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Author Toni Tipton-Martin Celebrates African-American Chefs in 'Jubilee'

Toni Tipton-Martin is on a crusade.

The food journalist and educator won a James Beard Award in 2016 for her book The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks. Her latest work, Jubilee, is a collection of recipes from those antique cookbooks.

Her goal? To change the way society thinks about African-American cooking.

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“This is not a book about home cooks. This is about professional cooks,” the Baltimore resident told The Zest Podcast during her February visit to St. Petersburg to speak at the third annual Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival. “That is not to disparage what happens in home cooking, but we honor today’s celebrity cooks for the food that they prepare at work. So we respect and honor our TV food people. We honor mainstream chefs for the food they prepare in restaurants and in their cookbooks, and we have neglected to offer African-Americans that same level of dignity and respect.”

For instance, Jubilee contains a recipe for alligator pear salad similar to mainstream guacamole. And for centuries, black chefs have made gravy with techniques identical to those used for creating a more sophisticated-sounding roux. By definition, a chef is someone who manages a kitchen. So black chefs throughout history deserve this title, Tipton-Martin argues, from slaves running plantation kitchens to emancipated entrepreneurs.

“We have not thought about those people as professionals who were creating an aspect of African-American food. But they were French trained, many of them—classically trained,” Tipton-Martin said. “And those tendencies, those traditions, those practices have been handed down through generations of black cooking. We just haven’t identified them as classic cooking.”

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The recipes in Jubilee go beyond soul food to highlight African-American dishes like braised celery—similar to the early 20th-century delicacy Celery Victor.

“There will be those who will look at this book and think, ‘Well, these are not dishes that represent my family tradition.’ And that’s the point,” Tipton-Martin said. “We have been narrowly defined as if we only had one way of cooking, and that doesn’t apply to any other culture.”

Tipton-Martin notes how regional differences were reflected on the plate. For example, Jubilee contains a basic recipe for 1820s-style batter bread—what we today call quick bread. The flavor enhancers changed based on what was seasonal and locally available, such as oranges, bananas, blueberries or nuts. Seafood dishes that would’ve been easily prepared in Florida, such as deviled eggs with crab, were a luxury in landlocked states.

Through her books and nonprofit foundation, Tipton-Martin’s goal is to break down stereotypes and give black chefs past and present “the kind of credit that they deserve,” she said. She also aims to showcase the range of culinary jobs available to the next generation, from food stylists and photographers to restaurant architects.

“I’m using food and cooking as the mechanism for social change,” Tipton-Martin said.

To get recipes for braised celery, Creole fried chicken and gingerbread with lemon sauce from Tipton-Martin's cookbook, Jubilee, visit TheZestPodcast.com.

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