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Book calls attention to African American culinary traditions

  • Mini curried meat pies from the cookbook "Jubilee" by Toni Tipton-Martin. The pastry includes some curry powder, which imparts color and lends flavor, mirroring the spicing in the filling. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

  • Toni Tipton-Martin's new cookbook "Jubilee" published by Clarkson Potter is a bridge to understanding the complexities and grand diversity of African American food and those who cook it. (Clarkson Potter)

Chicago Tribune
Published: 12/10/2019 5:41:03 PM
Modified: 12/10/2019 5:40:58 PM

When journalist and activist Toni Tipton-Martin amassed close to 400 cookbooks chronicling a culinary history of largely forgotten and overlooked African American cooks and chefs, she organized her findings into a massive project, a well-read and well-received book later known as The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks.

Now, after The Jemima Code won a 2016 James Beard Award, Tipton-Martin has returned with Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking (Clarkson Potter, $35).

Her latest work is less a continuation of what she laid out in The Jemima Code and more a bridge to understanding the complexities and grand diversity often neglected when talking about African American food and those who cook it.

“At its core, African American cuisine reflects the blending of two distinct culinary styles,” she writes. “One was crafted by ingenious and industrious field hands in the slave cabin, from meager ingredients, informed by African techniques. The other signifies the lavish cooking in the plantation kitchen or in kitchens staffed or owned by people educated formally and informally in culinary arts.”

Tipton-Martin, originally from Southern California, writes at length about her frustration with both popular culture and food media, which consider “soul food” the solitary marker of African American culinary prowess.

But her upbringing and research indicate otherwise. This was something she wanted to catalog and showcase. What results is an assemblage of recipes from all over the country and a variety of cultural influences from the greater African Diaspora.

For instance, there are the crispy crackers dotted with sesame seeds, known as benne wafers popularized via the Sea Islands in South Carolina, bite-size curried meat pies per those of Caribbean and African descent, Creole cafe au lait and a smattering of breads — biscuits, cornbread, sweet potato rolls, cinnamon rolls. Each of the recipes represents a cultural touchstone with clear historical roots and ties.

To structure her cookbook, Tipton-Martin drew inspiration from a book proposal titled Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of U.S. History. Arturo Schomburg, for whom the prestigious Schomburg Center for Black Culture in New York was named, in recognition of his scholarship, penned the proposal for the never completed book.

The anatomy of Tipton-Martin’s cookbook might be familiar to anyone who has had to conceptualize a meal from beginning to end — light bites or appetizers to whet the appetite, hot or cold drinks with or without alcohol; soups and salads, main entrees; meat, seafood and sweet treats to wrap up the meal.

Schomburg’s outline and recipes from Tipton-Martin’s collection of rare African American cookbooks dating back as far as 1827 also furnished a number of sidebars, tangential explanations that lend context to recipes in their original form, recipes that have in many cases been updated and translated for modern cooks.

The lasting impression any reader will take away from Jubilee, is that the true breadth of African American culinary history is greater than it first appears.

It is more than the relied upon and easily accessible pot of greens seasoned with ham hock or smoked turkey and bubbly macaroni and cheese, which are both essential in their own right. To fail to look deeper, however, is to discount a swath of people and their stories, visions, legacies and culinary strides and triumphs.

There are also endless routes to paying homage to the black contributions to the culinary world, and there are countless heroes to look back on. Tipton-Martin argues that we should rest our gaze on these men and women, and imagine what it meant for those African Americans to cook and to live in their time and to contribute to the American story.

Curried meat pies

Makes 30 small pies.

Pastry pockets wrapping savory fillings have a long history in black cooking, Toni Tipton-Martin writes in Jubilee. This recipe is adapted from “Eric Copage’s curried lamb samosas,” she writes. “He enveloped the spicy filling in wonton wrappers (another nod toward the global pantry). My version maintains the ancestral character of the African diaspora and the Caribbean, cradling a spicy beef filling in curry-scented homemade pastry.”

1 pound ground beef

1 cup minced onion

¼ cup minced red bell pepper

½ to 1 teaspoon minced chile pepper, such as Scotch bonnet or habanero

1½ teaspoons minced garlic (about 2 cloves)

½ teaspoon salt, or to taste

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 teaspoons curry powder, preferably Jamaican

½ teaspoon dried thyme

2 tablespoons tomato paste

Oil, for greasing the baking sheet

1 egg

Curried pastry crust, see recipe

All-purpose flour, for the work surface

Paprika (optional)

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat until very hot. Add the ground beef and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 5 minutes. Drain all but 1 tablespoon of the drippings from the pan. Add the onion, bell pepper, chile pepper and garlic to the skillet and saute over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned on the edges, about 5 minutes. Stir in the salt, cayenne, curry powder, thyme, tomato paste and ¼ cup water. Bring to a low simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for 7 to 10 minutes to thicken the mixture. Taste and add salt as desired. Set the filling aside to cool completely.

Preheat the oven to 400. Lightly grease a baking sheet or line with parchment paper.

In a small bowl, stir together the egg and 1 tablespoon water. Set the egg wash aside.

Divide the pastry into quarters. On a lightly floured board, working with one piece of pastry at a time, roll the pastry 1/8-inch thick. Cut out rounds with a 3-inch cutter. Stack the pastry rounds on a plate and cover with a damp cloth. You should have 30 rounds total. Spoon 1 tablespoon filling onto one side of each round, leaving a ½-inch border around the filling. Brush the edges with a small amount of water to moisten. Fold the other half of the dough over the filling to create a half-moon shape. Press the edges together with a fork or fingers to seal in filling.

Place the meat pies on the baking sheet and brush with the egg wash. Bake until golden, 25 to 30 minutes. Sprinkle with paprika, if desired. Serve warm.

Nutrition information per mini pie: 110 calories, 7 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 16 mg cholesterol, 7 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 4 g protein, 97 mg sodium, 0 g fiber.

Curried pastry crust

Makes enough for 30 (3-inch) pies.

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon curry powder

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon salt

¾ cup shortening, cut into 1/2-inch dice, chilled

cup ice-cold water, or as needed

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, curry powder, cayenne and salt. Sprinkle the shortening pieces over the dry ingredients. Using your fingertips, a pastry blender or two knives, cut in the shortening until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Sprinkle half of the water over the dough and stir with a fork to mix. Stir in enough additional water, 1 tablespoon at a time, to form a shaggy dough. Scrape the dough onto a floured board. Knead 5 to 10 seconds, until the dough is smooth. Wrap the dough in a large sheet of wax paper or plastic, folding the edges over to completely cover the dough. Press the dough into a flat disc and refrigerate until ready to use.

Note: For a sturdier crust, reduce the shortening to ½ cup and increase the water to 3⅔ cups.

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