WHAT DO WE talk about when we talk about cornbread? We might mention its Southern roots, or contribute our two cents to the debate over whether adding sugar transforms it into cake, or maybe try to decide which online recipe we’ll use this Thanksgiving. In her new cookbook, “Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking” (Clarkson Potter), food writer and historian Toni Tipton-Martin finds deeper stories to tell.
Take cornbread dressing, for example. Ms. Tipton-Martin cites research tracing its descent from a “memory dish” called kush, itself an attempt on the part of West African slaves to recreate kusha, “a couscous-like dish of steamed or boiled grains of millet or sorghum” from their homeland.
“ ‘“Jubilee” gives long-overlooked African American cooks their due as innovators.’ ”
Like any food of the African Diaspora, cornbread has a history that can be complicated and painful to unravel. But Ms. Tipton-Martin is uniquely suited to the task. Over a decadeslong career as a journalist, cookbook author and culinary historian, she has amassed nearly 400 African American cookbooks—many of them rare—dating back to 1827. She told the story of those books and the cooks behind them in her own acclaimed book “The Jemima Code,” published in 2015. In this follow-up, she uses her collection to chart the history of African American dishes and shares “new” recipes that proudly proclaim their debt to those that came before.
The evolution of cornbread from kusha to Jiffy mix stands as testament, Ms. Tipton-Martin points out, to the resilience, ingenuity and skill of African American cooks. As slaves were freed and their descendants founded their own communities, trained as professional chefs and opened businesses, they adapted the dish—based on the resources, appetites and trends of the moment—into corn pone, griddle cakes, spoon bread, corn muffins, hoecakes and hush puppies. The author notes that “black authors living and publishing in the Southwest and West developed a fondness for including ingredients associated with Mexican cooking, such as tomatoes and hot chile peppers, and calling them ‘Spanish.’ ” The recipe she includes for “Spanish Cornbread” (see below) is loaded with corn kernels, shredded cheddar and diced green chiles.
“When I tied all of these diasporic practices together,” Ms. Tipton-Martin writes, “I observed a culinary IQ that is both African and American, the very definition of fusion cooking. You might think this intelligence is not all that different when compared to other world cuisines. And you would be right. But the idea that African Americans shared these qualities with the rest of society has been ignored for far too long.”
That culinary IQ—and the abundance of riches it has produced over our nation’s history—comes through in the meticulously detailed DNA of every recipe included in “Jubilee.” Here we find a seductive okra gumbo enriched with a slow-simmered bone-in cut of beef, a strategy Ms. Tipton-Martin learned from the 1881 cookbook “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking” by Abby Fisher, a former bondswoman who published the second-known cookbook by an African American. Spiced with Scotch Bonnet peppers and bolstered with bacon drippings and the last-minute addition of crabmeat and shrimp, the recipe weaves together “West African, island, Lowcountry, and Louisiana” influences.
Even desserts, frivolous though they may seem, carry deep significance. Ms. Tipton-Martin explains that “through the centuries…black bakers have used their skills and savvy to create wealth, self-sufficiency, and generations of protégés to carry on their legacy and to build their own economic power.” A recipe for gingerbread with lemon sauce might sound deliciously British, but “Jubilee” traces its links to the African spice trade as well as a memory from Booker T. Washington : “‘I saw my two young mistresses and some lady visitors eating ginger cakes…I then and there resolved that, if I ever got free, the height of my ambition would be…to eat ginger cakes in the way that I saw those young ladies doing.’”
Just as “The Jemima Code” exploded the Aunt Jemima stereotype to expose the true history beneath, “Jubilee” gives long-overlooked African American cooks their due as innovators. In the interplay of cultures, ingredients and techniques her recipes reveal, Ms. Tipton-Martin brings a vital (and delicious) American history to the table.
TOTAL TIME: 45 minutes SERVES: 12
1¼ cups yellow cornmeal
1¼ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup canned cream-style corn
1 cup well shaken buttermilk
1 (4-ounce) can diced green chiles
½ cup minced yellow onion
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
4 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
2. In a separate bowl, combine corn, buttermilk, chiles, onion and egg, and mix well. Stir in cheese.
3. Pour liquid ingredients into dry and stir together just until combined. Heat butter in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet in the oven until foamy. Swirl butter to coat pan, then stir hot butter into batter. Immediately pour batter into hot skillet. Bake until cornbread is golden brown, about 30 minutes.
—Adapted from “Jubilee” by Toni Tipton-Martin (Clarkson Potter)
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