Toni Tipton-Martin is a woman who wears many hats: Culinary historian; long-time journalist; food activist; chef; cookbook author; nutrition educator; and cooking instructor.  A former food writer for the Los Angeles Times, Toni has been digging up African American food roots for the last 25 years—researching, unveiling, and accrediting the unsung black female cooks who profoundly shaped southern food.

She founded The SANDE Youth Project, a non-profit in Austin, TX, as a way to share African American cultural history and cooking practices with families to combat childhood hunger, obesity, and chronic disease. When Oldways met Toni last year, we knew we had found a kindred spirit. She is an advisor on our African Heritage & Health expert committee, and she is currently a pilot instructor for A Taste of African Heritage – Oldways’ new cooking class curriculum – in Austin, TX. We are very fortunate to call her a colleague, as well as a friend.

OLDWAYS:  Thanks so much for talking with us today, Toni. Your work has taken on a uniquely comprehensive view of the many impacts of food—nutritionally, historically, culturally, and socially. What was the spark that first got you interested in food and its significance to the African American experience?
TONI: My interest in the African American food experience was sparked while I was a reporter at the Los Angeles Times. I was surrounded by the most amazing chef food, and a deep research and cookbook library, but somehow, the people who had done the cooking in America’s kitchens were not represented. When they were, they did not reflect the people I knew. I wanted to change that. I wanted other people to be as inspired and energized about cooking as I was when I thought about my grandmother and my aunts and their passion for cooking.

OLDWAYS: You’re obviously very passionate about cooking. Why is cooking so important and what does it mean to someone to be able to cook?
TONI: Yes, I am passionate about cooking because cooking represents a kind of freedom to me. If you are a child and you learn to cook, you can take care of yourself after school when you are hungry. It’s important in college, when dorm food and the constant lure of fast foods that sustain kids through late nights of study, cause weight gain. And we adults need to know how to cook, even if it’s just a few basic recipes and skills, so that we are not victims to the toxins in packaged, prepared, and fast foods.

OLDWAYS: Oldways believes in the value of eating traditionally and culturally because of the proven health benefits and great flavors found throughout the world. Why is the preservation of the food traditions and cooking techniques of early African Americans so important to you?
TONI: Preserving African American food traditions matters to me because there are so many healthy ingredients, cooking techniques, and habits in the recipe boxes of the ancestors — not to mention the flavor. If we can just become acquainted with those, we might be less inclined to depend upon fat and salt to keep our tastebuds satisfied. 

OLDWAYS: Your nonprofit, SANDE, uses cooking and cultural history to improve family nutrition. Your programs include exhibits of important artifacts, like rare African American cookbooks and photographs. Have you found that cultural history and heritage inspire people to bring a new enjoyment to their kitchens?
TONI: Cultural history and heritage definitely inspire people to cook more, and at the very least it invites them to seek more information. People in the community used to have a sense of pride about their food, but today, when we think of African American cooking, we are stuck in the soul movement of the 1960s and a handful of dishes that barely represent the full spectrum of black cooking experience. I am promoting curiosity.

OLDWAYS: What do you find are the biggest hurdles families face when it comes to healthy eating and preparing home cooked meals today? How can they overcome such obstacles?
TONI: There are numerous obstacles to preparing healthy meals at home these days, but essentially, we are in a situation that took years to create and will not be solved overnight. The working poor has limited access to wholesome ingredients and often lack the time it takes to shop and prep food at home, but there are systemic barriers that have been in the way for years and are beyond the people’s control. A first step is to educate families about the junk in their environment so they realize just what is happening to their bodies and their kids, and to show them that their ancestors didn’t eat this stuff. Once we have their attention, we can move on to teaching them healthy cooking that is quick, easy, tasty, and economical.

OLDWAYS: We love that you are “re-kindling the age-old tradition of the pie social.” What are pie socials, and what have they meant to African Americans and others historically?
TONI: A pie social is simply a way for family and friends to gather and share pie usually for a community cause. The tradition can be traced to lavish Roman banquets. In the African American community, industrious educators, such as Mary McLeod Bethune and Charlotte Hawkins Brown, sold sweet potato pies to raise money for the community and to fund education, independence, and freedom. The idea with Peace Through Pie is to demonstrate several things. One is that a filling wrapped in dough is universal, enjoyed by nearly every ethnicity. It represents our common ground. And, a homemade pie of fresh ingredients is a healthy alternative to pre-made, packaged versions and it can be enjoyed in moderation as part of a balanced diet.

OLDWAYS: Among everything else you do, you also make dreams come true. This year, you took a group of budding African American chefs from a Texas high school up to New York City to cook at the prestigious Beard Foundation. What was that experience like for you and the youth?
TONI: Taking the kids to New York City is among the career accomplishments that make me most proud. Now these kids know that their dreams aren’t just a distant hope, but a goal to be achieved. One of the students stated it best when he said, “Now people will know we can do more than just clear the tables.” I’m glad to be part of that.

OLDWAYS: You have a new book coming out based on another one of your projects, The Jemima Code. Can you share a little sneak preview about this book with our readers?

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TONI: The Jemima Code is a blog, exhibit, and book that honor the African American cooks who nourished generations of Americans with meals prepared using fresh food from the garden, cooked with love at the kitchen hearth. Until recently, these invisible artists were ignored by most historians. Many of them, however, published cookbooks that recorded their wisdom and recipes. In the Jemima Code, the book, I review 200 of those rare books, which were published between 1827 and 2000. It will be like a scrapbook with my thoughts about the important role of these authors in the making of American cuisine. And I consider their work without the bias of race or gender. I simply look at their work through the lens of culinary arts. In other words, the project answers the question: What knowledge and skill did these cooks demonstrate besides the gift of making great pancakes?

OLDWAYS: We’d kick ourselves if we missed this opportunity to ask you: What’s one of your favorite meals to cook at home?
TONI:  You know that’s a great question, because I am an avid recipe forager. I will cook recipes seasoned by a range of cultures, and I really love to bake. When Molly O’Neill asked me for a recipe to include in her book, I chose one that everyone asks me to make for summer picnics, an Asian-flavored cole slaw. But, if I had to choose my favorite meal it would be a simple mixed grill of summer vegetables tossed in olive oil and cooked on the grill with a southwestern-spiced salmon fillet, finished off with a lemon-blueberry or a chocolate tart.

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