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'Jubilee’ writes a new narrative about black food in America

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com
This pecan pie is part of a long line of dark, gooey pies served around the holidays, including a nutless molasses pie. [Contributed by Jerrelle Guy]

Toni Tipton-Martin has known that African American food is so much more than Southern or soul food since she was a kid growing up in Los Angeles.

“My culinary heritage ... was lost in a world that confined the black experience to poverty, survival and soul food,” she writes in her latest book, “Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking” (Clarkson Potter, $35).

Her mother made fresh salads and guacamole, chile-spiced meats and Asian stir-fries. They had a garden and fruit trees, and she and her friends would fry their own corn tortillas into taco shells.

She transformed her love of food into a career as a food writer, first at the Los Angeles Times and then at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where she focused on telling the story of immigrants who made Cleveland one of the most diverse culinary cities in the country.

After a short stint in Dallas, she and her family moved to Austin in 2000 for her husband’s job, and that’s when she began the next phase of her career: researching and advocating the more positive aspects of African American cooking throughout history.

It was far from the South, geographically and culturally, but if her own food experience contrasted the narrative that all black foods were either rooted in slavery or in the big house of a plantation, wouldn’t that mean that the collective African American food experience was more than cornbread and collard greens?

“I wanted to speak truth about other experiences besides the sorrowful, survival kitchen messaging” that we typically hear, she says. “We haven’t given African Americans the same space to cook foods outside the accepted canon.”

She started collecting cookbooks by black authors and kept uncovering evidence of more joyful, liberated culinary sensibilities. She saw the country’s foremost black cooks as beautiful, expressive and creative professionals, “refuting the stereotype of this asexual, angry, crusty, hard-laboring woman.”

Even though she couldn’t interview the cookbook authors who were born as early as the end of the 1700s, she could connect with them through what evidence has survived and then look for the context of how, when and where they wrote these books.

That’s where the idea of “The Jemima Code” came about, first as a blog and then as a 2015 book.

Tipton-Martin says that for years, “no one would touch the book,” which is why she first started sharing her research through exhibitions and a blog.

Many of these cookbook authors were well-trained and expressive in their food, which contrasts the “mammy” stereotype. They were resourceful, yes, but they were also inventive and empowered. “I wanted for the public to fall in love with these authors in the same way I had,” she says.

While living in Austin, Tipton-Martin helped bring the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ conference to the city in 2011, which was also when she debuted a traveling exhibit of banners that introduced some of these early authors. The “Jemima Code” exhibit traveled for about a year and a half, including a stop at the Project Row Houses art space in Houston. Tipton-Martin also hosted a Soul Summit at Huston-Tillotson University in 2015 that brought together some of the most influential black food writers, chefs and thinkers for a three-day conference.

That was the same year that the University of Texas Press published “The Jemima Code,” which won the James Beard Award for reference and scholarship.

That’s a big nod for a first book, but with her follow-up, “Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking,” she’s getting even bigger headlines, from the New Yorker and Bon Appetit to the New York Times.

African American food is sumptuous, interesting and diverse. It’s food that families cooked for one another, and the people for whom they worked, both before and after slavery. Many of the men and women highlighted in “Jubilee” and “The Jemima Code” weren’t mere cooks but trained culinary professionals who could cater for a party of 100 or serve a fine dinner party for neighbors.

“The whole point of the title is we are all free,” she says. “We are free from the stereotypes and the expectations that a food belongs to a group or that it should perform or taste a certain way. Cookbook authors have been free to do that, but African Americans have not been afforded that same freedom.”

She’s using her book tour to host mini soul summits across the country to continue “to promote black excellence past and present” and expand the ways people think about what African American foodways look like today. Next spring, she’ll host a dinner in Austin with Michael Fojtasek at Olamaie, which recently hosted a dinner series highlighting African American women in food.

“It’s taken a long time to get the support of the industry to stand on the shoulders of these people and give them the credit they are due,” she says. “We are creating more room in the conversation.”

Although through this research Tipton-Martin is now considered one of the country’s foremost scholars on African American foodways, she still considers herself a journalist. “If I were a scholar, I’d have a theory that I was trying to prove or disprove,” she says, “but as a journalist, I went where the notes and facts took me.”

In “Jubilee,” Tipton-Martin doesn’t ignore the dishes we think of as core foods of black America, such as mac and cheese or biscuits, red drinks or barbecue, but she provides a spectrum of other foods that deepen the entire understanding of American food. “I wanted to show food that represents the creativity afforded to cooks when they have resources,” she says.

Early 20th-century historian Arthur Schomburg compiled 600 dishes that defined African American cuisine, so that’s where she started, using her vast collection of cookbooks to cross-reference various recipes, techniques and even descriptions and titles. She kept scrupulous notes so she could include enough history about each dish to make the recipes meaningful without making them too dense.

For example, she includes a recipe for a sconelike orange biscuit, which appeared in several black cookbooks from the 1800s. She reasons that this fondness likely originated with the British habit of having a biscuit with marmalade during afternoon tea, but where did Europeans first get oranges? Moors from North Africa. “That North African heritage gives new meaning to the black penchant for a citrus fruit that was once considered exotic, expensive and out of reach for cooks,” she writes.

Different cooks in different eras might have used different names or techniques, and Tipton-Martin was able to connect the dots from spoon bread to cracklin’ bread to soul bread, which she transforms into a “cornbread flight.” It’s a family tree, of sorts, connected by cornmeal, lard and water that can be improved upon with egg, milk, leavening or more advanced ways to cook the mixture.

Cornbread represents a humble form of African American cooking, but, as authors like Freda DeKnight, the founding food editor for Ebony magazine, have documented, the middle-class experience profoundly shaped African American food. In the midcentury, that meant knowing how to entertain. Her 1948 book included elegant recipes for hors d’oeuvres and a dip made with Roquefort cheese with brandy.

There’s a recipe for braised celery, one of the most en vogue recipes of the 19th century, that came from a 1912 caterer’s cookbook by S. Thomas Bivens that featured other party fare, such as meatballs and tea cakes. Tipton-Martin’s centerpiece-worthy ham is glazed with Champagne, inspired by a similar dish in the 1969 book “The Negro Chef Cookbook.”

It’s fascinating to learn about the grand cooks of yesterday. James Hemings, the enslaved chef of Thomas Jefferson, traveled with him on trips to Europe, where Hemings picked up french fries, creme brulee, a macaroni-making machine and a waffle maker. By 1802, he was serving macaroni pie in the White House, and in 1845, Mary Randolph, a Jefferson relative, published a recipe for cheese-topped macaroni.

Artaway Fillmore, a chef at the Hilton in Dallas who was recently honored by the Lubbock Women’s Club for his contribution to the city’s history, published the “Lone Star Cook Book” in 1929, a book that is among the rarest in Tipton-Martin’s collection. Fillmore’s Creole and chili powder-spiced dishes — and Tipton-Martin’s mother’s own tamale pie — inspired her to create a chile-roasted turkey with chile pecan sauce that isn’t an exact replica of what he made but an homage nonetheless.

Even with all the historical references, Tipton-Martin’s idea of African American food isn’t stuck in the past. She references new cookbooks, including chef Todd Richards’ “Soul,” Carla Hall’s “Carla’s Comfort Foods” and Alice Randall’s “Soul Food Love,” and the singer Kelis gets credit for influencing her Caribbean-spiced pork.

“It’s still premature for us to expect to define a total African American food canon because we are still unearthing so much information about the black food experience,” she says.

Researching the dishes and excavating the thinking behind them was the most enjoyable part of writing the cookbook, Tipton-Martin says, but developing the dishes over and over again renewed her respect for the work that cookbook authors put into their books.

Her mother helped her keep track of the recipe development, and she relied on a large group of friends and family to help her test the versions that ultimately appear in the book.

The book came out a year after originally planned because Tipton-Martin wanted to find the right photographer who could capture both the flavors and beauty in the dishes, as well as the historical context.

The Dallas-based photographer Jerrelle Guy, who also wrote and photographed the 2018 cookbook “Black Girl Baking,” shot all of the dishes in her studio, using some of Tipton-Martin’s heirloom dishes and utensils as props.

After living in Denver while she worked on “Jubilee,” Tipton-Martin and her husband bought a 100-year-old row house in Baltimore that they plan to renovate. Eventually, it will be the home for her cookbook library and, she hopes, a nonprofit based on continuing this research and community education.

Now that this multi-year project is finished, Tipton-Martin can turn to a memoir that digs even deeper into this exploration of the development of African American cuisine and her own personal history.

The journey has filled her with gratitude, for the forebears who worked without international recognition and for the “Jemima Code” champions who saw the value in her research.

This Thanksgiving, she’ll celebrate the holiday with her family in Houston, where she’ll likely make that Fillmore-inspired chile-rubbed turkey and speak the names of the men and women who have so deeply influenced her life and her work.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to be the vessel for these people,” she says.

Sweet Potato Salad With Pecans, Orange-Maple Dressing

I met Patrick Clark in 1990 when he was an up-and-coming chef at Los Angeles’ Bice restaurant and I was the nutrition writer for the Times. One of the country’s brightest culinary stars, let alone one of black America’s culinary lights, he passed away suddenly while we were working on a cookbook proposal, translating his restaurant specialties for the home kitchens. To honor his memory, Chicago’s renowned chef Charlie Trotter assembled several of Clark’s recipes and others from the industry’s top chefs in a fundraising collection, “Cooking With Patrick Clark.” Grilled sweet potato salad with chile and ginger vinaigrette was among them.

The dish is a popular alternative to classic potato salad with a connection to the tropics. Several black authors have put their own spin on it, including Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, and the Food Network’s Pat and Gina Neely. But I offer this take on the dish from “B. Smith Cooks Southern-Style” as a tribute to the cookbook author, restaurateur, entrepreneur and model Barbara Smith.

— Toni Tipton-Martin

5 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons maple syrup

1/4 cup orange juice

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground or freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1/2 cup chopped green onions

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

1/4 cup coarsely chopped toasted pecans

1/4 cup golden raisins

1/4 cup black raisins

Black pepper

In a large pot, combine the sweet potatoes and enough lightly salted water to cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and cook until just tender, about 15 minutes. Drain and allow the potatoes to cool to room temperature. (Alternatively, simmer the potatoes whole for 15 minutes, cool, peel and slice 3/4 inch thick, brush with vegetable oil, and grill over moderately hot coals until just cooked through, 3 to 5 minutes per side. Cut the potatoes into 3/4-inch cubes.)

Add the cooked, cooled potato cubes to a large bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, maple syrup, orange juice, vinegar, ginger, nutmeg and salt.

Add the green onions, parsley, pecans and raisins to the bowl of sweet potatoes and toss together. Gently stir in the dressing, tossing just until combined. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Serves 6.

— From “Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking” (Clarkson Potter, $35) by Toni Tipton-Martin

Sweetened Potato Rolls

Carolyn Quick Tillery collected recipes and remembrances from three historically black colleges: Alabama’s renowned Tuskegee Institute, the Hampton Institute in Virginia and Howard University in Washington, D.C. She included potato rolls in all three of them. While fermented potatoes are no longer required to raise these rolls — commercial yeast takes care of that — the use of potato harks back to the past and provides moisture and lightness. The dough can be a little sticky, which produces a slightly dense crumb. The first time you make this sweet dough, you may need a bit more flour to help you through the kneading, rolling and cutting, but once you get the hang of it, you will love the results.

— Toni Tipton-Martin

1 medium russet potato (6 to 8 ounces), peeled and diced

1 (1/4-ounce) package active dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)

1/4 cup warm water (110 to 115 degrees)

1/3 cup shortening, plus more for greasing

1/3 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more for pot

1 large egg

1/2 cup whole milk, lukewarm

3 1/2 to 4 cups bread flour, plus more for the work surface

Melted salted butter, for brushing the pan and the rolls

Coarse salt (optional)

In a small pot, cover the potato with lightly salted water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Mash the diced potatoes until completely smooth. Measure out 1/2 cup of mashed potatoes (reserve leftover potatoes for another use). Let the mashed potatoes cool.

In a small bowl, sprinkle the yeast into the warm water and whisk until dissolved. Let stand 5 minutes.

In a large bowl, with an electric mixer, beat the shortening, sugar and salt until smooth. Add the cooled mashed potatoes and egg and mix on medium speed about 1 minute, scraping the sides of the bowl halfway through the beating time. Scrape the bowl again. Add the milk, reserved potato water and the yeast mixture and continue to blend until thoroughly mixed.

Gradually add 3 1/2 cups of the flour to the mixture, 1 cup at a time, adding additional flour, if necessary, to make a stiff tacky dough. Scrape the bowl between additions. Flour your work surface and turn the dough out. Knead until the dough is elastic and smooth, sprinkling with additional flour, 1 teaspoon at a time, as needed to keep the dough from sticking. Grease a large bowl and place the dough in it. Turn the dough over to lightly coat all sides with shortening. Cover it with wax paper, a bowl lid or a damp towel. Let it rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour. (After this rise, the dough may be refrigerated overnight, but allow it to come to room temperature and rise again before rolling and shaping.)

For Parker House rolls: Lightly brush a 15-inch-by-9-inch rimmed baking sheet with butter. Divide the dough in half. Working with one half at a time, roll the dough on a lightly floured surface to 1/4-inch thick and cut with a floured 3-inch round cutter or floured glass. Brush each roll with melted butter and fold in half. Place the rolls 1/2 inch apart on the greased baking sheet. Gather, re-roll and cut scraps. Place on the baking sheet. Brush with additional butter, if desired. Cover loosely with a clean towel. Allow to stand until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

For cloverleaf rolls: Lightly brush 12 cups of a muffin tin with butter. Divide the risen dough into 12 pieces of equal size. Divide each piece into 3 smaller pieces. Roll them between the palms of your hands into round balls. Place 3 small balls close together in each muffin cup. Brush with melted butter, cover loosely with a clean towel, and allow to rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake the rolls until golden, about 30 minutes. Brush with additional melted butter and sprinkle with a pinch of coarse salt, if desired.

— From “Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking” (Clarkson Potter, $35) by Toni Tipton-Martin

Southern Pecan Pie Laced With Whiskey

You can find standard pecan pie recipes on the label of the corn syrup bottle, but through the years, I have encountered many inventive variations — whether predecessors or descendants. In slavery days, molasses pie, a cinnamon-spiced syrup-based pie without the nuts, was a Christmas treat. In later recipes, grated orange zest or coconut added an exotic perfume to the filling. Melted chocolate, chocolate chips or cooked, mashed sweet potatoes spread on the crust gave tastebuds a surprise. And pie shells made from all sorts of baked goodies — from crushed gingersnap cookies and thin chocolate wafers, to graham crackers and zwieback toasts (old-time rusks) — have added variety. But here is a time-honored version — sweet and gooey, packed with nuts — with one twist: The splash of whiskey or rum gives this spirited pie another layer of flavor and takes the pie’s familiar syrupy sweetness down a notch.

— Toni Tipton-Martin

1 1/2 cups chopped toasted pecans, plus 1/2 cup pecan halves

2 tablespoons whiskey or rum

1/2 recipe Best-Ever Pie Crust (recipe follows), unbaked

6 tablespoons butter, at room temperature

1 cup packed dark brown sugar

3/4 cup dark corn syrup

3 large eggs, beaten

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Place the chopped toasted pecans in a small bowl and toss with the whiskey until coated. Let stand 1 hour.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Roll the dough to fit a 9-inch pie plate, and tuck it in as the crust recipe directs.

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and brown sugar until light. Beat in the corn syrup, eggs, salt and vanilla. Stir in the whiskey-soaked pecans. Pour into the pie shell, and arrange the pecan halves on top in an attractive pattern.

Bake until the filling is set but still has a slight jiggle in the middle, 55 to 60 minutes. (While baking, check to see that the edges of the crust aren’t browning too quickly; cover them with foil if they are.) Cool the pie slightly, then serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 8.

— From “Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking” (Clarkson Potter, $35) by Toni Tipton-Martin

Best-Ever Pie Crust

I use lard for my crusts because I love the rich flavor and short texture, but an all-butter dough results in an even flakier crust, should you choose to substitute more butter for the lard here. This recipe makes two crusts, for either two single-crust pies or one double-crust pie. Making the full amount is just as easy as making half of it, so if you only need one crust, freeze the other; that way there is always homemade dough on hand.

— Toni Tipton-Martin

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 stick (4 ounces) butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled

1/4 cup lard or shortening, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled

8 to 10 tablespoons ice-cold water

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Sprinkle half of the butter and lard over the flour and use your fingertips, a pastry blender or two knives to cut and mix until the mixture resembles large peas. Sprinkle in the remaining butter and lard and cut and mix to coarse crumbs. Sprinkle the dough with ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, and use a fork to lightly mix until the dough just comes together and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Gather the dough into a ball. Divide the ball in half. Press into two 1-inch-thick discs and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for 30 minutes before rolling, or freeze for later use.

To blind-bake (prebake) the crust: Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface to about 12 inches in diameter. Drape the dough over the rolling pin or fold it into quarters and transfer to a 9-inch pie plate. Press the pastry evenly into the pan, without stretching to fit. Trim the edges and crimp decoratively, as desired. Prick the crust all over with the tines of a fork. Cut parchment paper to fit the bottom and halfway up the sides of the pan. Line the pie shell with the paper. Pour in pie weights, uncooked rice or dried beans to cover the bottom and sides of the crust. Bake for 12 minutes. Remove the paper and weights and bake the crust 5 minutes longer for a partially baked crust, or 10 minutes longer for a fully baked crust, until it looks dry and crisp. Makes enough for two 9-inch pie crusts.

— From “Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking” (Clarkson Potter, $35) by Toni Tipton-Martin