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Toni Tipton-Martin on Two Classic Cookbooks of the Black American Experience

A new book shines a spotlight on writers like Ruth L. Gaskins and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor

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American cuisine has been profoundly shaped by the contributions of African Americans, especially women of African descent. But historically, their innovation and culinary artistry have been erased or outright appropriated by white cooks. In her book The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks (University of Texas Press, 2015), Toni Tipton-Martin sets out to reclaim the lost legacy of these cooks and chefs. Her tools? Tipton-Martin's own remarkable collection of historic cookbooks by black Americans, its extensive contents spanning two centuries.

The book, structured chronologically, consists of descriptions and analyses of the notable cookbooks in the collection; the overall effect is one of a comprehensive and unprecedented portrait of the true history of African-American foodways. In her introduction to the book, Tipton-Martin explains its title:

"Black codes once defined legal place for former slaves. Historically, the Jemima code was an arrangement of words and images synchronized to classify the character and life's work of our nation's black cooks as insignificant. The encoded message assumes that black chefs, cooks and cookbook authors — by virtue of their race and gender — are simply born with good kitchen instincts. It diminishes the knowledge, skills and abilities involved in their work and portrays them as passive and ignorant laborers incapable of creative culinary artistry."

Reprinted here are two entries from the book's section on soul food. The first, "A Good Heart and a Light Hand," offers what Tipton-Martin calls a "panoramic celebration" of soul food; the second, "Vibration Cooking: Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl," captures the "colorful" perspective, energy, and cuisine of artist, performer, and culinary legend Vertamae Grosvenor. —Meghan McCarron

Toni Tipton-Martin. Photo by Jonathan Garza.

Toni Tipton-Martin on Two Essential Soul Food Cookbooks

A Good Heart and a Light Hand: Every Good Negro Cook Starts with Two Basic Ingredients
Ruth L. Gaskins
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968
110 pages

The author doesn't set out to focus on herself. Instead, she draws readers into the world of African Americans by reclaiming the diversity of their cookery and her own expressions of charity. What we get here is a panoramic celebration that basks in the accomplishments of others in order to inspire tolerance. She credits the South as the source of her dishes: "Most of my friends who contributed recipes live in Alexandria, Virginia, although many were originally from other parts of the South. They are all Negroes, as am I; many are professional cooks--I am not; and they all have and use the two basic ingredients--'a Good Heart and a Light Hand.'"

The instructional book begins with a metaphor for southern hospitality, a practice Gaskins calls "A Negro Welcome." The "welcome" is symbolized by the pot on the stove, and it is omnipresent--at home, in the company of friends, at church, at club meetings, and at family reunions. The welcome pot in Negro kitchens relies on "six basic ingredients," Gaskins reports: corn, pork, chicken, greens, seafood, sour or buttermilk, and molasses, foods that "have stayed with us for 300 years, and still form the heart of Negro cooking." She adds that soul cooking has kept its identity while evolving: "We've added sauces, spices, butter, relishes and wines--we've pretty much replaced molasses with sugar, and new houses have taken away most of our small game, but essentially we still start with the same foods . . . and, of course, a good heart and a light hand."

Illustrations of the "six basic ingredients" and delightful anecdotes give readers an appreciation for the habits and rituals behind the mysterious "soul" of African American cookery, something the author defines as "cooking everything anyway." Readers learn how soup is served on Negro tables. We are treated to the intricate instructions for killing and shelling a turtle, "a social event" that begins with getting the shy creature to stick its head out of the shell. Another dish that is somewhere between a thick soup and a stew is served once a week, along with cornbread, for dinner. Lima bean soup is seasoned as in Africa, with flaked corned (smoked) fish, not pork parts; bacon, one ham bone, or two ham hocks enliven bean soup. Wine Soup is a popular cold palate cleanser served at weddings and birthday party buffets.

"Gaskins leads the meat section with a Negro cook's revelation: 'Eating without vinegar is like eating without salt.'"

Gaskins leads the meat section with a Negro cook's revelation: "Eating without vinegar is like eating without salt." She explains that every dinner table includes a condiment tray and that vinegar holds the place of honor, respected for everything from preserving food to improving appearance. Comprehensive meat, poultry, and fish selections reveal a cook's understanding of the process of "denaturing" and preparing protein in liquid and heat to ensure that it is cooked safely and yet tender, also known as braising or stewing.

She describes her way to cure, bake, and glaze ham, and gives general directions for today's nose-to-tail cookery: chitlins, hog maw, pigs' feet, tails, ears, hocks, neck bones, homemade sausage, and spareribs. Beef gets the same treatment--roasted, baked in a crust, braised with dumplings, sautéed with eggs. As a bonus, we learn about the oldest Negro settlement in the area and how small game became part of local menus.

Moreover, Gaskins creates an inventory of soul delicacies from a few, limited ingredients. Fried chicken is made special for Sunday dinner: smothered, fruit glazed and roasted, mixed with oysters and baked in a pie, or stuffed with cornbread dressing and served with giblet gravy. Fish is baked African style, in the ground between layers of grass and hot coals. There are fried eels (which were popular in  seventeenth-century English cookbooks as well as African American ones), crab cakes, and five ways with oysters, including barbecued and baked in a pie.

"Vegetables are front and center in Gaskins's menus because, she says, 'Every backyard used to be a vegetable garden.'"

Vegetables are front and center in Gaskins's menus because, she says, "Every backyard used to be a vegetable garden." Her vast repertoire features dried okra, spiced sweet potato balls, cooked greens with a dash of sugar, squash cakes, three variations on potato salad, and a dish that reminds her of chicken salad but is made with hog maws instead.

The section "Hot Breads" shares the history of cornmeal breads and teaches leavening methods as well as a way to make noodles (dumplings). The recipes include Cornbread for 25, which brings the welcome pot to "every large church or family function"; strip and drop dumplings; biscuits; and rolls so feather light that her father couldn't be satisfied until he had eaten a dozen.

Gaskins's desserts demonstrate the skilled use of things at hand: fruit from backyard trees goes into puddings, soufflés, and custards; nuts and berries gathered by the children every fall are used to accent cakes and doughnuts; and a dozen pies, "are our food": "We make them out of practically anything and eat them hot, if possible, usually with vanilla ice cream, at least 2 to 3 times a week."

The book concludes with the "Catch All" chapter, which provides a close look at fermentation processes and includes pickles, relishes, preserves; butters and wines made from elderberries, plums or peaches, potatoes, rice. The summer favorite that most black families think of as a prime example of making do is also here, made from crushed cornbread and cold buttermilk. She calls it Cornbread Cooler.

Vibration Cooking, or The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl
Vertamae Grosvenor
Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970
Reprint, New York: Ballantine, 1986
220 pages

Born in Fairfax, South Carolina, the granddaughter of a slave, Vertamae Grosvenor was mother to Kali and Chandra. She performed on radio, television, and stage--in fact, loved the theater. She was not a writer. She got mad easily, did not like hospitals or taxis, and never held a serious nine-to-five job. She loved her beautiful friends, bon voyage parties, and cooking. She considered collard greens a delicacy. And she had great food memories and experiences.

Grosvenor could not help being creative, so she wrote this colorful diary with recipes. It serves as a broad pathway for reaching beyond the soul motif in order to find equity for black cookery within the culinary mainstream. Run through with bits of sarcasm, contempt for dishonesty or prejudice, obvious empathy for the black power movement, and enough intimate dialogue and detailed imagery to fill a black-nationalism screenplay, Grosvenor's demystification of black cooking is comprehensive.

The introduction to the 1986 edition explains her thoughts on the "nonracial aspects of blackeyed peas, watermelon and other so-called soul foods." She believed in a universal and globally diverse kitchen: any dish, from any country, composed of any ingredients, could be soulful. She went on to admit, however, that she wrote about African-American cookery, for several reasons: "Because I'm black and know the wonderful, fascinating culinary history there is. And because the Afro-American cook has been so under-appreciated."

She details just how underappreciated it is: "In reading lots and lots of cookbooks written by white folks, it occurred to me that people very casually say Spanish rice, French fries, Italian spaghetti, Chinese cabbage, Mexican beans, Swedish meatballs, Danish pastry, English muffins and Swiss cheese. And with the exception of black bottom pie and niggertoes, there is no reference to black people's contribution to the culinary arts." By capturing her life experiences through the lens of food, she intended to change that.

Her book is organized around seven episodes--"Home," "Away From Home," "Madness," "Love," "Mixed Bag," "Some Letters to and From Stella and one to Bob Thompson," and "Continued"--each with its own subset of folkways, reminiscences, tributes, and gossip about special people, places, and events. And some recipes.

"In 'Home,' she de­scribes her up­bringing in the rural South. 'Away From Home' covers her time spent in Paris."

In "Home," she describes her upbringing in the rural South. Recollections are gathered under the heading "Birth, Hunting and Gator Tails," and there are recipes for stewed small game, Kangaroo Tail Stew (canned and imported from Australia), and bear paw served like ham.

"Away From Home" covers her time spent in Paris, set in two periods: 1959 and 1968. There are recipes for pasta, ambrosia, pumpkin soup, salade niçoise, and Upright Ragout, a mix of chicken and leftover meat she prepared in a tiny apartment on the rue des Ursulines.

In "Madness," she tells stories about mean taxi drivers, unpleasant hospital stays, and her work ethic --or lack thereof.

"To tell the truth," she writes,

I ain't never really had no serious job working from nine to five. The ones I had I didn't keep \'cause my nerves would not take it. It's just not my rhythm . . . not my style. I have had some freakish jobs. I used to sew for a photographer. I made special effects such as aprons for elephants and six-sleeved shirts for a shirt ad. But my cooking jobs were the funniest . . . I had become the cook in Pee Wee's Slave Trade Kitchen. It didn't last long. But everyone dug my cooking.

She then gives a representative example:

One of the things that everyone dug was chicken in peanut butter sauce. It is a West African dish sometimes called


Cut up and season and sauté the chicken in peanut oil. When brown, add chopped bell pepper and chopped onions. When the onions are transparent, add red pepper and chicken broth and lots chunky-style peanut butter. Sauce should be on the stiff side. Serve with rice or plantain.

As anyone can tell, Grosvenor cooked by"vibration"--determining doneness by sight and smell, with approximated measurements and seasoning added according to taste. She preferred simple, plain, and ordinary food that was readily available, and in a smug act of reverse racism, she urges readers to check out their "kitchen vibrations." "What kind of pots are you using?" she asks. "Throw out all of them except the black ones. The cast-iron ones like your mother used to use. Can't no Teflon fry no fried chicken. I only use black pots and brown earthenware in the kitchen. White enamel is not what's happening."

"Love" includes a hilarious account of a black cook named Honky, who knew lots of ways to fix cheap meals. One of his favorites: Stuffed Heart Honky Style. "Mixed Bag" covers assorted experiences with greens, a warning about aphrodisiacal foods, a rundown of cocktails and beverage recipes from family and friends, and an insightful study called "White People and Fried Chicken." Laugh-out-loud letters exchanged between Grosvenor and her cousin Stella, and a few random tales about the cultural aspects of her cooking, wrap up her travel notes.

She dedicates the book "to my mama and my grandmothers and my sisters in appreciation of the years that they worked in miss ann's kitchen and then came home to TCB [take care of business] in spite of slavery and oppression and the Moynihan report."

You dig?

This excerpt from The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks (copyright © 2015 by Toni Tipton-Martin) is used by permission of the University of Texas Press. For more information visit


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