Literary Luncheon with Toni Tipton-Martin
Belted Goat in Fearrington Village
Growing up in an affluent African-American suburb of Los Angeles, Toni Tipton-Martin remembers a childhood filled with fresh fruits and vegetables from her mother’s garden, fried chicken from the local Golden Bird, and taco shells fried from scratch. Now, she fills her own table with everything from tortilla soup to Asian-spiced ribs to Southern biscuits.
All of this to say, she has never connected with the narrow cultural narrative of African-American cuisine.
“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 the introduction to her new cookbook, Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking, which was published on November 5.
The book is filled with recipes inspired by or adapted from the nearly four-hundred cookbooks that Tipton-Martin has been studying for the past decade. There are soul food classics like fried chicken and biscuits, but there is also, green bean almondine, lamb curry, and a layered garden salad.
The author sees Jubilee as a second installment to her book, The Jemima Code, a survey of African-American cookbooks and a 2016 James Beard Award winner that almost never happened. “Even though I had a thirty-year food career of some status, I could not get a publisher or literary agent to accept a book about the history and diversity of African-American cuisine,” Tipton-Martin says. “So, I self-published The Jemima Code by creating a blog.”
When The Jemima Code did eventually become a book, she chose to exclude recipes and focus on the historical narrative of African-American cooks. With Jubilee, she includes both, weaving the stories of a diverse group of people—Daisy Redman, a caterer from Savannah in the 1980s; Tom Bullock, a bartender in St. Louis in the early twentieth century; Carla Hall, a modern-day celebrity chef and alumnus of Top Chef and The Chew—with recipes from their cookbooks.
In advance of Tipton-Martin’s book event at the Belted Goat in Fearrington Village, the INDY spoke with Tipton-Martin about the challenges of making old recipes relevant to new cooks, how social media has changed the way she thinks about food, and what we can all do to better appreciate the diversity of food and culture in America. Two of Tipton-Martin’s recipes from Jubilee are also excerpted.
INDY: Your first book was a James Beard award winner. Did that change anything about your process for writing the second?
TONI TIPTON-MARTIN: We knew all along, when I wrote The Jemima Code, that a recipe book would follow. We intentionally did not include recipes [in The Jemima Code] because we knew that the messaging that African Americans had an alternative history was going to be such a surprise to many people. We thought that adding recipes, and all of the additional explaining of their historical perspectives, would be too big of a message, too much content.
Jubilee took a lot of strategizing, but I think we struck a great balance between history book and cookbook. It’s a total fusion of the two, which is appropriate for a culture that views food as the fusion of so many different cultures and historical experiences, from slavery and poverty, to freedom and affluence.
What were the challenges in making traditional recipes relevant to today’s audience?
One of the interesting challenges is that some of the recipes that would have been considered very elevated at the time, are now considered basic comfort food. For example, the pork chop recipe from the book just got published in the New York Times is going bonkers on social media. In the comments of the pork chop recipe, people are saying, “Oh, I stopped making pork chops, but this is making me want to go make them again!” When that recipe was written, the ham and the chops were the prime cuts for African-American cooks. Now, we think about pork tenderloin or loin as the elite expression of pork consumption, and we’ve forgotten about the chops.
How has social media, and instances like the one you just described, changed the food media landscape and the way you approach food writing?
Social media makes people more open and gives opportunity to people who didn’t used to have it. There are no more gatekeepers to publishing. I created The Jemima Code as a blog because young people kept telling me that I would find an audience. In that way, I could totally identify with the authors profiled in Jubilee, who because of social limitations and racism but not because of their lack of talent, were unable to be published and had to do it themselves.
You’re also an advocate for food access and health equity. How does Jubilee play into that?
There are three parts to my activist mission: culture, cuisine, and community. The recipes showcase traditional African culture and botany. They also demonstrate the culinary prowess of the cooks profiled, their classical training, and their understanding of technique. And, they demonstrate the ways people used food as expressions of community.
If people only take away one thing from Jubilee, what do you hope that is?
My hope is that we are all set free from prejudice, stereotyping, and expectations that a food has to be this or that way. And, that we can appreciate each other for our individuality, and understand that the things that make us all different can be the things that make us alike.
Southern Pecan Pie Laced with Whiskey
You can find standard pecan pie recipes on the label of the corn syrup bottle, [and] through the years I have encountered many inventive variations…But here is the time-honored version—sweet and gooey, packed with nuts—with one twist: The splash of whiskey or rum gives this spirited pie another layer of flavor and takes the pie’s familiar syrupy sweetness down a notch.
1 1⁄2 cups chopped toasted pecans, plus 1⁄2 cup pecan halves
2 tablespoons whiskey or rum
1⁄2 recipe Best-Ever Pie Crust (recipe follows), unbaked
6 tablespoons butter, at room temperature 1 cup packed dark brown sugar
3⁄4 cup dark corn syrup
3 large eggs, beaten
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Place the chopped toasted pecans in a small bowl and toss with the whiskey until coated. Let stand 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Roll the dough to fit a 9-inch pie plate, and tuck it in as the crust recipe directs.
In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and brown sugar until light. Beat in the corn syrup, eggs, salt, and vanilla. Stir in the whiskey-soaked pecans. Pour into the pie shell, and arrange the pecan halves on top in an attractive pattern.
Bake until the filling is set but still has a slight jiggle in the middle, 55 to 60 minutes. (While baking, check to see that the edges of the crust aren’t browning too quickly; cover them with foil if they are.) Cool the pie slightly, then serve warm or at room temperature.
Best-Ever Pie Crust
Makes enough for two 9-inch pie crusts
I use lard for my crusts because I love the rich flavor and short texture, but an all-butter dough results in an even flakier crust, should you choose to substitute more butter for the lard here.
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1 stick (4 ounces) butter, cut into 1⁄2-inch pieces and chilled
1⁄4 cup lard or shortening, cut into 1⁄2-inch pieces and chilled
8 to 10 tablespoons ice-cold water
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Sprinkle half of the butter and lard over the flour and use your fingertips, a pastry blender, or two knives to cut and mix until the mixture resembles large peas. Sprinkle in the remaining butter and lard and cut and mix to coarse crumbs. Sprinkle the dough with ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, and use a fork to lightly mix until the dough just comes together and pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
Gather the dough into a ball. Divide the ball in half. Press into two 1-inch-thick discs and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for 30 minutes before rolling, or freeze for later use.
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