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‘Jubilee’ cookbook author talks about its celebration of African American cuisine

We chatted with journalist and culinary historian Toni Tipton-Martin about her new book.
Louisiana Barbecue Shrimp. [Courtesy of Jerrelle Guy .]
Louisiana Barbecue Shrimp. [Courtesy of Jerrelle Guy .]
Published Feb. 12
Updated Feb. 14

Growing up in Los Angeles, Toni Tipton-Martin remembers eating fresh vegetables and fruits from her mother’s garden, lettuces and cucumbers and melons, avocados and plenty of citrus.

Years later, at her own family’s table, they would sit down over bowls of tortilla soup, crab cakes with chipotle mayonnaise, Asian-style coleslaw, and red beans peppered with a dash of chili powder.

But when the journalist and author began searching for culinary examples throughout history similar to hers, she often came up empty-handed.

"Jubilee," the latest cookbook by Toni Tipton-Martin. [Clarkson Potter Publishing]

“My culinary heritage — and the larger story of African-American food that encompasses the middle class and the well-to-do — was lost in a world that confined the black experience to poverty, survival, and soul food,” Tipton-Martin writes in her latest book, Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking.

“I knew what my family and our friends and community ate, and yet, traditional written history and modern social media consistently ignored our style of cooking.”

That discovery led Tipton-Martin to write her James Beard award-winning book The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks, in which she examined two centuries of African American recipes and cookbooks, shedding light on and giving voice to the black cooks and culinary professionals whose contributions helped shape our present-day cuisine. In Jubilee, she continues the conversation with more than 100 recipes rich with historical anecdotes and beautiful photographs.

Journalist and culinary historian Toni Tipton-Martin. [Photo courtesy of Pableaux Johnson]

She spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about the book, and the recipes and stories behind it.

What was your inspiration for ‘The Jemima Code,’ and how does that book relate to this most recent one?

I explain in The Jemima Code that as a (longtime) journalist, I was looking for evidence of my ancestry, of my family, in the pages of Southern food history and was not able to find it. I started collecting cookbooks as a first-person source to validate the family and neighborhood experience that just wasn’t visible anywhere.

Once I had this collection of books, it was evident that the authors were telling us a story that had not been told, but we also realized that it was a big story and too much to contain in just one book. So the intention all along was to separate the introduction of the authors to the world from their recipes and just to get readers accustomed to learning that African Americans should be considered proficient in the kitchen and not people who cooked with intuition and some kind of mysterious, magical skills — that they apprenticed and learned technique just like any other chef (did).

Sweet potato bread. [Photo courtesy of Jerrelle Guy ]

Going through hundreds of recipes is a huge undertaking. What was your process like when writing ‘Jubilee’?

The process was horrendous. It took at least a year and a half to whittle the recipes down. I had these four concepts of elements that I wanted to make sure were represented by each recipe, but the ultimate determining factor was their longevity and their persistence through history.

You talk about breaking the “soul code.” Talk about the contemporary conception of African American cooking as either soul food or Southern fare.

What is positive about that is certainly the ingenuity that it took to create something from nothing, so I am never interested in disparaging that food or maligning that in any way, or even feeling that it needs to be improved or upgraded or modernized.

There are all these terms that chefs are using to try to navigate this kind of sticky space of being pigeonholed. The universe, the food industry, the reader, the diner — everybody is culpable here in not allowing chefs and authors to stretch beyond a narrow definition of these dishes. They — we — have trouble being taken seriously by publishers, investors, TV food media, etc. Everyone is looking for a stereotype, and few of us fit it anymore.

Were there any recipes you came across that surprised you?

The (recipe for) Celery Victor is one of them. (It) doesn’t have a current place on menus, and some other dishes don’t (either). What was surprising was the amount of consistency with so many of the dishes that appear over and over again with different titles … dishes that would be described as a “gravy” here and a “sauce” there or a braise. There were just different ways that authors would describe the dishes generationally.

It also added to the fun. It was a treasure hunt. When I say that it was a long, horrendous process, it doesn’t mean that it was a negative thing. It became like a scavenger hunt, using the (historian Arturo) Schomburg list (of African American recipes) from the 1930s as the treasure map and just filing through the cookbook’s dishes. There are still hundreds of other dishes we could have included.

Creole fried chicken. [Photo courtesy of Jerrelle Guy ]

Let’s talk about gumbo and its significance in this book. What is gumbo to you?

The recipes were chosen because they conform to one of the categories I mention in the beginning — their West African lineage or their expression of migration or (how) they are somehow connected to me. I’m a journalist, so I don’t believe in the philosophy of first-person writing unless I’m writing a column, and so it has always been very difficult for me to put myself into a story. But obviously cookbook writing is a little bit different, so this book has aspects of my life. The gumbo(s) have some strains of dishes that I was accustomed to. I had a close relationship with Ms. (Leah) Chase (the late New Orleans chef known as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine”), and her dish (gumbo z’herbes) is there for multiple reasons — for one, that it’s personal, but also because it’s well known and it also helps people see what she (did) in a different light.

Do you have any favorite recipes?

One of my favorites is the lemon cake by Malinda Russell (who self-published one of the first cookbooks by an African American in 1866). I love Malinda Russell’s story. As a single mother, she’s an inspiration to today’s young women who are striving to find their way.

The cake is just really, really delicious. What I like about it is that it might not seem like the kind of dish that expresses extravagance, but you have to remember that when I talk about these dishes as being more upscale than soul food, what I really mean is sumptuous food. These are dishes that exist when resources permit.

Back in the day — and this going to sound strange to Floridians — but citrus was an expensive ingredient before everyone had lemon trees in their backyard. So the decadence of this cake — as you see the recipe with the added lemon syrup and a lemon glaze — takes the tradition of lemon pound cake made with lemon flavoring to a whole other level.

Several recipes for collard greens are in the book. Talk about the significance of this dish in the African American culinary canon.

One of the things that can resonate with people is to realize that wild greens have been a part of the African American food tradition back to pre-colonial times in West Africa. So women were collecting wild bush greens and teaching their children about what is edible and how to prepare it, and that would include collard greens made with or laced with palm oil because it has a flavor of its own. My theory is that the heavy-handed addition of the pork fat sort of replaces that body in the collard greens that are boiled to death in the Southern and soul tradition.

I include that for perspective in Jubilee and then provide the Brazilian sauteed greens with garlic to represent this more broad context for the placement of that dish in our canon. It’s an important tradition, and what’s really compelling for me is that greens are on the list of the top 10 healthiest foods we can eat.

Times food critic Helen Freund will moderate a talk with Toni Tipton-Martin as part of the 2020 Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival. Collards After Dark: An Evening with Toni Tipton-Martin is from 6 to 9:30 p.m. Friday at Tombolo Books, 2153 First Ave. N, St. Petersburg. $25-$60.

The Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival is from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, 2240 Ninth Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Free.

Wilted Mixed Greens with Bacon

Wilted greens with bacon. [Photo courtesy of Jerrelle Guy ]

2 pounds mixed tender greens (spinach, arugula, chard, baby kale, watercress)

4 radishes, thinly sliced

½ cup thinly sliced red onion

2 hard-boiled eggs, sliced

1 cup grape tomatoes, cut into halves

8 slices bacon

⅔ cup cider vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

⅓ cup crumbled blue cheese (optional)

In a large salad bowl, toss together the greens, radishes, onion, eggs and tomatoes.

In a large skillet, cook the bacon over medium heat until crisp, about 7 minutes. Leaving the rendered bacon fat in the skillet, remove the bacon to drain on paper towels and crumble when cool enough to handle.

Heat the bacon fat in the skillet over medium-high heat. Stir in the vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper. Swirl the pan over the heat for 1 to 2 minutes to concentrate the flavors and slightly thicken the dressing. Pour the hot dressing over the greens and toss quickly to coat. Sprinkle the greens with the crumbled bacon and blue cheese (if using).

Serves 8 to 10.

Source: Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking

Creole Fried Chicken

1 tablespoon salt, or to taste

1 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste

1 ½ teaspoons paprika

1 ½ teaspoons garlic powder

1 (3-to 4-pound) frying chicken, cut into pieces

2 large eggs, beaten

½ cup evaporated milk or half-and-half

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup finely crushed cracker meal or fine dried bread crumbs

Peanut or vegetable oil, for shallow-frying

In a small bowl, combine the salt, pepper, paprika and garlic powder. Place the chicken on a board and pat dry with paper towels. Place the chicken in a large bowl. Sprinkle with half the seasoning mixture. Use your hands to rub the chicken with the seasonings, turning to coat evenly on all sides.

In a small bowl, combine the eggs, evaporated milk and 1 cup water. Pour the mixture over the chicken and mix well to thoroughly coat. Refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours to allow the flavors to soak into the chicken.

In a small paper bag, combine the flour, cracker crumbs and the remaining seasoning mixture. Add the chicken to the bag, a few pieces at a time. Close the bag and shake to coat the pieces well. Remove the chicken to a wire rack to rest for 20 minutes.

Pour about ¾ inch oil into a heavy deep cast-iron skillet and heat to 375 degrees over medium-high heat. (Use a thermometer, or if a small cube of bread sizzles immediately but does not burn when dropped into the pan, the oil is ready.) Adjust the heat to maintain this temperature as needed. Working in batches of a few pieces at a time (do not crowd the skillet), add the chicken and cook until golden brown, about 12 minutes, turning once. Drain the chicken on paper towels and serve hot.

Serves 4 to 6.

Source: Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking

Sweet Potato Bread

Softened butter and flour, for the loaf pan

½ cup chopped pecans

½ cup dried cranberries

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

1 cup packed light brown sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground or freshly grated nutmeg

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

1 cup mashed cooked sweet potatoes, at room temperature

2 large eggs, beaten

1 stick (4 ounces) butter, melted

½ cup whole milk

Flour a 9- by 5-inch loaf pan and tap out any excess flour.

In a small bowl, toss together the pecans, cranberries and 2 tablespoons of the flour and set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together the remaining 1 cup plus 6 tablespoons flour, the baking powder, salt, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. Make a well in the center and add the sweet potatoes, eggs, melted butter and milk. With a wooden spoon, stir the batter until lightly mixed. Gently fold in the nut mixture.

Spoon the batter evenly into the loaf pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 50 to 60 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes in the pan, then turn out of the pan onto a wire rack to cool slightly. Serve warm.

Serves 8 to 10.

Source: Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking

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