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MAMMY, MAUM CHLOE, AND JEMIMA GET A MAKEOVER

Scholars tell us that Aunt Jemima was the professional persona for household slave women generically identified in literature and history as the plantation Mammy. They say that this obsession with mythical mammies obscured the work of real southern domestic servants, making them little more than a figment of the romantic imaginations of southerners,  concocted from a recipe based on “not one truth but a variety of truths and lies told by different people in different circumstances at different times for different reasons.”

In order to break the Jemima Code and find a place for African American women at the long table of American culinary history, I had to forget this kind of academic wrangling about whether mammy ever existed, and instead fill in the mammy outline with clues from multiple sources, including the writings of slaveholding families, because they are the ones who left written documentation of food experiences and practices — even though slaveholding families did not make up the majority in early America.

Interestingly, when these women registered their thoughts, emotions and opinions in their diaries, household journals and letters to family and friends the writings contained few references to meal preparation except as part of the daily routine of plantation living.  They state  that household slaves were assigned various domestic duties as cooks, laundresses, seamstresses, nurses, and housekeepers. They dressed in the clothes of the family. Ate better food than field slaves. Received medical treatment, and some learned to read and write, despite prohibitive slave codes that prohibited educating them.

When the mistress said, “I planted 60 acres of oats today,” she usually meant she supervised the day’s agricultural chores, not that she actually did the work herself.  And, according to her texts, “Chloe,” “Aunt Rachel,” and “Mammy” all cooked. By the time the mistress’s ruminations appeared on the pages of southern ladies literature, Chloe and Rachel’s contributions, their character traits, and identity fuse into one larger-than-life, simplified woman named Mammy.  And, in fiction, Mammy did everything.

Mammy affirmed the abolitionists’ stance that slavery was bad while she maintained the segregationists’ view of social hierarchy. Post-Reconstruction Mammy, reflected the new social order, too. She consoled desperate housewives, assured neophyte cooks with creative ingenuity, and at the same time was the source of America’s increasing servant problem.  Mammy defended the homestead. Mammy saved the baby. Mammy trained the children, and on occasion, the Misses. Mammy cooked from memory. Mammy made the best pancakes. And, Mammy set a table that invited everyone to come.

She inspired a “Mammy craze,” which swept the nation, between the 1890s and the 1920s, says Cheryl Thurber. In 1923, the United Daughters of the Confederacy demanded that a monument to Mammy be erected in her memory at he nation’s capital. And, in 1924, a New York shop window advertised a fascinating new style for women: an audaciously colored scarf, ‘the Paris version of mammy’s old Southern bandana.”

If we only think about an African American cook’s lowly station of life, the minimal culinary contributions credited to her by historians and cookbook writers, and the exaggerated and distorted pictures used to misrepresent her intelligence, then it is, of course, impossible to believe that she could have been anything more than a simple laborer.

Fortunately, there is an alternative view.

In 1938, Eleanor Ott published a fanciful collection of New Orleans-styled recipes, entitled Plantation Cookery of Old Louisiana, which illustrates the degree of specialization and expertise known among black cooks. In it, Ott details her grandmother’s vast “culinary plant” with its numerous adjunct buildings and “mammies” assigned to each house. At Fair Oaks Plantation, Kitty Mammy managed the vegetables and herb garden and Becky Mammy was the “high priestess of the milk-house,” while “some colored sub-cook was only too pleased to sit for eight hours…to keep an eye on a kettle of simmering pot-au-feu.”

The Culinary Institute of America’s programs catalog might define these “Mammy” tasks in a more professional way, with Kitty, Becky, and the no-named Mammy each as technicians of  Vegetarian Cooking: Strategies for Building Flavor; Baking and Pastry; and Soups, Stocks and Sauces.

And, then there is, The Jonny-Cake Letters, Dedicated to the Memory of Phillis My Grandfather’s Colored Cook, a journal written in 1882 by Thomas R. Hazard of Rhode Island.  Phillis is Hazard’s muse. She is “universally admired.”  Is the “remote cause of the French Revolution and the death of Louis 16th and Marie Antoinette.” And, she reportedly bakes the most seductive jonny cake Hazard has ever tasted. Within Hazard’s exaggerated family tales are more than a few observations of Phillis’ culinary proficiency, which are so deeply enmeshed with his food recollections it is difficult to tell which comes first: his love of food or his passion for the skill of Phillis.

And, it really does not matter.

Phillis’ jonny cake “made one’s mouth water to look at it,” her assorted rye breads were “prized above rubies,” and this woman known only as his grandfather’s old kitchen cook from Senegambia or Guinea, was as an “artist” capable of inspiring others while tending the pot.

Like the assorted mammies of Fair Oaks plantation, Phillis’ culinary talents give the black cook’s shadows some substance, and there is evidence associating Mammy characteristics with real black cooks found in black sources, as well.

In slave culture, Mammy was a common name for mothers, and elders were addressed as “Aunty,” “Mauma and “Maum,” or “Mammy” as a mark of respect, not kinship. In the 1880 census the mythical Aunt Jemima is linked to at least one real, living African American woman, a black female servant who lists “cook” as her occupation and Mother Jemima as her name.  The name Jemimah implied blessings and a message of hope, not subservience, according to Old Testament Scripture found in Job 42:12-14, and slaves, evidently knew it.

So, I am not at all surprised that legendary cooks and ex-slaves with a worthy name were brought to life in a marketing campaign created by a couple of guys trying to sell more pancake flour.

Are you?

In Her Kitchen

Whole Wheat Pancakes

Ingredients

  • 2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter

Instructions

  1. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, soda, salt and sugar. In a separate bowl, combine the eggs, buttermilk and 4 tablespoons butter. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the liquid ingredients. Stir together until just mixed. Batter will be lumpy. Heat a nonstick griddle over medium-high heat. Brush lightly with remaining 2 tablespoons butter, and using a 1/4 cup measure, ladle batter onto griddle for each pancake. Reduce heat to medium and bake pancakes until the top is bubbly and the edges begin to crisp, about 2 minutes. Using a wide spatula, turn pancakes over and cook on other side 1 minute longer. Do not flatten pancakes. Remove to serving platter and keep warm. Wipe griddle with paper towels, then repeat process with remaining butter and batter.

Number of servings: 4

In Her Kitchen

EDNA LEWIS: A MENTOR FOR ALL

I was privileged to meet Edna Lewis, the woman some have called the “Julia Child of Southern Cuisine,” in 1985 at the annual meeting of registered dietitians in Los Angeles, where she was drawing a crowd of autograph seekers. I was young and didn’t know a thing about her, but I purchased The Edna Lewis Cookbook, anyway, then for the next 10 years she silently mentored me as I cooked from its pages.
It wasn’t long before I was allured by her incredible talent and her delicate, selfless manner, just like the rest of the crowd. That’s why I was particularly surprised and humbled when her strongly-worded letter arrived in my office mailbox with a challenge: “Leave no stone unturned.”
It was 1995, and Edna was exhausted and weak from radiation, but she gathered her strength and composed a three-page rant about African American food history, which said in part: “We developed but did not own it [southern food] because we did not own ourselves,” Edna laments, “but we established a cuisine.
“Every group has its own food history,” Edna scribbled, with the kind of hurried penmanship that happens when thoughts are jumping out of your head and onto the page faster than you can capture them. “Our condition was different. We were brought here against our will in the millions, enslaved, and through it all established a cuisine in the south…the only fully developed cuisine in the country.”
Ten years later, after lost her battle with cancer at the age of 89, that letter became a personal treasure to me. It also made me sad. Edna’s culinary talent, authentic beauty, and quiet grace are cherished in the world of southern food. Elsewhere, she is virtually unknown.
Her words strengthened my resolve to celebrate the invisible women who fed America.
But, I knew it wouldn’t be easy. Julie, after all, had Julia; there just isn’t a single source that accurately portrays the history of African American cooks.  In fact, if it had not been for Aunt Jemima stereotypes these tireless, talented women would have little written history at all.
Edna is just one of many affirming examples of real, professional empowered, beautiful – slim – black chefs who helped me re-think the link between African American women and the jarring portrait of the south’s “old black Mammy.”  The powerful love language of their kitchens has taught me how to treat my children, how to give when my cup is empty, and of course, how to cook. And I mean really cook.
When I make Edna’s blackberry cobbler, my husband and kids each grab a spoon, stand around the steaming pan, and dig in, while I imagine her whispering the old-fashioned secret wisdom that used to be handed down between generations.  I joyfully talk about the characteristics that intersect in the black women like Edna Lewis who fed this nation, but explain the ways they have been lost in lampoon. I discover that the woman I am becoming is a mere shadow of the women they were: patient and loving; smart, talented, hard-working; strong physically and emotionally, compassionate; multi-tasking.
I make peace with the harsh reality of my own double history, and that begins to break the Jemima Code.

I was privileged to meet Edna Lewis, the woman some have called the “Julia Child of Southern Cuisine,” in 1985 at the annual meeting of registered dietitians in Los Angeles, where she was drawing a crowd of autograph seekers. I was young and didn’t know a thing about her, but I purchased The Edna Lewis Cookbook, anyway, then for the next 10 years she silently mentored me as I cooked from its pages.

It wasn’t long before I was allured by her incredible talent and her delicate, selfless manner, just like the rest of the crowd. That’s why I was particularly surprised and humbled when her strongly-worded letter arrived in my office mailbox with a challenge: “Leave no stone unturned.”

It was 1995, and Edna was exhausted and weak from radiation, but she gathered her strength and composed a three-page rant about African American food history, which said in part: “We developed but did not own it [southern food] because we did not own ourselves,” Edna laments, “but we established a cuisine.

“Every group has its own food history,” Edna scribbled, with the kind of hurried penmanship that happens when thoughts are jumping out of your head and onto the page faster than you can capture them. “Our condition was different. We were brought here against our will in the millions, enslaved, and through it all established a cuisine in the south…the only fully developed cuisine in the country.”

Ten years later, after Edna lost her battle with cancer at the age of 89, that letter became a personal treasure to me. It also made me sad. Edna’s culinary talent, authentic beauty, and quiet grace are cherished in the world of southern food. Elsewhere, she is virtually unknown.

Her words strengthened my resolve to celebrate the invisible women who fed America.

I knew it wouldn’t be easy. Julie, after all, had Julia; there just isn’t a single source that accurately portrays the history of African American cooks.  In fact, if it had not been for Aunt Jemima stereotypes these tireless, talented women would have little written history at all.

Edna is just one of many affirming examples of real, professional empowered, beautiful – slim – black chefs who helped me re-think the link between African American women and the jarring portrait of the south’s “old black Mammy.”  The powerful love language of their kitchens has taught me how to treat my children, how to give when my cup is empty, and of course, how to cook. And I mean really cook.

When I make Edna’s blackberry cobbler, my husband and kids each grab a spoon, stand around the steaming pan, and dig in, while I imagine her whispering the old-fashioned secret wisdom that used to be handed down between generations.  I joyfully talk about the characteristics that intersect in the black women like Edna Lewis who fed this nation, but explain the ways they have been lost in lampoon. I discover that the woman I am becoming is a mere shadow of the women they were: patient and loving; smart, talented, hard-working; strong physically and emotionally, compassionate; multi-tasking.

I make peace with the harsh reality of my own double history, and that begins to break the Jemima Code.

In Her Kitchen

Recipe: Edna’s Blackberry Cobbler

Ingredients

  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup lard
  • 1/3 cup cold water
  • 1 cup sugar cubes, crushed
  • 5 cups blackberries
  • 4 thin slices butter
  • 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1/4 cup light cream
  • 1 cup Vanilla-Flavored Whipped Cream (recipe follows)

Instructions

  1. Sift the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl. Blend in the lard with a pastry blender or with your fingers. When it is well blended and fine-grained, skrinkle in the water all at once, and draw the dough together quickly, shaping it into a ball. Divide in half and let rest a few minutes. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Roll out the dough and line an 8-inch baking pan. Sprinkle 2 to 3 tablespoons of the crushed sugar over the dough. fill with the berries, adding the pieces of butter and sprinkling with the granulated sugar mixed with the cornsarch. Wet the rim of the bottom crust and place the top pastry over it, pressing down to seal. Trim away the excess. With the handle of a dinner knife, make a decorative edge and then cut a few slits in the center to allow steam to escape. Brush the thop with a thick brush of cream and sprinkle on the remaining crused cube sugar. Place in a the preheated oven, shut the door, and reduce the heat to 350 degress. Bake for 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and set on a rack to cool slightly before serving. Serve with a dollop of Vanilla-Flavored Whipped Cream on top.

Number of servings: 8

In Her Kitchen