though many are deceased, some are still around to talk to me. Others whisper their legacy through published recipe books and family tales that have kept home fires burning – whether those fires were in their employers’ homes or their own. And, they have influenced generations.
This new role model replaces the Aunt Jemima mythology, and as it does, it reaches like a bridge across the expansive sea of race and class to restore the reputation of legendary cooks who possessed a wide range of attainable character traits. Their life histories spur all women on to attain the confidence (and, in some cases the financial independence) that can exist in the kitchen. At minimum, they help us restore a little warmth to our kitchens of granite and steel.
When we weave together the strands of previously ignored details and partial truths about the women who fed America, we discover measurable evidence of their contributions to American cuisine. This provides an alternative view of the prejudiced interpretations of their character in the media. It debunks a myth. It restores respectability. Promotes an ideal who whispers her empowering legacy of courage, ingenuity, and aptitude. And, it makes invisible women accessible, not just to black people, but to everyone.
In turn, they give us permission to cook with pleasure, and to join our families at the table – whether we are nostalgic for warm meals and memories shared at Mama’s table, are exhausted by directives to feed our families wisely, are among the gastronomically challenged heat-and-eat generation, or are somewhere in-between.