Toni Tipton-Martin Is My Mentor and Teacher, Even Though We’ve Never Met

“I can't help but wonder if you know the impact you've had on the careers of so many women who look like you and me.”

A collage of Toni Tipton-Martin and her cookbook "Jubilee"

Simply Recipes / Clarkson Potter / Pableaux Johnson

This story is a part of our Juneteenth collaboration with Eat the Culture, where we tapped writers and cooks to share “love letters” to their favorite Black cookbook authors.

Dear Mrs. Tipton-Martin,

Do you know just how much you meant to me as a little Black girl? 

The very first dessert I ever made was a Lemon Meringue Pie. I was 9-years-old, but I can vividly picture lifting that first slice from the pie plate and watching it flow right back down from where it came. 

Now, as a much older than 9-years-old woman, I stir the custard base to prepare the Lemon Meringue Pie from your James Beard Award-winning cookbook “Jubilee”, and I can't help but wonder if you know the impact you've had on the careers of so many women who look like you and me. 

You once said that the life histories of Mothers, Grandmothers, and Mammies past "spur all women on to attain the confidence and financial independence that can exist in the kitchen." But do you know that you are among those voices that ring in my head as I whip these egg whites to a perfect stiff peak?

What I didn't realize back as a little girl baking footloose and fancy-free, was that this recipe requires wisdom that you're not born with. Someone needs to guide you in the proper making of a meringue. Fat inhibits volume. That's not something I would've known without someone willing to teach me. But what if there's no one there to teach?

Devoting time to raising my twins, supporting my husband's military career, and still trying to piecemeal together a career in the culinary industry, you're who I looked to, to find inspiration that it was never too late to accomplish my culinary dreams. You, the woman who's devoted her time to teaching others the foodways of your culture. Of our culture. You stepped up to teach the rest of us.  

Despite my failures that day as 9-year-old Marta, I knew I was created to cook, even when there weren't always teachers around to guide me. I held fast to that idea, even when my dreams were deferred in support of others. I persevered in an industry that wasn't always welcoming to women, especially women with my skin tone. When life and medical diagnosis told me I would probably not achieve the culinary dreams I'd hoped for, I trudged on anyway. I sought out opportunities to teach others the cuisine of my cultures and, in doing so, connected them with theirs as well. 

As I sit here in a kitchen studio, which I was able to have built thanks to that confidence and financial independence of a lifetime of grit and gumption, watching the peaks of this successful Lemon Meringue Pie caramelize to a golden brown, I think about your history of educating those of us who care to learn about the history of Black foodways, your movement to amplify the voices of the pioneers of American cuisine, and the way you champion youths to take up that same mantle of honoring and celebrating their culture through food. I think of how I finally see someone who looks like me bringing my culture's recipes to the forefront of conversations. I think about how, without you, so many of us would've been forced to figure out these concepts and truths on our own, failing more times than need be—the lemon meringue pies of our lives never setting up, if you will, and never knowing how to fix it. I think about how so many girls and women who look like us would still be desperately seeking their role models in the culinary world.  

I don't know that you know how much you meant to me as a little Black girl, but the Black woman I now am can't thank you enough for guiding me to this very place.Your work has led me to see that I am now bearing the awesome burden of teaching the next generation how to succeed in the kitchen. Thank you for being my mentor, even if you had no clue I was watching. 

With affection,