AUSTIN, Texas—In the cafeteria-turned-classroom at UT Elementary School, Toni Tipton-Martin struggles to keep six restless boys focused on hot cocoa, the day’s nutrition lesson. She starts with a store-bought cocoa mix, guiding the students through the list of “all those crazy ingredients”—the tongue-twisting list of scary-sounding additives and preservatives—before explaining how they will use four simple ingredients to make their own.
The students are eager to measure and mix, but Tipton-Martin is also teaching critical thinking—and patience—in her SANDE mentoring and training program. She has them examine various kinds of chocolate, encouraging them to “taste with your sense of smell—the cinnamon makes it Mexican chocolate,” trying to engage these youngsters of the digital age in a more embodied way of knowing. When she is satisfied that they understand what they are doing, the boys go to work with their measuring cups and mixing bowls, producing their cocoa creations that will go home with them in a plastic bag.
When the lesson is over, Tipton-Martin walks the students back to their homeroom, past the vegetable-and-herb garden that is also part of SANDE (the acronym stands for “Spirit, Attitude, Nutrition, Deeds, and Emotions”). She isn’t just trying to teach young people to cook healthy food and understand nutrition, but to understand where food comes from and why it all matters.
Folks in the United States are coming to understand that all this does matter very much. Industrial agriculture and fast-food still dominate, but more and more people are shopping at farmers markets, seeking out healthy food, and recognizing the social costs of reckless eating habits. For Tipton-Martin—an African-American chef teaching mostly black and brown kids—it’s a particularly opportune moment to be working on these issues, as Michelle Obama is using the First Lady’s pulpit to focus attention on childhood obesity. Last June, Tipton-Martin was one of the chefs and nutritionists on the South Lawn of the White House to promote Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, and this week she’s front and center at the annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals being held in Austin (she’s chair of the host city committee).
So, all in all, it’s been a good year for Tipton-Martin, as her career takes a turn around another of several bends. Her resume includes newspaper journalism (a food writer/editor, first at the Los Angeles Times and then the Cleveland Plain Dealer), cookbook writing and editing, and non-profit work (a four-year stint at Southern Foodways Alliance, a center dedicated to documenting and celebrating the diverse food cultures of the American South, housed at the University of Mississippi. Since moving to Austin in 1999, she’s created a niche for herself as a writer/activist/social entrepreneur, a status marked by the Community Leadership Award she received from the University of Texas in 2010.
Yet for all the success, the 52-year-old Tipton-Martin is a woman haunted, not by traumatic memories from her own life but by Aunt Jemima. Not just by the Aunt Jemima caricature—the commercial persona for the “Mammy” figure from plantation life that has sold pancake mix and syrup—but by the real African-American women in kitchens through the centuries, during and after slavery, whose work and wisdom have been ignored.
That’s why, no matter which of her current enterprises is consuming her time, Tipton-Martin is always working on cracking “The Jemima Code,” her phrase for getting past the caricature to the real lives of those women. Drawing on varied sources—oral and written histories from both slaves and slave-holding families, old cookbooks, and people’s stories—Tipton-Martin has for the past two years been adding stories of those women to her website by that name, convinced that there’s a deep lesson in how white Americans, especially in the South, have dealt with these women.
In one of her blog entries, Tipton-Martin explains that “Aunt Jemima became the embodiment of our deepest antipathy for, and obsession with, the women who fed us with grace and skill.” Many white families depended on Jemima and despised her at the same time, leaving these women who cooked and cared for families on the lowest rung of the social ladder. Rather than merely pity such women as exploited laborers or romanticize them as the ultimate maternal figure, Tipton-Martin wants to tell the stories of their skill and creativity:
“Why don’t we celebrate their contributions to American culture the way we venerate the imaginary Betty Crocker? Why wasn’t their true legacy preserved? Can we ever forget the images of ignorant, submissive, selfless, sassy, asexual despots? Is it possible to replace the mostly unflattering pictures of generous waistlines bent over cast iron skillets burned into our eyes? Will we ever believe that strong African women, who toted wood and built fires before even thinking about beating biscuit dough or mixing cakes, left us more than just their formulas for good pancakes?”
Tipton-Martin’s interest is not merely historical; by telling the stories of these women, she hopes not only to remind the black community of their strength but give white people an opening for honest self-reflection. When Tipton-Martin says she is haunted by those women, it is really the racism, sexism and economic inequality they faced that haunts her. And it’s not really those historical forces, but the enduring presence of those inequalities in American life that Tipton-Martin can’t shake.
“These women create ways for me to interact with my own past,” she says, and struggle with the present.
Tipton-Martin grew up in the middle class in Los Angeles at a time when more opportunities were opening up for some blacks, especially those who were trained to fit into white society. Tipton-Martin was one of them, a good student who took to journalism and early on learned how to live “in costume,” offering a profile that wouldn’t scare white people.
“I thought I was contented—a thirty-something food editor living far away from home on the eastern shore of Lake Erie, enjoying amazing and exotic world cuisine—the daughter of a health-conscious, fitness-crazed cook whose experiments with tofu, juicing and smoothies predated the fads. In the few short years we had together at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Vera taught me a few life lessons while showing me the way to light and flaky buttermilk biscuits.”
Among those lessons was the recognition that Tipton-Martin’s upbringing in a more integrated world also had cut her off from a tradition based on observation and apprenticeship in the kitchen, which was about more than cooking. “It was entirely possible that I would stumble blindly through the rest of my life without ever discovering the Aunt Jemima spirit living in me, if it hadn’t been for Vera Beck,” she writes.
Tipton-Martin is blunt in describing the complexity of the race and gender politics of her life. Being light-skinned with naturally straight hair—“I look like the Jezebel house servant mulatto girls of slavery”—made it easier to enter the middle class, she says. But at the same time, her appearance meant she had to “overcome the stereotype that I’m Barbie, too.” She speaks about the advantages she’s had, but doesn’t ignore either the racism or sexism of the culture.
As time goes on, Tipton-Martin is less willing to don the costume, less interested in presenting herself and her work in ways that make it easy for others. Rather than cashing in on the moment by writing a breezy recipe book that exploits the women of the Jemima Code —something along the lines of “Mammy’s sassy lessons for healthy cooking”—she wants to write a book that confronts the social and political issues. “Everybody’s intrigued,” she says, when she takes the idea to agents and publishers, but wary.
Tipton-Martin knows well how the white world rewards people of color who fit in, rather than challenge, white norms. But she finds it more and more difficult to smile away the racist or ignorant comments.
An example: At the opening event for the new Foodways Texas project (she’s a board member), Tipton-Martin said a white woman told her that this work on food and nutrition is so important because “those people” come from cultures with bad diets. “I used to just smile” at such comments, she says, “but that day I told her the problem was not ‘their’ cultures but fast food and processed food, which is an American problem.”
Tipton-Martin has increasingly less patience for what we might call “the ignorance of the privileged”—the desire of people with status and wealth to explain away problems of inequality as simply the failure of “those people” rather than think about the injustice of the system, from which the privileged benefit. But she also recognizes that people struggling in difficult circumstances—especially the kids from poor neighborhoods, disproportionately black and brown—need more than political analysis. She rejects the simplistic “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” prescription of conservatives but believes that young people need role models. That’s where the women of the Jemima Code come in:
“For me, they are important role models. They’re the closest I can get to saying to this [younger] generation that there are women who had it harder than you. Even though you think your life is really hard—and it is, and there are all these forces against you—you can persevere. The women of the Jemima Code took control of their lives under circumstances in where they didn’t even have control of their own bodies, but they were able to claim their dignity.”
For Tipton-Martin, those women are not just potential role models for young people but for herself as well. She writes, “I discover that the woman I am becoming is a mere shadow of the women they were: patient and loving; smart, talented, hard-working; strong physically and emotionally, compassionate; multi-tasking.”
Tipton-Martin has a habit of engaging in the critical self-reflection that she asks of others, which leads to a professional and personal restlessness. She was raised to assimilate, to fit in, to prove to the dominant culture that she could make it under the rules written by white people, by men, by the wealthy. She was fitted for “the costume,” but found it increasingly uncomfortable.
“As long as I could just keep popping from costume to costume, I didn’t have to reconcile any of this and find out what it is that I hoped to accomplish,” Tipton-Martin says.
Negotiating life without a costume means talking honestly about a history—collective and personal—that the dominant culture desperately wants to ignore. That means not only highlighting the skill and accomplishments of the women of the Jemima Code, but facing the pain, anger and shame that comes with living in a system that still values white people, men, and the wealthy over others.
For Tipton-Martin, that conversation can start at dinner by giving a voice to the women who for so long put food on the table.
Watch Tipton-Martin’s talk on the Jemima Code to the Culinary Historians of Southern California in November 2010.