I went to the safe to retrieve a New York-area author from the Jemima Code cookbook collection to be among the black cooks featured in my pop-up art exhibit at the Greenhouse Gallery at James Beard House in Manhattan. I came out with New Orleans chef Lena Richard. More than 70 years ago, the “father of American cuisine” had been Richard’s advocate. Now, she would return to his home to uplift and encourage a whole new generation.
Until recently I had only briefly studied Richard’s life. I read in a resume of her accomplishments in the exhibition guide at Newcomb College Center for Research on Women at Tulane University, that she was a formally trained culinary student, completing her education at the Fannie Farmer Cooking School in Boston. She ran her own catering company for ten years, operated several restaurants in New Orleans, including a lunch house for laundry workers, cooked at an elite white women’s organization, the Orleans Club, opened a cooking school, and taught night classes while compiling her cookbook.
In 1939, she self-published more than 350 recipes for simple as well as elegant dishes in Lena Richard’s Cook Book. Her smiling face radiates from the kind of ladylike portrait one might expect to find cradled inside a gold locket worn close to the heart. A year later, at the urging of Beard and food editor Clementine Paddleford, Houghton Mifflin published a revised edition of her work. This book, however, contained a new title and preface, and that precious cameo-style photograph was gone.
Through the end of April, visitors to Beard House were welcomed into the sanctuaries of unsung culinary heroes like Richard. Screen-printed images of black women at work in and around the kitchen hearth in slave and sharecropper’s cabins, gardens, and in shotgun houses throughout the south hung on the walls of the Greenhouse. The images in this engaging visual history were taken from my historic reprint of a 1904 classic cookbook, The Blue Grass Cook Book — photographs that document culinary contributions to American cuisine and establish an enduring legacy for the women as modern role models who encourage everyone to cook and share real food.
In these times of Top Chef-styled plates where food is stacked, foamed and streaked, it can seem impossible to be impressed by the simplicity of three-course menus comprised of dishes like avocado cocktail, buttered saltines, broiled steak, petit pois, and watermelon ice cream — but we should try.
So, in celebration of the hard-working, nimble chef who taught culinary students how to make homemade vol-au-vent and calas toud chaud while tutoring her daughter in the entrepreneurial skills of business 101, and as part of my outreach to vulnerable children in Austin, and in partnership with the James Beard Foundation, the University of Texas, the Texas Restaurant Association, and Kikkoman, four high school culinary students cooked for a reception featuring chef Scott Barton, April 1 at the Beard House.
For the past three years, students from Pflugerville’s John B. Connally High and Austin’s Travis High have demonstrated professionalism, self-awareness, and pride in the presence of these art works, the kind of outcomes we can expect when we provide culturally-appropriate experiences that engage and inspire kids toward careers in the food industry — whether those jobs are in food archaeology, anthropology, food service, or public health.
Ryan Johnson, a senior at Connally described the meaning of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity this way: “Most people my age have never heard of the James Beard Foundation, or the IACP, but as soon as Chef mentioned those names, I couldn’t believe my ears. I thought. “No way!
“Every night this week, I could hardly sleep because of the anticipation, and thoughts of the different people I’ll meet, and foods I’ll see. My mom always wanted me to be as passionate about food as she is; her wish has come true. I am truly grateful for the wonderful opportunities my passion and hard work have brought me, and I can’t help but think, “I’m actually going to be a chef…”
For information about The Jemima Code exhibit at the James Beard House Greenhouse Gallery, visit:
In Her Kitchen
- 2 cups sifted flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon each ground nutmeg and cinnamon
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 egg, well beaten
- 1 tablespoon melted butter
- 1/2 cup milk
Sift flour once, measure, add baking powder, salt, nutmeg and cinnamon. Sift together, three times. Combine sugar and egg; add butter. Add flour, alternately with milk, a small amount at a time. Beat after each addition until smooth. Knead lightly 2 minutes on lightly-floured board. Roll 1/3-inch thick. Cut with doughnut cutter. Let rise for several minutes. Fry in deep, hot fat until golden brown. Drain on unglazed paper. Sprinkle with powdered sugar, if desired.
Number of Servings: 12
In Her Kitchen
Betty Simmons sits leisurely on the back porch at 2515 Holman, in Houston’s historic Third Ward with a big, round metal pot in her lap and a curtain of voluptuous hydrangeas as her backdrop. She has a small knife in one hand, peeling what appears to be potatoes. Her white hair is brushed back away from her face, revealing a surprisingly supple and healthy look for a woman of nearly 100. The chain link of a porch swing is barely visible beyond the ornate railing.
Betty is one of five Jemima Code women who are on exhibition through June 19, at Project Row Houses, Round 34 Matter of Food. My artist friend and Peace Through Pie partner Luanne Stovall and I are co-curators of Hearth House, a traveling installation where Betty and the cooks of the Blue Grass Cook Book (the Turbaned Mistress, Aunt Frances, Aunt Maria and Aunt Dinah) are capturing the hearts of visitors just about as much as they enchant us.
Some years ago, as I fretted on a Southern Foodways Alliance excursion over the loss of these women, my friend and mentor John Egerton asked me whether they were haunting me. I shared his silly question with some artsy friends who were having their own unique, spiritual responses to the women. Before we knew it, the idea for the Project Row Houses exhibit materialized.
That phenomenal creative team (Ellen Hunt, Meeta Morrison, Luanne and I) digitized and enlarged the women’s images onto seven-foot-tall, transparent screen-like fabric that is suspended from the ceiling in one of seven shotgun-style houses at PRH.
Of course, we all knew that in order to break the code, the space had to be beautiful, so the walls were painted in warm colors that bring thoughts of sweet potatoes, sorghum and sunflowers to mind. The text is minimal — drawn from the inspirational words of Mary McLeod Bethune and from the women themselves. And, a fourth wall, painted in chalkboard paint, provides a space for the community to share kitchen memories and pie stories (which we erase periodically to symbolize the way the women were erased from history). A rough-hewn long table invites guests to linger and to leave their kitchen tales on recipe cards that will become part of our permanent archive.
When the banners were first unrolled, I actually lost my footing and crumbled onto the floor. And cried. I’d spent so many years waiting for these women to finally be honored. To top it off, on our final day of installation, my mother noticed that as I stood on the back porch of the house just beyond the screen of my favorite, the Turbaned Mistress, my silhouette was eerily superimposed into the screen like the shadow of a child, ready for tutelage at her side. Thank goodness she had the sense to photograph the moment. Obviously, the mystery of the women is very personal. And, it is palpable.
Since Opening Day, people visiting the exhibit have written to confess their experiences, too. They tell me how Aunt Frances looks over them in different ways depending upon the sunlight, or when the hot, humid breeze blows through the house at different times of day.
Is there something special to know about Betty?
Betty was one of those extraordinary slave girls, who grew up in the kitchen in the shadow of a phenomenal Texas cook who had absolutely no idea she was saving a child’s life as she passed on culinary skills casually, one meal at a time. But, she did.
Betty was born a slave to Leftwidge Carter in Macedonia, Alabama, then she was stolen as a child and sold to slave traders, who later sold her in slavery here in Texas, where her cooking skills protected her from a harsh life of field labor in slave times, and helped her manage scarce resources in freedom.
She was interviewed at a time when national pursuits – from board games and radio to mystery novels by Agatha Christie – helped Americans escape the rigors of Depression-era living, and field writers for the Federal Writer’s Project recorded the life stories and oral histories of former slaves.
Sadly, the government didn’t think to ask many questions about food and cooking, but I’m not mad at them. Fortunately for all of us, the conversational style of Betty’s narrative gives an intricately detailed look at the precarious life of a slave cook working at a Texas boarding house. I learned a little about humility, charity and self-respect from Betty. And, after months of putting the wrong things first in my life, I’m hoping she will help me get my priorities straight from today forward.
What do her words encourage you to do?
Here is a bit of her story:
When massa Langford was ruint and dey goin’ take de store ‘way from him, day was trouble, plenty of dat. One day massa send me down to brudder’s place. I was dere two days and den de missy tell me to go to the fence. Dere was two white men in a buggy and one of ‘em say I thought she was bigger dan dat,’ Den he asks me, ‘Betty, kin you cook? I tells him I been the cook helper two, three month, [Betty’s aunt Adeline was the Langford’s cook] and he say, ‘You git dressed and come on down three mile to de other side de post office.’ So I gits my little bundle and when I gits dere he say, “gal, you want to go ‘bout 26 mile and help cook at de boardin’ house?
Betty’s narrative ends with a sad revelation that her massa eventually did lose everything he owned to creditors — including his slaves. She and the remaining servants were sent to various traders — some benevolent, some harsh — in Memphis and New Orleans. Eventually, Betty the child winds up in Liberty, Texas, where she conveys a message that still resonates for for everyone trying to make it through difficult times — including me:
We work de plot of ground for ourselves and maybe have a pig or a cuple chickens ourselves…We gits on alright after freedom, but it hard at furst ‘cause us didn’t know how to do for ourselves. But we has to larn.
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.