What is the Jemima Code?
Say the name Aunt Jemima and a couple of different opinions usually come to mind. One is that the chubby cheeked, brown face with the wide grin is a symbol left over from this country’s dark days of slavery and segregation and that it should be completely eliminated from modern culture because it was crafted to keep black women in their place — in the kitchen.
Another is that the image is an affirming reminder of the women who worked in American homes, not just doing the cooking, cleaning and caring for families, but doing so while also loving the children in those families and nurturing their character.
Whatever your view, one simple fact cannot be ignored: As a marketing strategy, the Aunt Jemima trademark was and still is shorthand for “greatness and perfection” as in “if you want perfect pancakes, buy yourself some Aunt Jemima products.”
So in an era when everyone from Food Network stars, to executive chefs, food scholars, nutritionists, authors and entrepreneurs tells us what we should eat and how we should cook it, it seems only natural that the nation’s most recognized cook should be stirring the pot, too.
So how come she isn’t?
After decades of accomplished cooking in elegant homes, hospitals, catering companies, church basements, and raggedy road-side shacks, after creating recipes that made other people healthy, wealthy, happy and full, African American cooks have been mostly ignored by the food world.
For the next year, I will put on the head scarves of America’s black cooks. I will dig around in archives. I’ll put aside the sexist and racist narrative that dominates Southern history as I report what I uncover. I’ll assemble an illuminating composite of the women who fed America, and hopefully, I’ll restore the reputations of this country’s legendary cooks. I will answer this simple question:
What can we learn from Aunt Jemima besides her recipe for really good pancakes?
Think of this space like a recipe: ingredients, method, and a new creation.
Combine all of that new “scholarship” with the thoughts and experiences of a 30-year culinary professional who understands the work of the kitchen (me). Stir in the view points, recipes, and reminiscences of the blogosphere (you). For about a year, let the conversations marinate gently. Or, knead vigorously with spirited debate about African American kitchen secrets and updated recipes until myths are destroyed. Then, observe the transformation of America’s most maligned kitchen role model, Aunt Jemima, into an inspirational and powerful symbol of culinary wisdom and authority.
Who am I?
My love affair with African American cooks and their recipes began more than 30 years ago when I was a food and nutrition writer for The Los Angeles Times. Although the most alluring chef and world cuisine surrounded me as Food Editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, it was the inspired stories of ordinary people I found most delicious. That passion for people dovetailed beautifully with the work of the Southern Foodways Alliance, where as president I refined my study of African American women’s culinary history, and led a recognition banquet for the women who cooked in hidden kitchens for the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama.
I have co-authored three cookbooks, and shared my passion for cooks and the community as a freelance writer and contributing editor to numerous magazines. I have been awarded several community service, nutrition writing honors, and grants, and I am a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier, the International Association of Culinary Professionals, and the Southern Foodways Alliance.
I also teach cooking and nutrition classes, give talks on African American culinary history, and I founded a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit culinary mentoring and training program for underprivileged youngsters.
Why am I doing this?
Let’s face it: We live in an image-crazed society. So my hope is that this journal paints an honest portrait of authentically good cooks we can all turn to for advice. This blog reveals the kinds of things Mother or Grandmother or Mammy would have told you about the kitchen – their voices sharing knowledge through anecdotes, memoirs, receipts, cookbooks, plantation ledgers and logs, diaries, and records left behind in clubs and civic organizations. Some were pioneers in public health, nursing, and midwifery; others were survivors thriving in freedmen’s communities. Many shared a common entrepreneurial spirit as caterers, restaurateurs, and authors. The rest simply loved to cook. Though many are deceased, some are still around to talk to me. Others whisper their legacy through published recipe books and family tales that have kept home fires burning – whether those fires were in their employers’ homes or their own. And, they have influenced generations.
This new role model replaces the Aunt Jemima mythology, and as it does, it reaches like a bridge across the expansive sea of race and class to restore the reputation of legendary cooks who possessed a wide range of attainable character traits. Their life histories spur all women on to attain the confidence (and, in some cases the financial independence) that can exist in the kitchen. At minimum, they help us restore a little warmth to our kitchens of granite and steel.
When we weave together the strands of previously ignored details and partial truths about the women who fed America, we discover measurable evidence of their contributions to American cuisine. This provides an alternative view of the prejudiced interpretations of their character in the media. It debunks a myth. It restores respectability. Promotes an ideal who whispers her empowering legacy of courage, ingenuity, and aptitude. And, it makes invisible women accessible, not just to black people, but to everyone.
In turn, they give us permission to cook with pleasure, and to join our families at the table – whether we are nostalgic for warm meals and memories shared at Mama’s table, are exhausted by directives to feed our families wisely, are among the gastronomically challenged heat-and-eat generation, or are somewhere in-between.