In celebration of Juneteenth celebrated on Friday, June 19, 2020, we’re pulling forward this interview we did in November with Toni Tipton-Martin, award-winning historian, author, and journalist, about her book, Jubilee.
It’s not every day that a cookbook sends you back in time to tell story that perhaps hasn’t quite been told yet.
Food writer and activist Toni Tipton-Martin has done just that with Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking. The title of her cookbook directly references the day that honors the freedom of enslaved Americans, but she extends that term to celebrate the contributions African Americans have made to cooking. She writes, quite simply, “We have earned the freedom to cook with creativity and joy.”
The book is pretty radical in that regard, and its recipes are pretty delicious.
The Makings of a Jubilee
Jubilee tells the story of recipes that were passed down, changed, tweaked, cooked, celebrated, eaten, and shared within the African American community. It is, as Tipton-Martin writes, the story of scores of cooks—cooking school teachers, classically trained chefs, well-trained plantation cooks, railroad chefs, ranch and stagecoach hands, and on and on.
Each recipe tells the story of one cook’s way of making one particular dish: how to make spoonbread, or gumbo, or black-eyed peas and rice, for example. Far from telling you “this is how you should do it,” Tipton-Martin wants to empower the cook—and the choices we all make in the kitchen that affect the end result, that customize and reflect you and your family’s preferences. “I might add more tomato to my jambalaya, or you might take it out of the oven sooner,” she says.
So, for the average home cook that means yes, these recipes have a cool history, but they also need to be cooked! Recipes belong in a kitchen, right? Tipton-Martin wants you to make those adjustments and have the confidence to do so.
What’s in Jubilee the Cookbook?
Jubilee’s recipes are completely approachable and unfussy, regardless of whatever era they’re coming from.
You can make something like Hot Water Cornbread, which Tipton-Martin says is likely the original form of cornbread, cooked right on a cast-iron skillet or griddle and using either boiling water or scalded milk along with some lard, bacon drippings, or melted butter.
Then there are dishes that feel utterly modern, such as the Wilted Mixed Greens Salad that is so effortlessly gorgeous it would be at home at a brunch spread. Peanut Soup has a long history in African cuisine, but instead of the traditional way of making it—cooking raw peanuts and breaking them down afterward by mashing or grounding—Tipton-Martin opts for using natural peanut butter.
Because why not? This is how recipes survive. They adapt and we just keep on makin’ em!
How to Make Classic Jambalaya
Ok, heads up: This jambalaya doesn’t look like every other ruddy-colored and stew-like jambalaya, which you may have encountered by surfing the web, looking through cookbooks, or making it on your own. Instead, it’s going to look more rustic than perhaps you’re accustomed to.
You may get to a point in the process, like I did, when you think, Oh no! I did something wrong! The rice is overcooked! It’s dry and sticks together! What’s happening here? Why doesn’t it look very tomato-ey? It looked perfect five minutes ago!
But then I had this thought: What if what I thought I knew about jambalaya, wasn’t what I thought? Or any other recipe with a melting-pot kind of origin?
In talking with Tipton-Martin, I learned that jambalaya descends from the African cracked rice tradition and from red rice dishes, such as Savannah, Charleston, or Gullah red rice, popular in the Carolina Lowcountry. Cracked rice is a broken grain leftover in the field that cooks up like short-grain rice. Red rice is a sticky, ruby-red dish made with tomato paste or sauce that African American cooks adapted according to their own tastes and what was in the pantry.
As a result, the jambalaya that springs from the red rice foundation wouldn’t have been soupy or ruddy with lots of tomatoes, but instead the rice would have been drier and stickier. Tipton-Martin interprets all of these nuances for modern kitchens and adds the step of parching (drying) the rice in the oven for a few minutes, which results in a delicious new way to enjoy jambalaya.
That’s the beauty of a book like Jubilee—it’s a culinary exploration in the best sense. It’s a trip. Be open to that process and how some of your assumptions about food, cooking, and a region or a people might change as you’re cooking.
Q&A With Toni Tipton-Martin
Let’s hear more about the book from Toni Tipton-Martin herself!
What do you think would surprise people the most about the recipes in Jubilee?
The recipes in Jubilee were carefully chosen to tell the fuller story of African American cooking. They are not fancy or chefy. They are dishes created when a cook migrated across regions, mingled recipes with techniques and ingredients from other cultures, and then embraced the adaptations as her own. Culinary professionals call this recipe development, but the practice is not often mentioned when it comes to our recipe canon.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about African American cooking?
That our dishes are limited to the southern and soul food styles of the American South. Our cooking reflects traditions of the African Diaspora as well as those based in classic technique.
What recipe challenged you the most—and you’re so proud you got it right?
The old cookbooks did not include headnotes containing the usual visual cues and cooking tips so several recipes presented a testing challenge. The jambalaya was definitely one of them. When I learned about the red rice traditions of the African Diaspora I realized that cracked or broken rice would have yielded a drier, stickier dish than many jambalaya fans are accustomed to today. I love the flexibility of the dish, meaning, if you prefer fluffier rice, you can simply cook it less.
I feel like every cookbook author has that one recipe in their book that they know isn’t going to be very popular, but they love it anyway and it’s in there. Do you have one in Jubilee like that?
I’d hate to think any of the recipes would be unpopular, but the Jam Cake might seem a bit old fashioned. I included it to spotlight our knowledge and use of spices and to demonstrate the continuity in our recipes between simple fruit jam, applesauce, and carrot or zucchini cakes. One of those descendants, carrot cake, has been the birthday cake of choice for my two oldest kids.
What recipes do you have on regular rotation since writing this book?
I have so many faves in this book. My husband loves to grill the Caribbean Pork Roast during summer. I bake double batches of the Hot Rolls at Thanksgiving, and I love to serve the Lemon Cake with fresh berries to dinner guests.
FIVE MORE GUMBOS, STEWS, AND JAMBALAYAS
Toni Tipton-Martin’s Classic Jambalaya Recipe
From Toni Tipton-Martin: When Creole chef and cookbook author Austin Leslie introduced New Orleans haute cuisine and his special fried chicken recipe to diners at the restaurant Chez Helene, he created a hybrid Creole-soul food restaurant that was world class. In his 1984 recipe collection, Chez Helene: House of Good Food Cookbook, his jambalaya featured subtle celery, shrimp stock, and a prodigious amount of sausage and ham. For my version, I double the characteristic Louisiana punch of green peppers and call for more chicken stock. I also used a parched-rice technique to keep the grains separate (which I learned from a Creole chef in Los Angeles) for a dish that is both hearty in satisfaction and light in texture.
Reprinted with permission from Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking by Toni Tipton-Martin, copyright © 2019. Photographs by Jerrelle Guy. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.
- 2 cups long-grain rice
- 1/2 cup finely diced salt pork
- 1 1/2 cups chopped onions
- 1 cup chopped green bell pepper
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 cup chopped green onions, white part only
- 1 pound smoked sausage (andouille), cut into 1/2-inch thick coins
- 1/2 cup ham, 1/2-inch dice
- 2 cups diced tomatoes
- 4 cups chicken stock
- 1 1/2 cups cooked chicken, 1/2-inch dice
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon paprika
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
- 1/2 pound small shrimp, peeled and deveined
- Cayenne pepper
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
1 Prep the pan and the oven: Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a 9x15-inch rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
2 Parch the rice: Pour the rice onto the baking sheet in a single layer. Parch in the oven, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Remove; set aside.
3 Cook the salt pork: In a large, heavy ovenproof pot or Dutch oven, sauté the salt pork over medium heat until the fat is rendered and the pork is slightly browned. Use a slotted spoon to remove the pork to paper towels to drain.
4 Make the jambalaya: Add the onions and bell pepper to the fat in the pot and cook over medium-low heat until starting to soften, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic, green onions, sausage, and ham, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender and the meat is lightly browned, about 5 minutes.
Stir in the salt pork, tomatoes and chicken stock and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Stir in the parched rice, chicken, thyme, bay leaves, paprika, pepper, and salt.
5 Bake the jambalaya: Transfer to the oven and bake, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Stir in the shrimp and bake until the rice is tender and the shrimp are pink, about 3 to 4 minutes.
If you prefer fluffier rice, stir in the shrimp after 15 minutes and cook another 3-4 minutes until the shrimp is pink.
6 Serve: Remove and discard the bay leaves. Season to taste with salt and cayenne, sprinkle with parsley, and serve.
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