Story and Photography By Toni Tipton-Martin
It’s 2:30 a.m. on Friday, January 14, 1995, and Edna Lewis can’t sleep. Although she’s exhausted and weak from radiation, she’s troubled by a conversation we’ve been having about African American cooking. She climbs out of bed, rips yellow paper from a legal pad then composes a three-page rant about African American food history.
Ten years later, after the woman some have called the “Julia Child of Southern cuisine,” lost her battle with cancer at the age of 89, that note has become a personal treasure to me.
It has also made me sad. Edna’s authentic beauty, quiet grace and culinary talent are cherished in the Southern food world. Elsewhere, she is virtually unknown.
Her words strengthened my resolve to celebrate the invisible women who fed America.
“Every group has its own food history,” Edna scribbled with the kind of hurried penmanship that happens when thoughts are jumping out of your head and onto the page faster than you can capture them. “Our condition was different. We were brought here against our will in the millions, enslaved, and through it all, established a cuisine in the South…the only fully developed cuisine in the country.”
Edna’s concentration strays a bit as she talks about the food of old Harlem, survival cooking and the poetry of Langston Hughes, but she regains her composure and gets back to the point:
“We developed but did not own [Southern food] because we did not own ourselves,” she laments. “But we established a cuisine …. Leave no stone unturned.”
The challenge was hardly that simple. Julie, after all, had Julia. There isn’t just one individual source that accurately portrays the history of African American cooks. In fact, those tireless, talented women would have little written history if it weren’t for stereotypes.
I made peace with that unfortunate reality, and for the next few years I wore the aprons of America’s black cooks. I explored everything from scholarship and literature to music lyrics and art; I ran up incredible expenses in historical societies; visited library special collections from UCLA to the Library of Congress; searched the census; read city directories; studied oral histories and slave narratives; treaded grooves in cemeteries; spent my kids’ college tuition on eBay in auctions of rare black cookbooks.
What emerged was a surprising alternative view of the wide-grinning, bandana-wearing visage belonging to the world’s most well-recognized black cook, Aunt Jemima. Who would have thought she maintained a garden, cooked free-range chicken, ate organic beef and pork and recycled used clothes into bed linens? In other words, why didn’t we know that she understood clean eating and sustainability?
Armed with a new view, inspiration from Edna, memories of my grandmother Nannie’s kitchen and my mother’s passion for wholistic living and organic gardening, the idea eventually emerged for a blog and a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization as contemporary ways to present culinary role models anyone could relate to. My hope was that visitors to the blog, thejemimacode.com, would share their own memories, stories and recipes for inventive cuisine created by women like Edna Lewis, while the current generation of children would put those stories into action.
My project is part museum, part classroom, dedicated to preparing underprivileged children for healthy, bright and productive futures, and accomplished by teaching African American cooking, economy and history over a batch of oatmeal cookies that students make themselves.
Participants will develop self-esteem and impart knowledge in a year-round cooking school where kids get their hands dirty in all aspects of the food cycle—from seedling to harvest to preparation to table. They will feel at home when they attend weekly sessions in a comfortable kitchen that accommodates up to 12 students and adult mentors cooking together. Excitement for new foods will develop as they taste fresh-picked fruits and vegetables they grow themselves; patience, independence and self-confidence will bloom when they discover recipes and tips from real African American culinary role models.
Both the blog and the nonprofit started with a simple vision: create an inviting learning environment resembling my grandmother's kitchen, make learning fun, empower children and their families to take care of themselves and their neighborhoods. This knowledge can inspire a new generation of cooks and spur others to attain the confidence and financial independence available through academic culinary careers. A real-life cook with practical advice and wisdom motivates the rest of us to restore a little warmth to our kitchens of granite and steel.
Fundraising is underway to restore the Limerick-Frazier House, a national landmark in East Austin, for the project’s new home. The goal of renovation is to provide a safe place for kids to go after school—and it certainly will do that—but the exhibits, artifacts, cookbook library, artist-led workshops and organic gardens will also offer visitors a rare glimpse into African American culinary history.
The Limerick-Frazier House has called to me ever since I moved to Central Texas 10 years ago, with promises of festive summer picnics and buoyant children chasing fireflies through the grove of large native elm and oak trees surrounding the gracious Victorian. The home is a regal manor on a sprawling grassy peak with clear views of the Capitol and downtown skyline, while nearby shotgun-style homes gasp their last tragic breaths in heaps of naked, shredded lumber, rusted and twisted pipes and a few lumps of concrete that might have been front steps once upon a time.
I couldn’t travel into downtown without my imagination wandering from rush-hour traffic to a simpler era when East Austin was alive and the then “Frazier House” was a cornerstone of hospitality. In those days, domestic-science students practiced their craft under the shelter of the home’s classic gables. The young women pursued educations in home management, increased their literacy and developed creative entrepreneurial skills through fundraising suppers. Weary African American tourists also found refuge in its galleries during Jim Crow segregation.
In 1978, the City of Austin designated the 115-year-old residence a Texas Historic Landmark for its distinctive and artistic craftsmanship. In 2005, it achieved National Historic Landmark status, and earned the name the Limerick-Frazier House because of its association with owners Joseph Limerick, an immigrant stonemason, and John W. Frazier, a professor of mathematics.
The Limerick-Frazier House is also the last standing building associated with Samuel Huston College—a private, black college established by the Freedmen’s Aid Society in 1900—making it one of the few lasting monuments to the community pride and honor that characterized African American neighborhoods Texans built by bootstrap.
“The issue of community health is a very complicated one,” writes former Austin Mayor Will Wynn. “It is only through comprehensive, creative, collaborative efforts such as this community project that we are going to be able to control escalating healthcare costs and keep our children healthy, happy and thriving. It is gratifying to see how our commitment to sustainability will continue to transform Austin now and in the future…. I look forward to replication of this design in many other neighborhoods throughout the city and the country.”
Find out more about the Limerick-Frazier House at: tonitiptonmartin.com.