It might sound strange to hear that Toni Tipton-Martin is finding her voice.
The food editor, author and two-time James Beard Award winner is one of the leading authorities in the history of Black food. But a move to Baltimore, mixed with the country’s recent focus on social justice, has given the 40-year food industry veteran a newfound sense of strength.
“I think that the civil unrest has shown us the African American experience,” she said from Baltimore, her home for the past two years.
Up until recently, Tipton-Martin said she has been “very respectful and quiet about” her struggles. She was far less likely to share just how difficult it was to achieve her literary success. And she was even more guarded about sharing details from her personal life.
But recent racial strife means Tipton-Martin is more willing to talk about her often painstaking experience getting two award winning books—Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks and The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks—published.
Initially, Tipton-Martin presented Jemima Code to a New York City agent in 2010 as a book of essays with citations and a recipe book. That agent disappeared with her proposal. That resulted in her self-publishing the book as a blog.
“Like my ancestors, when I experienced an obstacle, social media provided me a window in,” she said in reference to the historical obstacles that Black people have faced at every level of society.
Tipon-Martin said that her books have smashed the beliefs in the publishing industry that Black people don’t buy books in the historical food genre..
“This is a book that has mass appeal. Our story has not been told before,” she said of Jubilee.
“The reason that I took Jemima Code to the internet in the first place is because I was told that there wasn’t a market for a book like that.”
Jubilee, which was published in 2019, focuses on Black food history in America — including Maryland. Among the highlights: Maryland stuffed ham, which was cooked in St. Mary’s County, and deviled crab and the Black women who sold it.
Tipton-Martin said the initial response by journalists to Jubilee, a serious book that addresses the struggle that Black people have endured in this country, were superficial.
“They would say ‘how excited and how delicious everything sounded,’” she recalled, adding that she once had her recipes describe as “perky.”
Tipton-Martin said that because historic African American cooking had not appeared in the mainstream, she had to go above and beyond during the research process.
For example, Tipton-Martin acquired more than 400 rare books by Black authors through the course of her research, a tiring, but necessary, experience.
She also moved twice while writing both books.
Even identifying a Black food photographer — who was versed in shooting food in a studio for a cookbook format — was difficult. She eventually found Dallas-based photographer Jerrelle Guy.
The struggle has been worth the recognition.
Tipton-Martin can vividly remember her first James Beard Award in 2016.
“For me — especially after so many years trying to be taken seriously for a message that did not conform to the soul food only story — it was exhilarating,” she said. “No one wanted to publish this book. It was a thank you for at least recognizing that and rectifying that error.”
This year’s victory was bittersweet. Due to COVID-19, the annual awards in New York City were cancelled. Instead, winners were announced online.
“You want to be in the presence of those people you love,” she said. “Nothing can replace being recognized by peers.”
Jamila Robinson, James Beard committee member and food editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, describes Tipton-Martin as a superstar in the food writing industry.
“I think [Jubilee] is the most important cookbook we saw this year. There is a reason it won the James Beard Award. It is such an important sweep of American cooking,” said Robinson, who has given away the book as gifts throughout the year. “Everyone who is American should have this book. It is your history too.”
Robinson added: “She should be in every Hall of Fame. I hope food media starts to more broadly recognize more people like her — and not just in a moment.”
Baltimore-based chef David Thomas and his wife Tonya kicked off Tipton-Martin’s book tour during a dinner at the restaurant, which they left to pursue other ventures in March.
“I hope people understand the value of having a black woman capturing this information and releasing this to the public,” Tonya said. “I looked at her like she is an elder because she has done that kind of work.”
He added: “It’s a huge deal for Baltimore. To have a black author writing about Black food and Black food ways, it’s beyond impressive.”
Recently, Tipton-Martin’s name has been floated for the vacant editor position at Bon Appétit by prominent food forces like Ruth Reichl, the former editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, and Padma Lakshmi, host of Top Chef. The position became available in early June when Adam Rapoport, the editor in chief, resigned after a 2004 photo surfaced of him and his wife dressed in stereotypical costumes meant to portray Puerto Ricans.
“It spoke volumes about the hope we all have for a new day in food journalism,” she said. “If I were going to lead Bon Appétit, it would carry the same work ethic that has defined my entire career.”
A representative for Bon Appétit declined comment.
“While we cannot comment on any potential candidate specifically, the process is underway and we look forward to having the role filled soon,” Molly Pacala, Executive Director and Head of Communications, Lifestyle Division for Condé Nast.
Tipton-Martin has a complicated relationship with Baltimore.
She describes “hurt” feelings with her initial exposure to Charm City.
“It’s the disregard for humanity; the pockets of vacancies and unemployment that reflect generations of neglect,” she begins. “I’m not unfamiliar with urban poverty. Part of what excited me about coming to Baltimore was the opportunity to reclaim this historic architecture and to explore it’s food history and to share its message of hope with the generations that could benefit from role models in the food world.”
Tipton-Martin said that the region has “success stories” associated with Black bartending and catering throughout that “could give our young people inspiration for creating small businesses of their own.”
Her home has been a blessing and a source of frustration.
Tipton-Martin and her husband, Bruce, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, relocated to Baltimore when he got a new job in sales and marketing in 2018. It was during that time that a friend told the couple about an abandoned row house in Charles Village that was going to auction.
The home, which she calls “a dream come true,” is everything that they wanted: a parlor, where the author put her library; original wood window shutters; an ornate fireplace and working servant bells.
But the home came with its own set of issues.
A roof leak destroyed the kitchen and a second-floor bedroom.
The couple also became embroiled in a legal battle with their contractor that is still being played out in court.
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But Tipton-Martin remains optimistic that Baltimore is the right place for her.
She and her husband enjoy walking the Inner Harbor extending into Fells Point, which intrigues them because of its connection to Frederick Douglas.
The city’s historic architecture — particularly in Guilford and Roland Park — reminds them of the Shaker Heights home they lived in when they were first married while she worked as the food editor at The Cleveland Plain Dealer. Before that, she was a staff writer at the L.A. Times for eight years.
“What I love about Charles Village, besides the house stock, is the mix of people associated with University living,” she said. “They are artists, they are engaged, they are tolerant, they are thinkers. That makes up for the parts that I don’t like so much,” she said. “I’m determined to find a way to bring the optimism from the new life that comes from an education of young people.”
Tipton-Martin plans to do just that when she eventually opens a cooking school or streaming cooking show from a studio kitchen in her beloved home’s basement, which has its own entrance.