MARCH 3, 2020
SOMETIME DURING THE 1920s, noted Harlem historian and bibliophile Arturo Schomburg composed an ambitious proposal for one of the greatest African-American cookbooks never written. In his outline, Schomburg detailed plans to document some 400 recipes that would have cataloged everything from “traces of Africanisms which still persist in American dishes,” such as okra gumbo, to newer “‘invented’ dishes [meant] to take the bad taste of charity away from the victuals doled out by relief committees,” presumably including dishes built around offal or cheap beans and rice. Most of all, Schomburg was keen on exploring “how the negro genius has adapted […] receipts taught him by his masters just as he adapted the stern Methodist hymns and the dour tenets of Protestantism […] and how he has modified them to express his own peculiar artistic powers.” One scholar to come across the outline, sociologist John Brown Childs, evocatively wrote in 1984 that Schomburg’s vision highlighted how black foodways subverted and converted “the food of oppression into the staff of life.”
For reasons unknown, Schomburg’s proposal never came to fruition, but its spirit deeply infuses the work of food historian and writer Toni Tipton-Martin, especially her new cookbook, Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking. Tipton-Martin extensively engages with Schomburg’s ideas in her introduction, describing them as a “blueprint of black culinary history,” one that Jubilee uses as a foundation to build a towering work of food history, synthesis, and celebration (all that plus 100 or so recipes, too).
A Los Angeles native who now resides in Baltimore, Tipton-Martin began her journalism career as a food writer at the Los Angeles Times before being enticed to take a post as the food editor for The Plain Dealer in 1991, becoming the first African American to edit the food section of a major daily. She left The Plain Dealer in 1995 and has since helped co-found and lead both the Southern Foodways Alliance and the Foodways Texas organization and continues to write and teach about culinary history. She also collects cookbooks — many, many cookbooks.
Both Jubilee and its award-winning predecessor, The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks (2015), draw extensively from Tipton-Martin’s personal library of nearly 400 black cookbooks, likely the largest private collection of its kind. Though the cookbook is rarely accorded much stature in conventional literary circles — shunned for being too utilitarian or, more likely, too feminine — they are rich repositories of both community chronicles and personal stories. Cookbooks aren’t just how-to guides to preparing food, they also document quotidian acts of creative expression. All good cooks know that changing a single ingredient can wildly impact how a dish looks or tastes and, therefore, that every recipe contains within it the potential of introducing something novel into our sensory world.
Jubilee and The Jemima Code are two halves of the same project. The Jemima Code is a visually stunning annotated bibliography of black cookbooks in which Tipton-Martin shares excerpts from her collection and discusses their import for how we understand African-American foodways, both historically and in the present. With Jubilee, Tipton-Martin uses this same archive to explore and amalgamate the myriad dishes in order to create the recipes that fill the volume.
For example, she describes her recipe for okra gumbo as “diasporic” because it pulls from both Abby Fisher’s 1881 cookbook What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking and Queen Ida Guillory’s 1990 text Cookin’ with Queen Ida: “Bon Temps” Creole Recipes (and Stories) from the Queen of Zydeco Music, and thus reflects “aspects of West African, island, Lowcountry, and Louisiana gumbos,” among other influences. Likewise, her recipe for “String Beans à la Creole” credits Bertha Turner’s 1910 tome The Federation Cook Book: A Collection of Tested Recipes, Contributed by the Colored Women of the State of California. Even if most people’s recipes build upon other, older versions, Tipton-Martin’s approach is notable: most recipe books don’t come complete with citations.
Following a familiar pattern for cookbooks, Tipton-Martin splits her chapters by meal courses — “Breads,” “Main Dishes,” “Desserts,” et cetera. Within any one of those chapters, however, she includes detours that often mix personal memoir with explanatory essays on the historical evolution of various styles of cooking. The introduction to her chapter on beverages, “Liquified Soul,” delves into the underreported legacy of black bartenders and “grogshop” owners who paved the way for a flourishing of African-American-owned “juke joints,” bars, and clubs. Similarly, in her “Appetizers” chapter, there’s a sidebar devoted to “Seafood Hors d’Oeuvres” that traces the variety of croquettes found in different black foodways, whether it be fried salt-cod batter balls, salmon croquettes, or Maryland-style crab cakes.
Jubilee’s overarching goal is to recast what we think we know about black foodways. If cookbooks help document the creative energies of different communities, Tipton-Martin draws from her library to provide examples that overturn simplistic, mainstream notions of African-American cooking. As she writes in the book’s introduction, “For more than two hundred years, black cookbook authors have tried to tell a multifaceted story of African American food,” but it’s not a story that is universally understood, let alone retold.
Blame it on our fixation with soul food. Ask the average nonblack American for examples of African-American cooking and odds are they’ll turn to soul food classics — collard greens, BBQ ribs, or buttermilk fried chicken. Tipton-Martin has no beef with soul food — Jubilee includes recipes for all three of those dishes — but her point is that, too often, soul food is taken to represent the entirety of African-American cuisine, thus confining “the black experience to poverty [and] survival,” and obscuring the diversity of dishes created and consumed by “free people of color, the well-trained enslaved and skilled working class, entrepreneurs, and the black privileged class.”
By contrast, most people don’t assume that hamburgers and hot dogs represent the whole of white American cuisine, to the exclusion of, say, porterhouse steaks or lobster with drawn butter. Even a novice gourmand understands that teriyaki beef bowls and a kaiseki chef’s tasting menu exist at different ends of the Japanese culinary spectrum. Soul food, however, looms so large in our imagination of African-American cuisine that even the poshest white-tablecloth establishment, if run by a black restaurateur, is expected to serve grits or pork chops.
Schomburg, 100 years ago, understood that black foodways draw from different material lineages, identifying two of the most important as “cabin cooking and cooking for the big house.” Tipton-Martin elucidates between these traditions, describing cabin cooking as “crafted by ingenious and industrious field hands […] from meager ingredients, informed by African techniques,” whereas cooking for the big house was “lavish cooking — in the plantation kitchen or in kitchens staffed or owned by people educated formally and informally in culinary arts.” The stark difference between these two spaces produced a plethora of distinct dishes, and while there certainly may have been points of overlap, one tradition isn’t reducible into the other. Tipton-Martin makes this point exceptionally clear by beginning her “Sides and Vegetables” chapter with a quote from Texas historian Jennifer Jensen Wallach: “[S]outhern food has elements of African American food, but all African American food isn’t southern. Likewise, soul food is African American food, but not all African American food is soul food.”
Jubilee embraces an impressive array of dishes, ranging from Southern-style roast leg of lamb with rosemary to Senegalese-influenced, peanut sauce–braised lamb shanks to South Asian-by-way-of-South-Africa-by-way-of-Caribbean lamb curry. Jubilee can move from popular dishes, such as its recipe for Memphis-style pork shoulder, to a highly specific one, as when Tipton-Martin shares a method for making the Coca-Cola–marinated, oven-baked BBQ ribs favored by Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale. The cookbook manages to be simultaneously comprehensive in its scope yet also idiosyncratic in its selections. You are never not aware of the author’s presence, guiding you through her literary pantry.
By coincidence, as I was beginning to dig into Jubilee, I had the occasion to visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. While its formal exhibits relating to black foodways were modest, its massive Sweet Home Café is an homage to the different regional styles of African-American cooking, with food stations representing different geographical areas such as “The Creole Coast,” “The North States,” et cetera. The restaurant’s Sweet Home Café Cookbook: A Celebration of African American Cooking (2018), written by Albert Lukas, Jessica Harris, and Jerome Grant, maintains the focus on culinary geography: each recipe indicates the region from which the dish emerges, including a miniature map with shaded areas. For example, “Chicken Livers & Grits” is tied to the “Agricultural South,” while “High Mesa Peach & Blackberry Cobbler” has links to the “Western Range.” As for “Baked Macaroni & Cheese,” that belongs to the “Continental United States.”
Sweet Home Café Cookbook and Jubilee share much in common (beyond including recipes for many of the same dishes). Both seek to tell the stories behind black foodways, and both are rooted in a deep respect for history. The Sweet Home Café Cookbook is more digestible, thanks to its museum-like approach: broad, informative, accessible. It’s a great starter guide for an apprentice cook looking for an easy but wide-ranging entry into African-American cuisine.
In a way, the survey provided by Sweet Home Café Cookbook broadly resembles what Schomburg envisioned in the 1920s, but Jubilee actually feels closer to what Schomburg might write today. Both he and Tipton-Martin are avid bibliophiles, and it’s clear that Tipton-Martin isn’t just drawn to the histories of black food, she’s also enthralled by all the previous authors whose cookbooks inform her understanding of those histories. Jubilee is dense with hyperlocal references and histories that make you realize how deep the legacy of African-American cookbook authors runs. Jubilee is as much a love letter to those earlier books and writers as it is a celebration of African-American cooking in all its resplendent complexity.