In her latest cookbook, Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking, culinary historian and food writer Toni Tipton-Martin defines "jubilee" as restoration, resilience, celebration, and, most of all, "the freedom to cook with creativity and joy." It’s an idea I’ve returned to again and again these last few months, on the cusp of this year’s complicated Juneteeth, as COVID-19 has devastated Black American communities, and as restaurants owned by Black Americans struggle to stay afloat. American history proves this isn’t the first time we have been disproportionately affected by a pandemic (see: HIV/AIDs), economic inequality, and inadequate access to healthcare. And yet, Black Americans have survived.
Our art—visual, musical, and written—has been our most powerful form of expression, preservation, and, sometimes, protest. Our religious traditions allow us to find meaning and cling to incomparable faith. And in our food—rich, elegant, earthy, and creative—we have found comfort, peace, and joy. Tipton-Martin’s James Beard Award–winning cookbook is a perfect expression of this joy. By offering a new narrative of African American cuisine, including a long-overdue recognition to generations of Black chefs and hundreds of recipes with stunning photographs by Jerrelle Guy (and an all-African American creative team), Tipton-Martin celebrates and honors the cultural hallmarks that allow Black American culture to flourish—even when societal failures attempt to decimate it.
To find out how and why Tipton-Martin came to write Jubilee requires that we revisit the past: American culinary history owes a debt to Black Americans. Africans who were forcibly migrated to the Americas salvaged the culinary traditions of their West and Central African ancestors, recreated them in their new homeland, and graciously offered them as a foundation for American cooking.
Among several prominent historians who have documented this culinary legacy, Tipton-Martin collected hundreds of cookbooks by Black American authors; these formed the foundation for her previous book, The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks. For Jubilee, she reexamined her collection, the writings of Dr. Jessica B. Harris, and combed through the library of Afro-Latino historian and writer Arturo Schomburg, which was purchased by the New York Public Library after his death on June 10, 1938. "The gift that the cookbook authors give us is validation to convince the broader community that our story existed and that it mattered," Tipton-Martin says, of the legacy of Black chefs and home cooks, and their written recipes and stories. Jubilee is as much a history book as a cookbook. Woven into it are profiles of chefs, bartenders, home cooks, nutritionists, cooking school teachers, and activists, illuminating Black American food history from the early days of the American Revolution to today.
There’s the tale of Samuel Fraunces, who owned and operated a tavern in lower Manhattan in the late 1700s, which eventually became Fraunces Tavern. "Black Sam," as he was known, hosted guests like General George Washington, who delivered a farewell address to his officers at that very location. You’ll read of Chef George Crum, who invented the potato chip In Saratoga Springs, New York in 1853, after a guest at his restaurant complained that his French-fried potatoes were cut too thick. And you’ll find the story of a Black chef who worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad in the 1900s, whose name was lost to racism and history, invented a baking mix to produce quicker hot biscuits; it inspired "Bisquick."
"She doesn’t distance the reader from the painful parts of African American history, but merges these histories with the joyful present, inviting today’s Black Americans to indulge in the traditions of their ancestors."
Indeed, Black Americans were restaurateurs, businesspeople, and inventors. In Jubilee, Tipton-Martin appreciates the food that’s linked to enslaved African Americans, but emphasizes the fact that not all Blacks were enslaved. She also dispels the notion that all Blacks were poor, by highlighting the work of a socio-economically diverse array of freed slaves and middle class chefs. She doesn’t distance the reader from the painful parts of African American history, but merges these histories with the joyful present, inviting today’s Black Americans to indulge in the traditions of their ancestors. Finally, Tipton-Martin reverses the idea that all Black American foodways are "Southern" or "soul food."
"So much of the storyline for African Americans in the food industry revolves around those tropes, and I have been intentional about using the same practice that created the construct to disassemble it," Tipton-Martin says. African American food is not a monolith; like other cuisines, its food identity spans regions and generations. Many of the dishes in Jubilee may come as a surprise to readers, because white America has historically put Black food into such a narrow box. Recipes like avocado dip, influenced, in part, by "a West African mashed alligator pear salad similar to guacamole, but chunkier"; baked ham glazed with Champagne; braised lamb shanks with peanut sauce; and gingerbread glazed with a lemon syrup broaden the long-held definitions of African American food while revealing the stories behind the food.
Cuisines evolve, and the migratory patterns of African Americans post-slavery spurred the evolution of American foodways. By the 1940s, Black Americans had their own communities and were defining their own American identity. This often happened through gatherings with friends and family around food. How a dish was served, and what it was served in, was sometimes symbolic of the cuisine’s history. Echoing serving suggestions made by author Freda DeKnight in her 1948 A Date with a Dish—which included menu advice from middle class Black readers of Ebony magazine—Tipton-Martin presents a recipe for benne wafers served in a Gullah/Geechee sweetgrass basket.
Tipton-Martin’s emphasis on the range of class within African American communities introduces an important mythical debunking: African Americans were cooking a variety of foods—not just collards and chitlins—and engaging in Black high society. In one chapter introduction, Tipton-Martin analyzes the cookbook recipes and life of Cleora Butler, an Oklahoma caterer. In 1985, Butler published Cleora’s Kitchens: The Memoir of a Cook & Eight Decades of Great American Food, in which she documented and celebrated Black American culture from the 1920s through the 1970s with recipes like duck pâté and Camembert en Croûte.
Tipton-Martin’s experience as a historian and journalist shines brightest through her retelling of recipes that have roots in various traditions from the African diaspora. In researching her recipe for Gumbo Z’Herbes or green gumbo, she uncovers its long lineage: The "Queen of all Gumbos" got it start in West Africa where "women and children gathered 'bush greens,' which were simmered with oil, peppers, and seasonings or added to soups." When the greens arrived in the West Indies, they were sold as callaloo, and made into West Indian pepperpot, a gumbo-like stew. Tipton-Martin calls green gumbo "Louisiana's translation of the tradition of stewed greens," and notes that many chefs have shared modern recipes for it, including Leah Chase, who thickens hers with a roux, and Nathaniel Burton whose thickening technique involves a low, slow simmer.
"Under any other circumstances, [Black chefs] would be considered celebrity chefs for that knowledge and that talent," Tipton-Martin says. "I am just trying to get that back—that respect and dignity associated with the work that today's respected and revered restaurant owners and cookbook authors enjoy."
Perhaps the most important underlying theme in Jubilee goes back to its reason for being: Black American food is an expression of Black American joy. Even in the hardest of times, Black Americans cooked through trauma, and celebrated with food. In the headnote for a recipe for peach-buttermilk ice cream, Tipton-Martin writes of the Freedom Riders imprisoned in the Mississippi State Penitentiary in the early 1960s. Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolence for social change, "the college students plied a jailer with kindness and respect [until he] was won over, to some degree—he arranged for them to be served ice cream every night." After the students’ release, the Black community hosted a lavish dinner in their honor, and freshly made peach ice cream was served for dessert.
As evidenced in Jubilee, Black Americans—and their incredible culture—survived slavery, Jim Crow, a government-led crack epidemic, and more. But the anger and exhaustion that’s fueled necessary change has never overshadowed the inherent joy that Black people experience and exude. Our joy, even when the world has placed upon us tremendous pain, has often been found in the kitchen. While we aren’t wholly free, we will be, because of our fight, and because of our ability to find joy.
Jubilee isn’t simply a cookbook, it’s a love letter to the ancestors who left documentation and guides for our country to remember the people who made it so great, and to learn how to carry our legacy into a brighter, more triumphant future. It is a love letter to Black Americans today, reminding us that joy is the root of our existence and ability to triumph. It is the love letter that we need most today.