Last week, Hollywood helped me imagine a place in the spotlight for the women of The Jemima Code.
A world-renowned actor and a producer appeared on “Good Morning America” to discuss their documentary film. The project tells the story of unsung heroes, tracing obscure African-Americans from the earliest days of the republic through today. Historical documents illustrate the struggle. Archival materials expose unknown contributions to American culture. Dramatic and emotional readings by noted Hollywood personalities give life to their thoughts.
The film is called For Love of Liberty: The Story of America’s Black Patriots, but it could just as easily have been titled after this blog: The Jemima Code: The Story of America’s Black Cooks.
Take a look at Southern cookery literature from the colonial era to Reconstruction and post-World War I and you’ll see stories of real women cooking, feeding and nurturing families as those folks went about their daily work. But you’ll have to look carefully. The recorders of history mostly overlooked the contributions made by these people.
To hear the antebellum plantation mistress tell it, she acquired a new recipe, read it to her kitchen slave, and then stood over the cook while she prepared the dish. The cook might later apply some African technique, or add a local ingredient, incorporate a leftover into it, or simply adjust the formula because of an environmental factor — like humidity or uncooperative chickens who didn’t lay enough eggs that morning. Over time the dish became something new and original – a “Southern creation.”
The “exotic-sounding preparations were first known through English cookbooks, contained various strands of direct Indian influence, and, were developed by African American ingenuity and creativity,” says historian Karen Hess, but Aunt Dinah entered history as the provider of labor.
Without property rights, the cooks lost ownership of the hybridized cuisine they created when their “soul” food, (black-eyed peas and wild greens) passed from the cabin to the Big House. They were like the slaves who produced ironwork, baskets and architecture: they transmitted their craft orally and left little written proof of their accomplishments.
Once in written form, these “new, original” American formulas were sold to an eager cookbook-buying audience, rarely acknowledging any debt owed to the servants who modified the English recipes – whether the cooks were the indentured servants of the North, or the slaves of the South.
Consider the diary of Emily Wharton Sinkler.
Emily was evidently a very busy low-country plantation mistress. In her journal and letters she describes the anticipation of arriving visitors. Mixing and mingling at the horse races. Scouring the countryside for cuttings and root clippings for her gardens, and days filled with reading, writing, music, long walks, and horesriding. The portrait of Emily also details her love of traveling and shopping in Charleston and Philadelphia, the wonderment of lavish dinner parties, her housekeeping experiences, rigorous Bible studies, and the family’s strict observation of the Sabbath.
Her receipt collection is just as full as her schedule, boasting recipes for numerous items produced by her family’s enterprise, including recipes for household cleaning solvents, dyes, soap, and candles.
Interestingly, there is little mention of Emily’s servants, even though some of her favorite dishes reflect the African influence. Like other authors of the era, Emily “consigned cooks to anonymity, depicting them in condescending caricatures as bandanna-headed mammies, and kindhearted, but formidable servants,” says culinary historian Barbara Haber. And, I can’t help but wonder: When did hard-working Emily sleep?
Fortunately for disparaged cooks like Chloe, modern copyright law validates a notion popularized by the America Eats Project, that: “The making of the masterpiece does not lie in the food, but in the preparation.”
The culinary publishing industry has long presumed, that changing a single ingredient or step in the method spawns a new dish and therefore new ownership. This standard allows that even a cook whose imagination is first stirred by a written recipe, but who substitutes key lime juice for lemon, opts for a different cut of meat, increases the amount of sweetening, or for that matter changes sugar to molasses can and should expect her name to follow the recipe title.
If that is true, then the recipes slaves like Chloe created while crossing culinary boundaries in the Sinkler household are a strong witness to the African American cook’s reputation, and testify to their value as worthy documentary subjects.
No, these women didn’t risk their lives for their country. They just provided the nourishment for those who did.
In the introduction to An Antebellum Plantation Household, author Anne Sinkler Whaley LeClercq writes that Emily had various receipts for pea soup, and she especially prized fresh peas. The addition of salt pork and black-eyed peas to Emily’s recipe for Winter Pea Soup shows the slave influence. I adapted her recipe for modern tastes. It is perfect for the end of winter and is dedicated to Chloe, her cook and to Maum Mary, shown above picking peppers. The dish is already rich in fiber, but if you want to make it a power-house, go ahead and stir in cooked black-eyed peas to your liking.
In Her Kitchen
Split Pea Soup
- 2 cups green split peas
- 1 ham bone
- 1 cup chopped onions
- 1 large carrot, diced
- 1 large stalk celery, diced
- 1 large clove garlic, minced
- Salt, pepper
- Place peas in a large saucepot and add enough water to cover. Soak overnight and drain. Or, to reduce cooking time, bring the peas and water to boil and boil 2 to 3 minutes, then turn off the heat and cover. Let stand 1 hour. Drain. Add 2 quarts water, ham bone, onions, carrot, celery and garlic to the pot. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer gently about 1 1/2 hours, or until peas are tender. Remove bone from soup and cut off the meat. Dice and return to the soup. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Number of servings: 6
In Her Kitchen
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.
In Her Kitchen
Whole Wheat Pancakes
- 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
- 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