What I’m Reading Now

When I need a break from The Sympathizer, I turn to my latest acquisition, a gift from my dear friend Thelma. Of course I had heard of The Jemima Code when it came out and added it to the reading list. It is even better than advertised. In writing of cookbooks published by African Americans, Toni Tipton-Martin has produced a gorgeous work that contributes mightily to the understanding of how we have shaped, and continue to shape, American culture.

This is a big book in every respect with its coffee table size and exquisite illustrations making it ideal for dipping in and out.

One of the first pages I turned to, quite by accident, was Melrose Plantation Cookbook by Clementine Hunter and François Mignon, published in 1956. Both the place and the author were familiar because I had learned of Ms. Hunter on my first visit to New Iberia when I dined at Clementine Dining and Spirits. The maître d’ pointed to one of her paintings and said how proud the owner was to have it.

Melrose Plantation came to my attention when I began reading about the extended FPOC Metoyer family who owned much land and many enslaved people in the Cane River area of Louisiana beginning in the 1700s. Ms. Tipton-Martin doesn’t say so in The Jemima Code, but Ms. Hunter toiled as a sharecropper before she became the head cook and later award-winning artist.

Ms. Tipton-Martin describes the cuisine as “A fusion of French technique, African finesse, and native ingredients had dissolved naturally over generations into the cosmopolitan culinary landscape, resulting in creolized dishes …”

Anyone who wants to try out this fusion cuisine will have to look elsewhere for complete recipes. While these pages serve up culinary magic, don’t expect detail. Via Ms. Tipton-Martin, Ms. Hunter’s measurements include a “blade” of mace, “an egg-sized piece of butter,” and “a wineglass of brandy.” Thus no chance for complete instructions for Beef Bamboula, described elsewhere as Sloppy Joe, but actually s.j. in pie crust or Bass a la Brin, brined fish with a lemon-parsley sauce, or Tomato Robeline (maybe named for the town, located about 10 miles from Melrose Plantation?).

Throughout the book, I kept thinking about the women (and a few men) who created these delicious, sometimes nutritious dishes without the benefit of even heat sources to go along with the lack of exact measurements. These people were geniuses.

Malinda Russell writes with a different lack of directions in A Domestic Cookbook, published in 1866. As Ms. Tipton-Martin observes, the author assumes that “the reader has some basic kitchen sense.” On that basis I’m tempted to bake “Cream Cake”: one and half cups sugar, two cups sour cream, two cups flour, one or two eggs, one teaspoon soda, flavor with lemon. That’s the entire recipe. Based on my kitchen sense, I’m pretty sure you sift the flour, then sift again with the other dry ingredients, beat the eggs until lemon colored, blend in the sour cream, stir in the lemon (a teaspoon?) and then add that mixture to the dry ingredients. Beat till fluffy and pour into a greased loaf pan lined with parchment (wax paper). Bake in a preheated 325-degree oven for an hour. Yum.

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