This will be the last regular post for The Jemima Code — a blog that turned the spotlight on America’s invisible black cooks and their cookbooks, grew into a traveling exhibit and book available now via the University of Texas Press and spawned a 501c3 nonprofit organization. Three new initiatives, inspired by current events, will take its place.
Over last year’s Thanksgiving weekend, an MSNBC segment with Melissa Harris-Perry shifted attention from outrage and protests over racial profiling in Ferguson, Mo. to racial stereotyping in the food world. The topic of discussion: food, race and identity. Using Jim Crow era imagery and ignored culinary history as the backdrop, a panel of experts introduced viewers to a surprisingly academic food justice dialogue, raising a question black food professionals wrestle with all the time:
What we can learn about who we are when we shake off the shame about how or what we eat?
The gathering included Psyche Williams-Forson, author of Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, & Power, and directed some much-needed attention to the idea of reclaiming ancestral foods as a source of cultural pride. Williams-Forson, whose illuminating scholarship examines the complex relationship between racist and realistic characterizations of our food traditions, acknowledged the destructive legacy associated with negative images of African American food choices. The insightful scholar also pointed to positive aspects of her affirming work that encourage black women to embrace the myriad ways our foremothers used food for economic freedom and independence, community building, cultural work and to develop personal identity.
Take watermelon and fried chicken for instance. Some black folks feel demonized when they eat these foods in public, while chefs in trendy restaurants all around the country earn high dollars for watermelon salad and gluten-free gospel bird. And don’t even get me started talking about the book and blog that made white authors household names when they capitalized on the label “thug” and its new meaning — symbolizing “a slice of the African American urban underclass by others privileged to define them, label them, and take their lives…,” as Michael Twitty stated, while black authors struggle to secure publishing contracts. (You’ll have to read his blog post and the comments about Thug Kitchen on Afroculinaria.com to get the scoop.)
Even with evidence pointing to valuable African American foodways, the discussion ended with frustration as MHP exclaimed: “I feel like we just need to bring joy to eating all of it.”
It was as if “nerdland’s” exasperation (MHP’s self description) parted the Red Sea, offering freedom to culinary history’s slaves through new projects for The Jemima Code.
The first is a follow-up cookbook that Rizzoli will publish in 2016. The Joy of African American Cooking features 400 to 500 recipes tested for today’s home kitchen, tracing the history of dishes created by African American cooks over three centuries, including influences of Africa, the Caribbean, and the American South.
The John Egerton Prize I received from Southern Foodways Alliance inspired what came next. On Juneteenth weekend 2015 we held the first symposium dedicated exclusively to African American foodways in Austin, Texas. The event gathered scholars, researchers, students, journalists, authors, restaurateurs, farmers, chefs, activists, and anyone interested in exploring issues of social injustice through the lens of food for Soul Summit: A Conversation About Race, Identity, Power and Food.
The activities began on Emancipation Day (June 19) with a reception hosted by Leslie Moore’s Word of Mouth Catering with wines by Dotson-Cervantes and the McBride Sisters. We spent the next day and a half eating and drinking together on the grounds of Austin’s Historic Black College Huston-Tillotson University, while discussing the complex intersection of African American foodways traditions and how they have been used to define culture. Well-known and respected African American food industry experts including Jessica B. Harris, Twitty and the soul food scholar, Adrian Miller challenged our thinking about the foods that comprise the traditional African American diet, the ways those foods and the people who prepared them have been characterized and the impact of those representations on our communities. We explored the ways food continues to shape economic opportunities and community wellness and what some folks are doing about it. Renown African American chefs and mixologists, including Bryant Terry, Todd Richards, Kevin Mitchell, BJ Dennis and Tiffanie Barriere excited our palates with traditional, modern, and vegan fare. You can hear highlights, recorded in part, by a grant from Humanities Texas and Imperial Sugar, on SoundCloud.
Finally, I know that everyone can’t open the doors to a restaurant honoring the food and memory of a fabulous cook and relative the way that chef Chris Williams does every week with upscale, bowl-licking shrimp and grits at Lucille’s in Houston. So instead, I hope to reduce food shaming and “bring joy” to cultural eating through an online living cookbook and public archive that also picks up where The Jemima Code’s expanded history leaves off.
It is under construction now, but when business and sociology students are done with it this summer, the website will invite people of every culture to log-in, share recipes, photos, and stories about their favorite invisible cook. In my vision, this diverse group of “Jemimas” will turn the spotlight onto individuals so we can begin to embrace one another without prejudice or as members of a group associated with a particular race or food tradition.
If that’s not enough to spur joy in African American cooking, the comment section will remain open for other suggestions.
It didn’t take much to bring the soul food debate raging back into the limelight — Black History Month and a fried chicken, watermelon and cornbread lunch planned at a California Catholic school. Critics were outraged, but I don’t blame the students at the all-girls’ school for recommending a menu composed of heritage foods; I blame the grown-ups.
For more reasons than I can address in this space, soul food has an image problem, and many adults have a love-hate relationship with it, provoked by years of propaganda that used cabin cooking and stereotypes to denigrate black people — marginalizing our foods as dirty and nasty, something you eat with your hands.
So, what follows is a rant and a challenge, summarized by a hilariously funny post about this news story written by a Facebook friend of mine:
“This is ridiculous! I’m outraged! Do you have hot sauce?”
Soul food is a tale of two worlds, bound to a complicated history, as my friend Adrian Miller writes in the introduction to his intelligent book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine — made up of stereotypes, poor ingredients, making-do, the low status of blacks, racial stigma, resourcefulness, ingenuity, and communal spirit; denounced as a diet for “slumming” or death. Or both.
If there is such a thing as a “soul food code,” Miller certainly cracked it with this thoughtful endeavor to give soul food a “very public makeover.” To help us think differently about soul food, the writer, attorney and certified barbecue judge poses a few questions:
“What are the important soul food menu items?” “How does a food get on the soul food plate?” And, what does all of that mean for African America culture and American culture?” The surprising answers might just quiet the fury.
“I do hope that through greater understanding about soul food — how and why it developed — the cuisine gets valued as a treasure, and we are not so quick to jettison it as cultural baggage,” Miller said.
Last week, I had a couple of experiences that demonstrated ways this “save soul food” message is getting through, at least here in Austin.
The first was a Cultural Heritage Supper Club dinner that my son and I attended. For the gathering, teens and their moms saluted black culinary achievement with a wide assortment of dishes representing the full African American food experience. The buffet was laden with a fusion of dishes that combined African and European techniques with American ingredients, and ranged from starters to desserts: pimiento cheese-stuffed celery, chicken wings, gumbo, macaroni and cheese, black-eyed peas, greens, tossed salad, West Indian chicken roti, sweet potato pie. Noticeably absent were the poverty foods that polarized the black community and seem to be paralyzing everyone else — salt pork, green beans, pork hocks, collards, pig tails, beans, pig ears, cracklin’ cornbread, pigs feet, black eyed peas, fried chicken, pig jowls, barbecue, pickled pork, candied yams, side meat, mac and cheese, bacon, and sticky sweet desserts.
A few days later, I joined elected officials, public servants, restaurateurs, and other “soul foodies” at Manor High School’s first annual Black History Month soul food competition and lunch. This is a new tradition that encouraged district faculty, staff and culinary students to share their favorite recipes and family history with hopes that food might bring together and build up the small town’s diverse community, according to Rob McDonald, the school’s culinary arts instructor.
McDonald and a district manager reduced their risk for the type of backlash that stunted celebration efforts in California by involving the neighborhood in preserving their cultural culinary traditions, and then recommending “healthier substitutes” to update those shared family heirlooms.
“We want to encourage the students (and the community) to consider food “from the soul” and to adapt it from their heritage keeping the story,” McDonald explained. “The stories that come from the family are part of the overall appeal [of soul food].”
The contest entries included everything I tasted at the teenagers’ supper club, and more: potato salad, red beans and rice, navy beans and cornbread, pig ears, sautéed greens with red bell peppers, banana pudding, coconut cake. The bill of fare also included an inspiring message, passionately presented by Anterrica Culbert, a 12th grader with hopes of attending Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts:
“Soul food is not just about food. It is what happens around the kitchen table and where we learn our family traditions that keep us going on our journey of life. It’s the recipe that has no recipe (a little bit of this and a little bit of that) without measuring…As we celebrate Black History Month we honor and remember those who passed down these wonderful recipes and in doing so fed our souls.”
I was in the grocery store when Cublert’s words collided in my mind with Miller’s scholarship and the sentiments written by 1960s cookbook authors, leading me to an AHH-Ha, make-do moment: it’s not the ingredients or the dishes that make soul food special and worth celebrating; it is the heart attitude AND culinary aptitude.
It all started in the produce section of the grocery store, where, to my surprise, I encountered the most beautiful, fresh-from-the-garden cauliflower, nestled deep inside a cradle of bright green leaves. At home, as I trimmed the leaves and tossed them into my compost bucket, the spirit of Jemima Code’s soul authors came to mind and touched my spirit, reminding me of one their prudent cooking lessons that says nothing goes to waste.
Without really thinking, I retrieved the leaves from the bucket, refreshed them in cool running water, then sliced them into a fine chiffonade, as in the Brazillian manner, and voila: couve. My adaptation of sautéed collards emerged from the reservoir of recipes in my memory, seasoned until it tasted just the way I wanted — not according to a formula or some African American natural instinct. It was the same kind of improvised cuisine our ancestors practiced when they crafted delicacies from homely ingredients — soul.
But, my cauliflower couve does not represent my full culinary ability any more than cabin cooking or soul foods express the contours of a black cook’s kitchen. It does represent learned skill.
In each of these cases, soul food emerges as a personal expression based upon the cook’s history and knowledge and whatever ingredients are at hand. When we remember these inspirational kitchen characters and their monumental accomplishments during Black History Month, young students like Culbert are free to pursue their dreams.
If grown ups will get out of the way and build up African American food history Culbert might one day be the owner/operator of a popular heritage restaurant, such as the Bay Area’s Brenda’s French Soul Food, where diners wait two hours to be seated and served fried chicken, cornbread, and probably, watermelon.
…now go ahead — debate!
With Tiger Woods back in the news this week, my thoughts immediately turned to Fuzzy Zoeller’s yakity yak urging Woods not to “order fried chicken or collard greens…or whatever the hell they serve” at the 1997 Masters golf tournament champions dinner. Zoeller might have been one of golf’s most notable players, but he obviously missed the memo on African American culinary tradition.
For generations, African American cooks living outside of the South have enjoyed confident, creative culinary expression, preferring to be known for their artistry, rather than the narrow outlook that limits the African American cook’s repertoire to the poverty ingredients and methods of plantation cabin cookery.
In 1910, while the domestic scientists were analyzing their food, “draining it of taste and texture, packaging it, and decorating it” to accommodate their shifting emphasis to domestic efficiency, Bertha Turner, a State Superintendent of Domestic Science and private caterer published a remarkable cookbook to preserve black culinary identity.
The Federation Cookbook: A Collection of Tested Recipes Compiled by the Colored Women of the State of California, assembled delicious recipes from the noted cooks living in and around Pasadena. The book exemplified a type of culinary professional who survived blatant discrimination and achieved fame and success.
By coincidence or Divine Order, Turner’s kitchen priorities and caterer’s virtues of uniformity, familiarity, and predictability perfectly aligned with the domestic science movement’s institutional ambitions of standardization and technical know-how. She was also a very good cook, according to the obituary published in a 1938 local newspaper, which also carried this photo of her, dressed elegantly and draped in fur.
She lived prosperously, flourishing in the rich ethnic culture of the Pasadena foothills, and didn’t appear stifled by the Jim Crow ideology strangling her race elsewhere. In fact, her Federation Cookbook set off confidently – perhaps because it epitomized a resolute gathering of out-going, successful women dedicated to social uplift.
Unlike Abby Fisher and Malinda Russell who began their books apologetically, Turner gracefully promised in her Preface to deliver “tested cooking of tried proportions, kindly given by our women.” She boldly suggested that readers purchase the book to thank those “helpful, trusty” women whom she memorialized in every recipe.
“Take it to your friends and neighbors,” she urged. “May it prove a blessing to you.”
Turner probably was obviously a compassionate woman, too. The Federation Cookbook began with a cheerful poem composed by a member of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, to shore up young cooks. She shared more than 200 recipes for simple, as well as elegant cookery, including numerous ways with lettuce, gelatin, and molds – the “dainty” delights popular among domestic goddesses at the time.
Interestingly, the only Southern dishes to survive the trip West with this regal, Kentucky-born patron were croquettes, okra, and cornbread.
Does that answer your question about what we serve, Mr. Zoeller?
In Bertha Turner’s day, homemade salad dressings, including mayonnaise were evidence of a cook’s proficiency. The mix is simple: eggs, good quality oil, vinegar or lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste. With today’s rush through the kitchen, you can achieve potato salad with the same creamy results using commercial mayo and a splash of prepared mustard.
In Her Kitchen
- 4 slices bacon
- 8 new potatoes
- 5 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 3 green onions, sliced
- 2 stalks celery, diced
- 1/4 cup sweet pickle relish
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon mustard
- Salt, pepper
- Cook bacon in a hot skillet over medium heat until crisp. Cool and crumble. Set aside. Scrub the potatoes and boil in their jackets until just done. Cool, peel and dice. Place in a large bowl with eggs, onions, celery, and pickle relish. Stir in mayonnaise and mustard, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with paprika before serving.
Number of servings: 8
In Her Kitchen
As a journalist at a bloggers workshop, I was feeling a little bothered while attending South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW) this week, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, until I realized that the women who inspire me also lived as if there were four of them.
They published cookbooks. Operated retail food businesses. Invented culinary gadgets. Hawked food products. Taught home economics. Catered lavish events. Sometimes, all at once.
As an author, I loved getting to know Abby Fisher and Malinda Russell, and imagining the kind of intelligent and creative recipes that my ancestors might have published if given the opportunity.
This week, I find muse in Kentucky, looking for the perfect mint julep to serve at a catered event next month, where I will be speaking about and teaching southern food traditions, and maybe making a dish or two.
Who me? Multi-task?
The first artifact is The Blue Grass Cook Book, by Minnie C. Fox.
Although it was not written by a black cook, the University Press of Kentucky and I published the historic reprint of Blue Grass in 2005 because it is the first-known cookbook to offer an honest and revealing picture of the state of culinary affairs in the South at the start of the twentieth century. It features more than 300 recipes and a dozen stunning camera portraits – not caricatures – of African American cooks at work. They are pictured above.
More directly than anyone before them – or after, until mid-century – Minnie, and her novelist brother John, publicly acknowledged the black contribution to Southern foodways, Southern culture, and Southern hospitality in 1904. In what amounts to direct and explicit homage, Minnie applauds the “turbaned mistress of the kitchen” for her dignity, wisdom, and talent.
This picture casts a bold shadow of hope and grace on the Aunt Jemima make-believe.
John Fox’s introduction and the photographs of Alvin Langdon Coburn do for these great cooks what historians, cookbook authors, novelists, advertisers, and manufacturers simply did not: They single out for full recognition and credit the black cook as the near-invisible but indispensable figure who made Southern cuisine famous.
Meanwhile, as housewives produced textbooks that emphasized the technical basics of cooking at the turn of the twentieth century, Effie Waller Smith wrote poetry that made powerful statements about the competencies of her African American sisters in the kitchen.
The authority and observations in her collected works, which were discovered and republished by the Schomburg Library in 1991, include interpretation, so I’ve simply included my favorite poem here for you to enjoy, and hopefully to share.
Maybe next time, I’ll attend a meeting of anthropologists.
APPLE SAUCE AND CHICKEN FRIED
By Effie Waller Smith, 1904
You may talk about the knowledge
Which our farmers’ girls have gained
From cooking-schools and cook-books
(where all modern cooks are trained);
But I would rather know just how,
(Though vainly I have tried)
To prepare, as mother used to,
Apple sauce and chicken fried.
Our modern cooks know how to fix
Their dainty dishes rare.
But, friend, just let me tell you what!–
None of them compare
With what my mother used to fix,
And for which I’ve often cried,
When I was but a little tot,–
Apple sauce and chicken fried.
Chicken a la Francaise,
Served with some new fangled sauce
Is plenty good for me,
Till I get to thinking of the home
Where I used to ‘bide
And where I used to eat, — um, my!
Apple sauce and chicken fried.
We always had it once a week,
Sometimes we had it twice;
And I have even known the time
When we have had it thrice.
Our good, yet jolly pastor,
During his circuit’s ride
With us once each week gave grateful thanks
For apple sauce and chicken fried.
Why, it seems like I can smell it,
And even taste it, too,
And see it with my natural eyes,
Though of course it can’t be true;
And it seems like I’m a child again,
Standing by mother’s side
Pulling at her dress and asking
For apple sauce and chicken fried.
Author’s Note: Use caution if you purchase The Blue Grass Cook Book from Amazon. Applewood Books is offering a reprinted copy that does not include my historical background on the Fox family. If you would like to purchase an autographed copy of The Blue Grass Cook Book, please email me.
Another week, another feature story about Nubian Queen LoLa. What is it about this woman that keeps the media buzzing? Her humanitarian spirit as a newly-ordained minister of the Gospel? The sound of her voice emanating from the kitchen as she sings along with the blaring rhythms of Gospel Radio 1060 while fixing lunch? The tiny, crowded dining room, (you might as well call it a pulpit), where crisp hot chicken wings and seafood po’ boys come with a side of the Holy Scriptures? The backyard she has turned into a “solitary place” where the homeless find something fresh and warm to eat? Her one-time homeless status?
Curiosity and my desire to share the pies I had leftover following last week’s Dream Pie Social lured me to Nubian Queen LoLa’s Cajun, Soul Food Kitchen in Austin. I went back for the inspiration. And, the wings.
At LoLa’s kitchen table, a friend and I enjoyed a mixed menu of etouffee, collard greens, sweet tea, and life lessons that is seldom seen anymore — not in boisterous eateries, or at take-out counters, or in the rush of dinner served in front of American Idol. But there are two things to know if you decide to partake of LoLa’s: enjoy the wait, and expect to be encouraged toward greatness. LoLa is a one-woman show doing quadruple-duty as the restaurant’s greeter, cook, server, and dishwasher — a flour- and cornmeal-dusted representation of the cliche “labor of love”.
As a child in Lake Charles, Louisiana, LoLa Stephens-Bell “sat on the sacks [rice sacks]” observing her mother craft Louisiana-styled dishes as a cook for Kozy Kitchen, Captain’s Table and the Candelight Inn. Eventually, when she was old enough she says, “I told her to sit on the sacks and I’ll do it.” LoLa promised her mother that one day she would have her own place where appetites and souls are nurtured at the same time. She also planned to hire “a little old lady” like her mom as a way to give back to the community. She was on her way to that dream when a flood turned her life upside down. LoLa became homeless. “I lost everything: my husband, my house, my kids,” she said.
Since then LoLa has been cooking up a storm, drawing media raves as much for her community spirit as for her cooking. LoLa is closed on Sundays. That’s when she feeds the homeless and the poor from her shallow wellspring. Donors provide support offering everything from food, to transportation, and gift card printing. “Now, I’m coming back stronger than I have ever been in my life and I am teaching and preaching my word to the poor,” she boasted. “They are the hidden treasures of God.”
I think I understand what keeps everyone coming back to LoLa’s place. It is her generous spirit. LoLa reminded me of the ancestors who put dinner on the table in the 19th Century despite the harsh physical labor required, and who worked tirelessly for their neighbors, secretly feeding run away slaves to keep them safe for as long as they possibly could.
Back then, routine daily tasks included soap- and candle-making, clothing families, cooking over a hearth, lifting heavy pots, toting water and, of course, tending children. Without refrigeration, cooks spent a great deal of their time fetching milk from the springhouse and keeping crockery storage jars clean. Cooking took place over a raging fire, which required cooks to spend long hours every day sifting ashes, adjusting dampers, lighting fires, and carrying wood. She maneuvered elaborate utensils that were suspended on hooks of various lengths on a backbar. This contraption allowed pots, kettles and footed Dutch ovens, also known as “spiders,” to hang at various distances above the flame. Did I mention that she did this in a long skirt with children running around?
Some larger plantations had two cooks: a plantation cook and just for one for the children. Even so, the task of preparing a midday meal for up to 200 adults and more than 100 children reveals the Herculean strength required of a plantation cook. It is difficult for me today, with so many convenience foods, tools, and equipment, to imagine the physical demands of chopping wood for the kitchen fire, toting tremendous iron kettles weighing as much as 40 pounds, or to envision the enormity of turning spitted meat in a five-or-six-foot tall fireplace – by hand. And, it stretches my imagination to consider the skill it took to build that fire, measure its temperature, and calculate cooking time by the progression of the sun.
But our women did these things, in much the way LoLa does today, with minimal equipment and scarce resources, but with a lot of hard work and devotion that produces food for the belly as well as the soul. So, my friend and I sit back and take it all in. We can’t help but wonder: Where have all the faithful servants gone?
Do you know someone like LoLa who cooked and cared for her community as much as she did for her family? Please share her story by clicking on Comment below.