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What 200 Years of African-American Cookbooks Reveal About How We Stereotype Food

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Katie Nodjimbadem, SMITHSONIAN

 
(Smithsonian.com) – Aunt Jemima’s warm smile, pearl earrings and perfectly coiffed hair are easily recognizable in the breakfast foods aisle in grocery stores. But her initial stereotypical “mammy” look—obese, bandana-wearing, asexual—conceived by a pancake mix company in 1889, was just one of the many ways that American food culture misrepresented and coopted African American culinary traditions.

After collecting more than 300 cookbooks written by African American authors, award-winning food journalist Toni Tipton-Martin challenges those “mammy” characteristics that stigmatized African American cooks for hundreds of years in her new book The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks.

Tipton-Martin presents a new look at the influence of black chefs and their recipes on American food culture. Her goals are two-fold: to expand the broader community’s perception of African-American culinary traditions and to inspire African Americans to embrace their culinary history.

The earliest cookbooks featured in The Jemima Code date to the mid-19th century when free African Americans in the North sought avenues for entrepreneurial independence. In 1866, Malinda Russell self-published the first complete African-American cookbook, , which included 250 recipes for everything from medical remedies to pound cake.

Recipe books of the early to mid-20th century catered to the multicultural, European-inspired palette of the white and black middle class. Lena Richard’s New Orleans Cook Book, for instance, includes recipes such as shrimp remoulade and pain perdu that “put the culinary art within the reach of every housewife and homemaker.”

And many cookbooks featured recipes developed by African-American servants for the tastes of their white employers. Mammy’s Cook Book, which was self-published in 1927 by a white woman who credits all of the recipes to the black caretaker of her childhood, includes recipes for egg custards and Roquefort and tomato salad.
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