Author, activist, culinary historian and food journalist Toni Tipton-Martin’s contributions to culinary traditions in America explore the breadth and depth of African-American cuisine.
A journalism graduate from the University of Southern California and a former food writer at the Los Angeles Times, Tipton-Martin has spent more than three decades writing about food, nutrition and the impact of African-American cuisine on American culinary history.
This weekend, Tipton-Martin is speaking at UT Food Lab’s Women & Food Symposium on writing about food in the age of new media.
“There was a time when the image of Aunt Jemima, which you can see on Quaker Oats packages, was so negative that it was used as
propaganda to keep black women in their place, which was in the kitchen — usually someone else’s kitchen,” Tipton-Martin said. “When I was at the LA Times, in the vast cookbook library, there were very few contributions made by African Americans, and, even in the Southern books, we were mentioned as an afterthought.”
Tipton-Martin didn’t experience a traditional Southern upbringing because her parents left for California when she was still young.
“Any of those foods that were the emblems of Southern cooking — like corn bread or fried chicken or greens or sweet potatoes or beans — they were never called ‘soul’ food or Southern food. It was just dinner for us,” Tipton-Martin said.
It was while working as a food writer for the LA Times that Tipton-Martin met Ruth Reichl, former editor of Gourmet Magazine.
“She saw the work that I was doing — it was really kind of perfunctory and dull — and she called me into her office the first week she started working at the Times, and she asked me ‘What do you want to do?’” Tipton-Martin said.
Reichl told Tipton-Martin to go out and find what exactly she wanted to do. It was then that Tipton-Martin realized her love for how certain communities eat and prepare food.
“At that moment, I knew that I was much more passionate to tell the story of people and their successes and their accomplishments and using food as a mechanism for drawing others into that story,” Tipton-Martin said.
Shortly after, Tipton-Martin left the LA Times. Between 2005 and 2007, she served as the president of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization that documents and celebrates the different food cultures of the South. It was while she served on the board of the Southern Foodways Alliance and Foodways Texas that she met Elizabeth Engelhardt, a professor in the department of American Studies and the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at UT.
“[Tipton-Martin] does truly, deeply believe that the foods that we share, the foods we value, the foods we remember, the foods we don’t like, the foods that we just found, the foods that we’ve eaten our whole life, they tell us something about who we are as people and they can bring us together,” Engelhardt said. “They can remind us about ourselves. Using food as a lens for culture is what [Tipton-Martin] is all about.”
In 2008, Tipton-Martin founded the SANDE Youth Project, a nonprofit organization aimed at promoting health and nutrition among the younger generation, and teaching them how to lead healthier and more productive lives. As director of SANDE, she is involved in fundraising and spreading the message of good food and nutrition.
In January 2009, when Tipton-Martin met Peace Through Pie Social founder Luanne Stovall at the organization’s first public pie social, she joined the board of Peace Through Pie soon after.
“[Tipton-Martin has] mentored me,” Stovall said. “She’s been a supporter. She struck me so much with her passion and her deep connection to history.”
In 2010, taking one step further toward preserving the South’s culinary traditions, Tipton-Martin began curating cookbooks written by African-American authors. She called this project The Jemima Code.
The Jemima Code, an upcoming book and pop-up exhibit, focuses on the 150 cookbooks that are a part of Tipton-Martin’s personal collection of 300 rare, African-American cookbooks.
Tipton-Martin said food has always been a part of the African-American lifestyle.
“My goal is to make sure that African Americans — women in particular and cooks in general — take their rightful place among the role models in the culinary industry,” Tipton-Martin said. “When they do that they will be able to be the voice that touches all those areas that I work in, whether it’s social justice, food insecurity, health and nutrition.”