Toni Tipton-Martin on the African-American Cooking Canon and Her Favorite Recipe from ‘Jubilee’

updated Feb 23, 2020
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Credit: From Left to Right: Pableaux Johnson; Joe Lingeman

Toni Tipton-Martin’s latest cookbook, Jubilee, is an invitation to celebrate two centuries of African American cooking in its incredibly varied forms. The massive undertaking is and was a continuation of Toni’s tireless research efforts that led to her first James Beard Award winning book: The Jemima Code revealed the work of more than 150 black-authored cookbooks dating back to as early as 1827.

When Jubilee was published this past September, it quickly soared to the top of every fall cookbook ‘best list’ — and it’s not difficult to see why. In viewing this comprehensive “blueprint of black culinary history,” readers will see the ways in which Tipton-Martin has translated nearly two-hundred years of recipes for today’s kitchens. She artfully shows the evolution of classic dishes for every occasion, with sections including Food for Company (appetizers), Liquified Soul (beverages), The Staff of Life (breads), and For the Welcome Table (soups and salads).

As part of our Cookbook Club’s month-long celebration Jubilee, we interviewed Toni Tipton-Martin for a deeper look at what went into compiling this stunning collection.

Did you settle on the book’s name at the beginning or end of the writing process?
I knew the book was going to be about freedom and knew it would be called Jubilee at the end of writing The Jemima Code, when I saw what had been accomplished by honoring these invisible cooks in such a way. The Jemima Code authors had such a compelling story to tell all of us about people who were working behind the scenes in our food system. Their messages were resonant in terms of the complexities that we’re still dealing with today. Discovering these cooks and honoring them through their recipes would set us free from the boundaries that have held us in.

The amount of time you spent uncovering the rare cookbooks and recipes included in this book can only be described as a labor of love. What was the research phase like?
I feel bad when I hear those words come back to me because it makes it sound like it was hard work. Of course it was hard to excavate lives for these people, but it was like a treasure hunt for me. I did not know what I had stumbled into. All I had was this little road map, a catalogue from the University of Alabama that listed all of these books. Like a scavenger on a hunt, I went from one book to the next. It was exhilarating each time I found one. Of course, a little scary as the price of each book increased!

This book includes two centuries worth of recipes: How did you narrow down which ones you would update for publication?
That might have been the hardest part. As part of my research, I discovered the Schomburg recipe list (the word of Afro-Puerto Rican historian Arturo Schomburg), which gave me a baseline of recipes which I could build upon. It was another kind of treasure map. I had the words of an independent scholar to guide me, someone who wanted to legitimize the African American presence in American cuisine, so I wasn’t someone trying to advance certain food topics for selfish reasons. I looked through the cookbooks for the recipes that he identified. I then wanted to ensure that they had staying power, that they were really part of an African American canon and not some arbitrary list no longer relevant since the 30s. From there, I wanted to look at how these recipes persisted over the years and whether they existed in contemporary cookbooks.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Your choice to include the untouched historical recipes is such a smart way to show how cooking evolves. What’s the most common adjustment you found yourself making to the recipes?
I think the most common issue with reinterpreting and reimagining historical recipes is that the cooks in the old days took for granted that everyone knew how to do many essential things. Theres so much that’s left out of old recipes. Another issue is that these were people cooking fresh from their gardens and farms where the quality of ingredients was so incredible and flavorful. They fed their pigs peanuts— so you can imagine the amazing flavor that would emerge in the flesh.

We’re dealing with such inferior mass produced food today, and the flavors are not as compelling. The issue for modern cooks trying to interpret these recipes is the desire to add more seasoning which I encountered a lot throughout the editing process, adding a small amount of salt, and pepper, and fresh herbs. This might seem completely necessary, but I also encourage readers to adapt these recipes according to their own taste.

It’s interesting that you want people to interpret and make these recipes their own.
We used to offer weekly call-ins on Wednesdays and people would call in with questions, like, ‘Can I use currants instead of raisins?’ I felt it was important to give people permission to do so, because we live in this time of intense questioning of appropriations and who owns the food. It’s a sticky subject because African Americans have not been given credit for the food they cooked that disappeared into the American canon. Tacos and spaghetti are conspicuous, they have an identity or marker, but our food doesn’t have that. The question of appropriations, or when it’s okay to cook another group’s food, take on new complexity when you’re talking about African Americans, so I wanted to give that permission.

Which recipes in the book have become favorites among readers?
With all appreciation to NYT’s Sam Sifton, it’s the pork chops in lemon-caper sauce recipe. It’s been so fun for me to watch people interpret this recipe. I don’t know if we’ve become so uppity in our cooking that pork chops moved so low on the hog. For African Americans, there was a time when the offals of the hog were the parts that we were adept at cooking. Cooking chops and roasts instead of spareribs was a move towards cooking more sumptuously. People are now trying to slot this as me saying pork chops are now in “the official African American canon” but I’m adamantly against identifying them as such. The water that emerged from the water fountains during segregation in the American south was the same whether it was labeled “black” or “white.” This is the same food that sustains African Americans and whites. The idea of an African American cooking canon to me is much more one of technique rather than ingredients. These are people who understand adaptability and became more nimble cooks because of this attitude of making do.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

What recipes and section do you turn to most?
I love to bake. If I were thinking about writing another, my next book would be about baking. The recipes in the cookbook, especially Malinda Russel’s Lemon Tea Cake are dear to me. In the book, I talk about my mother’s garden. She had the most amazing Meyer lemon orchard, the driveway was just lined with these voluptuous lemons with skin so thin that it’s hard to zest. So full and plump and sweet. Back when I was a stay-at-home mom, one of the wild hare thoughts that I had was that I might become a caterer. Instead, I had a tiny moment as a mail order baker. I used that lemon cake recipe because it doesn’t require a frosting or syrup (although one adds a layer of decadence that I really love).

You’re a historian, journalist, cookbook author, teacher, consultant, and more. Which do you consider yourself to be first and foremost?
I consider myself a motivational speaker, in the sprit of my ancestors who used their kitchens as a pulpit — a place for them to preach the gospel, kindness, generosity, patience, love for your fellow man, all while serving really delicious food. I have begun to embrace their spirit and find myself speaking more and more about the polarizing, dangerously divisive times in which we are living. What I hope people takeaway from this book is that we are more alike than we are different.

Thank you so much for sharing, Toni. BuyJubilee here, and be sure to follow Toni on Instagram here.

Toni Tipton-Martin’s Jubilee is Kitchn’s February pick for our Cookbook Club. See how you can participate here.