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The Real Black Chefs Who Taught Americans to Cook

Aunt Jemima, the pancake icon, was the best known of many stereotyped cooks used to sell food products during the Jim Crow era. Her image evolved, but up until 1989, she was obviously a servant and a racist caricature. Toni Tipton-Martin, author of The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks, wants to separate the image of black chefs as slaves and servants, mindlessly and joyfully cooking for others, from the actual contributions that African-American made to American cuisine. It’s not easy, as the origins of many dishes are attributed to slave owners, no matter who did the cooking. Tipton-Martin tells us about how 20th-century cookbooks featuring recipes developed by slaves suffered a split between those written by white women for white readers and those written by actual black cooks.

Emma and William McKinney led the way in 1922, publishing a book inspired by his “mammy,” Caroline Pickett, called Aunt Caroline’s Dixieland Recipes. While the standard Southern recipes had ordinary names, those thought as ethnic dishes made with poverty foods had caricatured names to emphasize their blackness: Mammy’s Graham Muffins, Aunt Caroline’s Corn Bread, Uncle Remus Mint Julep, and Pickaninny Cookies. The recipes were, the McKinneys write, “drawn from the treasured memories of Aunt Caroline Pickett, a famous old Virginia cook, the ‘pinch of this’ and ‘just a smacker of that’ so wonderfully and mysteriously combined by the culinary masters of the Southland have been carefully and scientifically analyzed and recorded in this volume.”

“These artificial barriers were set up so that dishes that required the most affluent resources are attributed to white cooks, and the black cooks are given ownership over the food that you make with more humble ingredients,” Tipton-Martin says. “Aunt Caroline’s Dixieland Recipes is a good example of the confusion.”

Meanwhile, real cookbooks by black authors have existed since at least 1827, when Robert Roberts wrote a directory for house servants. Black-authored cookbooks in the 20th century presented recipes from their training and personal experience in a dignified manner. Tipton-Martin gives us a fascinating account of these parallel versions of Southern cooking at Collectors Weekly.    

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