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Toni Tipton-Martin: Some of My Most Cherished Cookbooks

Her renowned cookbook collection includes more than 400 Black cookbooks, with some dating back to 1827.

Published June 2, 2021.

My grandmother Nannie was a source of encouragement and a culinary inspiration who taught me how to make devil’s food cake from scratch and the proper way to knead homemade hot rolls. I stay connected to her and to my family history by keeping holiday traditions sacred and professional Black cooks like her nearby—in my cookbook library.

For as long as I can remember, I have dreamed of restoring a historic house as a place where women of all backgrounds cook and grow together the way I learned at Nannie’s knee. I imagined a "third place," a location separate from home, school, or work, where people learn self and community care from one another. I discovered such a place while researching African traditions. It is called Sande, and it is where the elder women of the village share rites of passage with young girls that take them into adulthood.

My new library fulfills a lifelong passion to nurture others just as the wise servants of the past did: at the table.

In 2008, I founded The SANDE Youth Project, a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing community wellness. SANDE provides experiences that celebrate African American food history as a means of reducing racial prejudice, increasing economic independence, and promoting good health. The cookbooks in my library, along with photographs of cooks, are its instruments; the parlor in a 100-year-old townhouse in Baltimore is the "third place."

My new library fulfills a lifelong passion to nurture others just as the wise servants of the past did: at the table. I have rescued more than 400 Black cookbooks, many of them rare, dating back to 1827. These fragile treasures establish a legacy of African American culinary excellence. The story each author tells about Black cooking reveals a unique character and style that elevates Black culture through food and achievement.

Two 19th-century authors, Malinda Russell (A Domestic Cookbook [1866]) and Abby Fisher (What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking [1881]), acknowledge the influence of the South on their unique culinary styles, and their recipes help readers distinguish real African American cooks from the stereotyped images we see in literature and on packages that are associated with the plantation mammy.

An old cookbookAn old cookbookAn old cookbook
From left: Malinda Russell's "A Domestic Cookbook" (1866), Lena Richard’s "New Orleans Cookbook" (1939), and Freda DeKnight's "A Date with a Dish" (1978).

The cookbooks written by Black authors from the mid-1920s to 1950 demonstrate multicultural recipe development designed for the tastebuds of the upper class—both white and Black. Lena Richard’s New Orleans Cookbook (1939), Lucille’s Treasure Chest of Fine Foods by Lucille Bishop Smith (1941), and A Date with a Dish (1978) by EBONY magazine’s Food Editor Freda DeKnight presented the book-buying public with recipes they published as school curriculum, for television, and in magazines. These women established national and international reputations by teaching the world about the “growing scope and diversity of African American food," as Jessica B. Harris wrote in High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America (2011).

But it is the work of Edna Lewis, the woman some have called the "Julia Child of Southern cuisine," that provides the most enduring mentorship. Students of Southern food cherish the culinary talent, authentic beauty, and quiet grace displayed in her cookbooks. Whether we’re talking about dishes recalled from her childhood in Virginia or those she created as a New York chef, her recipes rely upon "fresh ingredients of fine quality" that you grow yourself, prepare when they are at their seasonal best, and serve elegantly.

Edna Lewis cookbookOld cookbookrecipe cards
From left: Edna Lewis' "The Edna Lewis Cookbook" (1972), Abby Fisher's "What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking" (1881), recipe cards in Toni's library.

For me the relationship is personal. Lewis sent me a letter the year that I lost my dad in a horrific accident. Her words strengthened my resolve to celebrate the invisible Black women who fed America—especially when considered alongside cooking lessons for simple, delicious food: Homemade mayonnaise laced with fresh-cut parsley or tarragon gives seafood, cold chicken, and even green beans a spectacular taste and aroma, while butter flecked with chives makes roast rack of spring lamb unforgettable. 

Cookbooks like these stand proudly among 3,000 other titles ranging from regional American food to healthy cooking to world cuisines, and they preserve legacies that are a pathway for celebrating our shared humanity. Restoring the reputations of accomplished and invisible cooks helps everyone see them as role models who inspire. We reclaim our values, develop self-confidence and pride in our children, and rebuke the stereotypes that divide us.


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