Cracking the Code: Toni Tipton Martin

Toni Tipton Martin uncovered a truth as a cub food reporter for the LOS ANGELES TIMES. After years of research, she can now authoritatively state with the force of a thousand voices from the past behind her: “African American women are competent, proficient and innovative in the field of cooking, and they have ownership of many recipes and techniques beyond a few soul food recipes of the 1960s.”

Tipton-Martin is a writer, food expert, educator, wife and mother of four who moved to Austin from L.A. 15 years ago. “Austin has become home,” she says. “It is the place where we have been the longest, and we have made so many contacts and good friends, and our church home is here. My family, what little there is of it left, has moved to Houston. So, Austin is home for now.”

In addition to being a nutrition writer for the LOS ANGELES TIMES, Tipton-Martin has been food editor of the CLEVELAND PLAIN DEALER (the first African American woman food editor at a major daily newspaper), and a contributing writer for HEART AND SOUL magazine. During her journey, she’s learned that traditional African American cooking is more expansive than soul food.

“For years, when I’ve been asked to talk about soul food during Black History Month, people have asked me to say I don’t eat soul food. And I’ve said, ‘I think you have the wrong speaker,’” Tipton-Martin says. “But also, I believe in balance and moderation, and I will say not to eat pre-packaged food. I also like to let people know that organic is not new, trendy, white, or West Side. It is what African American cooking has been doing all along.”

She adds, “When people ask how I work in this industry and not weigh 400 pounds, I say that I eat food the way that God intended and made it. That’s not all raw; it’s just modest.”

Tipton-Martin has authored and co-authored several books, and she curates THE JEMIMA CODE, which is a blog, a traveling exhibit of images of Black cooks, and in 2015, it will be a book published by the University of Texas Press. The book will tell the stories of the women behind 150 rare African American cookbooks from Tipton-Martin’s private collection.

“The pursuit of THE JEMIMA CODE parallels the path my career has taken. I’ve always had a passion for women, children and independent living. I’ve always envisioned a space women would go that would somehow nurture their lives. What it would be was connected to what I was experiencing at the time: When I was pregnant, I thought it would be a natural childbirth center; then it was a preschool,” she says.

“But when I was working for the L.A. Times, I encountered an African American cookbook. From looking at it and the books in our office, I realized African Americans were not well represented. They were mentioned as a second thought, an afterthought, or just not at all. So, as a reporter, I realized I needed to interview the people who had done that work, but the people had died or were not around,” she says. “Pursuing cookbooks became a way to learn and give a voice to the voiceless. Those women formed a basis for me to do the work I was interested in, which was an extension of their kitchens.”

Tipton-Martin’s archiving of African American cookbooks has confirmed what she initially suspected: African Americans were not bystanders or absent from the cooking field. They were innovators who created, and both symbolized and guarded, American recipes.

Aunt Jemima is a trademark that a couple of white men came up with to sell more pancakes,” she says. “There was a flour company before Quaker Oats, a flour mill. And two guys had seen a minstrel show of a man in black face pretending to be a slave woman talking about her cooking. So, at the World’s Fair, they hired a real woman to act as a former slave from a former Louisiana plantation. The idea was sort of an insider’s joke for them in that there was no truth to it, but they understood the power in their culture of having a Black hand stir the pot.

Not only were African American people used as a symbolic code for food quality, Tipton-Martin discovered, but African Americans had their own code: “While (the dominant culture) tried to use their code to keep a slave in a box, the African American women kept their secrets in their own codes,” she says. “When the white cooks wanted to make cookbooks and wanted to get recipes from their cooks, the African American cooks did not give them up easily.”

According to Tipton-Martin, around the 1940s African American cooks began being portrayed as “ignoramuses” in the kitchen because the recipes they’d give white cooks were not exact. But Tipton-Martin analyzed the recipes in her more than 150 African American cookbooks using contemporary culinary standards and found that not only was the knowledge of Black cooks precise, it was expert.

“I looked for proficiencies that would be examined at any culinary academy and found many,” she says. “For example, the slave kitchen was highly organized, as they would have to be with working with open fire, children and cooking in hoop skirts. They were extraordinarily creative, innovative and imaginative, which is another proficiency. They were able to create something from nothing. They had technological innovations, such as salad dressing. In a culinary course, you’d take a class on emulsifying to make dressing or mayonnaise. But they understood it. They understood the quality of meat, the fermentation that makes cake rise.”

Tipton-Martin notes that Black cooks today are uncommonly associated with their home cooking, rather than their work product.

“Bobby Flay and Rachel Ray and my friends in the industry are not known for what they cook at home for their families; they are known for what they cook at work,” she says. “And African Americans cooking in the Big House, the White House, restaurants, all of them that touched food, they own that work and it is what defines them, not what they make at home for their families. It is bigger than the soul food they cook at home. We are learning to use the term ‘soul food’ as something very specific.”

By showing people in vulnerable communities today the food messages from vulnerable communities in the past, Tipton-Martin hopes new generations will see that there is opportunity for their participation in the culinary field. “We’ve already understood local, gardens, free range, recycle, using small amounts of meat. We just didn’t have a name for it. When these voices speak, they will provide everyone uplift.”

Uplifting the community by sharing food, its preparation and history has been a staple of Tipton-Martin’s personal and professional life. She helped document Southern food for four years at the Southern Foodways Alliance, which is part of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. In 2008, she founded the SANDE Youth Project in Austin to teach cultural heritage, cooking skills and nutrition to vulnerable families. She is also on the board of the Austin community-building organization Peace Through Pie, a non-profit that hosts and educates the public about the value of pie socials.

Peace Through Pie especially associates pie socials with Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebrations. In fact, the first public Peace Through Pie Social was held at Sweet Home Baptist Church in honor of MLK Day in 2009. (It was the I Have a Dream Pie event.) From the instructions in an early African American cookbook recipe, Tipton-Martin whips up an example of the social value of a simple pastry filled with meat, vegetables, fruit or other sweets: “Take food scraps, and make them into a pie for the less fortunate.”

Tipton-Martin further elucidates on the power of pie by calling to mind Mary McLeod Bethune baking and selling sweet potato pie to raise money for Bethune Cookman College. “With scraps and some flour and oil and vegetables, you can sustain your family with pie. And the idea of the pie social as a way to build, erect buildings and raise money goes way back,” she says. “Pie is essentially a warm embrace, no matter what. Either it’s something warm folded inside of a crust, or it’s a warm embrace to someone who has very little.”

The University of Texas honored Tipton-Martin with the Community Leadership Award in 2010, when she helped found Foodways Texas, a division of the university’s Division of Diversity and Communication and Engagement. Foodways promotes the cultural diversity of food in Texas, and Tipton-Martin is its president.

On Feb. 2, Tipton-Martin will present at the French Legation Museum alongside culinary historian Michael W. Twitty, who curates the Afroculinaria blog, at the pie-social kick-off of a two-day event honoring African American cooks from the past.  Foodways will host its 2014 symposium at Texas A&M University in March, where the theme will be agriculture, including urban farm zoning. And the SANDE Youth Project will host its annual Children’s Picnic and Real Food Fair on the last Sunday in March at the French Legation Museum.

To begin learning more about the intersection of African American culture and food, Tipton-Martin recommends the Austin group Food For Black Thought and the Sustainable Food Center.

You can also visit Toni’s website for more information about her.

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