On May 23, 2021, Humanities Texas and Foodways Texas hosted a conversation with award-winning food and nutrition journalist Toni Tipton-Martin and Chris Williams, chef and owner of the Houston restaurant Lucille's. They discuss the remarkable life and legacy of Lucille B. Smith, Williams's great-grandmother, who inspired his restaurant and is highlighted in Tipton-Martin's The Jemima Code, a history of African American cookbooks.
Lucille Bishop Smith was a chef and entrepreneur, known as the first African American businesswoman in Texas. Her first cookbook, Lucille's Treasure Chest of Fine Foods, published in 1941, comprises over two hundred recipe cards contained in a cardboard box. She ran a successful catering business in Fort Worth and began selling "Lucille's All Purpose Hot Roll Mix," the first packaged hot roll mix on the market. Her enterprising spirit and resolve continue to inspire many today.
The following conversation has been excerpted for length and lightly edited for clarity.
Toni Tipton-Martin: I was a traditional journalist in my previous life. I came home to raise my family but never wanted to give up that identity [of being a journalist]. I was using cookbooks as a mechanism for understanding my own family history and for talking to my kids about their cultural history. Of course, a lot of that conversation involved food. I was having these conversations with my kids and looking for evidence of what I knew in my heart and spirit—that African American women had made significant contributions to American cooking, but we were generally left out of the conversation.
I knew in my heart and spirit that these women existed, but they were invisible [in the history books]. As a journalist, I began looking for them in the pages of Southern food history, and, no matter where I looked, I could not find them. Cookbooks became a curiosity for me. I thought maybe there were Black cookbooks, and, to my great surprise, there were lots and lots of them. One that turned up on a bibliography that I started to research based at the University of Alabama was by a woman named Lucille Bishop Smith. What intrigued me about [her cookbook] was the fact that it was called A Treasure Chest. I was hot to have that. "What could that possibly be?" There were never any photographs of it. Nobody had any copies of it. I didn't know what it was going to be.
When I did finally get my hands on it, I discovered this amazing collection of diverse recipes. They were not limited to the soul food canon—no disparagement to the idea of soul food cooking—but what Lucille did for me, along with several other early cookbooks that I was able to unearth, was reveal that there was a competency and a broader culinary experience for African Americans than had ever been recorded. They were preparing the kinds of luxurious foods that we learn about in the mainstream, largely because they were either caterers or culinary teachers. But Lucille had an entirely different story in the fact that she was an entrepreneur. Many of the early women, of course, were entrepreneurs and provided an opportunity for themselves to create wealth, to transfer wealth generationally. Some purchased their freedom. But she had one of the largest biographies I had ever encountered. She had so many of the variables that I encountered in individual women [while researching]. I might find a caterer, I might find a cooking teacher, I might find a manufacturer, I might find somebody that had achieved a certain level of affluence in the food world, but no one that had all those characteristics entangled, wrapped in one.
. . .
I conceived of this idea of telling [these women's] story, but no publishers were interested in hearing that story. It was a counternarrative to what we think about in the food world. I'm aware that it also caused some people to question their history, what we had been taught. This was a completely different narrative, this idea that African American women had used food as a mechanism to create their own wealth and independence. I had a lot of trouble [finding a publisher], even though I had a big identity and reputation in the food world. Even I could not sell a book with this content.
So, like my ancestors, I decided to self-publish and took this material to the internet. I created a blog, even though, as a journalist, the idea of blogging and writing in the first person was completely foreign to me. I actually went kicking and screaming to that medium. I didn't feel that I had a choice, and that was another common denominator for these women, my ancestors: they were self-made. They had to find a workaround within a system that did not embrace them. It used them, it took advantage of them, it benefited from their creations. But it did not attribute any of the value to those women.
Lucille was one of my first stories for all the reasons I've defined, but there was one other important point that I discovered. I hadn't fully made the connection between her and a major product in American shelves: the hot roll mix. I had seen that box in my mother's kitchen. It was produced by Pillsbury at about the same time that Lucille was selling hot roll mix in her community. As a reporter, of course my interest was piqued. I did not have time to verify whether Pillsbury was inspired by her, but subsequently other writers have done that work and have made a better connection to her. The reality is that African American women like Lucille were creating products like the hot roll mix, and those recipes disappeared. Those food products disappeared into the larger American food canon, and those women were lost. So, I created my own nonprofit [the SANDE Youth Project] and used those women as inspiration. I became friends with Chris Williams and his family because I felt a sort of kinship to Lucille. I felt like—this is kind of weird to say—but I felt like she belonged to me like an aunt or a grandmother just as much as she did to them because I gave her back life. It formed a relationship between Chris and me. I've enjoyed watching him be inspired by her as well.
Chris Williams: Lucille is my great-grandmother. There is lore at the family table—every gathering we always mention her—but, as in most families, you have amazing parts of your family that you always take for granted. You just know it's there. I didn't really know about how powerful a person, how powerful a woman, how powerful a human she was, so we decided to name the restaurant after her. I started doing my due diligence with my grandmother, Lucille's daughter, for about two years before we opened our doors for business. Throughout that process, the exact same understanding [of Lucille] started to come through: she was all those things [that Toni mentioned], but, ultimately, she was a fearless creative and an entrepreneur. You can see that through the work with the hot roll mix—the first in the nation's history—and through her cookbook that she had her daughter type out. Her recipes weren't limited to soul food. When we were going through the cookbook, [we saw that] she had a recipe for guacamole. The people who were buying it—her audience or her clientele or her customer base—was not limited to her neighbors. Everybody came to get her products because she had that reputation. With that in mind, they didn't even know what guacamole was about. She had to spell it out in the cookbook phonetically just to help people out. "Let me introduce you to something new."
I started to pick up on that sense of entrepreneurialism as I was doing my research at [my grandmother's] house. One day, my grandmother showed me a letter that her mother Lucille wrote to her in the 1940s. It was essentially coaching her on how to prepare to be a mother and be a part of the workforce, and my grandmother at that point still hadn't exactly figured out what that meant for her. Her husband was already an entrepreneur, and my grandmother was tending to the babies but pursuing her education as well. One of the highlights from this letter was to always maintain your creativity and fight for it fearlessly. If you're a creative, if you stay creative and stay true to who you are, there's no limit to what you can do in this world. For a Black woman to write those words to her Black daughter in the 1940s—it's a real testament to her approach to everything. That's been the biggest thing that has guided me. You don't have to be limited to the framing of whatever's already out there. Just because that's how people look at it doesn't mean that's what you have to play or how you have to play. We've applied that to every single component of our business, and that is, ultimately, what led me to Toni. When The Jemima Code came out, it's absolutely true that she brought Lucille back to life. . . . We're actually bringing her recipes from one hundred years ago back to life, and they are bestsellers today.
TTM: I could not convince a publisher or a literary agent that this was a worthy subject. There were various stories floating around in academia about the men, male chefs who had cooked for presidents and other famous people in history: James Hemmings, Hercules (who was in the household of George Washington). But when it came to women, those stories were very much obscured, and that's the reason that I gave for creating the blog and the book title The Jemima Code. There was this dual messaging when it came to women. The messaging was that we really love our Black women, they're incredibly great cooks, and we want to put them on packages and build mammy monuments to them. But at the same time, the literature that I would find always portrayed them in a disparaging way. They spoke in vernacular broken English, the imagery of them was distorted, they were bloated and large and had very dark, dark, dark skin—almost like black. Many of those early Aunt Jemima images actually had facial hair, like they were marsupials or monkeys of some kind. This existed across all forms of content, from music lyrics to poetry to everything you can think of—and it included cookbooks.
What that embedded into our psyche was this idea that African American women might be competent cooks, but, if they were, they were certainly not trained in the fashion of a culinary education. They hadn't performed as apprentices in the way that culinary students do. Mostly the messaging about the cooking was that Black food was always the food of the slave cabin. We spent generations talking about soul cooking and cabin cooking and the ingenuity involved there—and this is not to say that it didn't take incredible talent and knowledge and expertise to be able to make something from nothing. But these were people that were trained. They were trained in the big house on the plantation.
Questions often arise: Why do we start this story in plantations and slavery? [Because] that is where the records were kept. That is the easiest way to follow the trail of how these people were educated and how they were able to use that education in the Plantation South to become entrepreneurs in freedom. And, of course, there's always the story of the free people of color, but that's an entirely separate story. We don't tend to follow the second line of the story. We only talk about the survival kitchen. We haven't talked about the kitchen of competence and proficiency or the French underpinnings of the dishes that were being prepared. My intention was to extract from recipes the classic technique within a Black dish to ensure that people could really see that these folks had been learned and skilled and had incredible competencies and abilities in order to refute that other narrative.
CW: One great thing about Lucille, that applies to Toni as well, is she was fearless enough to create her own market. She broke through. . . . My great-grandmother wasn't limited to that [narrative Toni described]. That framing is oppressive and affects most people, but a few were able to get through on their own terms. We embodied that with what we're doing over at the restaurant. It permeates everything in there, from the dish, to the style of presentation, to the style of service, to who's serving you and who's being served. All of that breaks the social norm that you typically associate with Black restaurants, and that's exactly what Lucille did over a hundred years ago. She broke all those norms, and she used her mastery and her curiosity, essentially, to go a new way and to shine a new light on our culture and what we're capable of doing and what we've been doing for years.
TTM: The point of the work of The Jemima Code for me personally was to prove that these people existed, and the purpose in the public realm was to prove not only that they existed but to use them as role models for future generations. And also, for the broader community, to say: there is more to the story than what you have been told. What is really special about Lucille and the influence that she's had on both of us is that we've been able to take the elements of her work, her core values, her contributions, her areas of expertise, and filter them through our own creative energies and then determine how to apply them. How does her work fit my natural tendencies as a journalist? How do they fit into Chris's world? Because he couldn't have created an entire menu from recipes from the 1940s in a contemporary fine dining restaurant [without Lucille].
For me, the work of The Jemima Code and Jubilee had to be introduced slowly. I could not try to turn everybody in this direction at once because the community was not ready to hear it—no one was ready. The Jemima Code was really just the point of establishing that they even existed—that these authors and these people stand in the gap for others who had lives that were rich and productive. We knew that we could not include recipes in that book because the messaging was already too complex. We held back and only included a few recipes in The Jemima Code to give people some time to really read through that and see it as a beautiful expression of excellence. . . . It was really important to us that that book be beautiful in the same way that Chris's restaurant has to be beautiful. We are not talking about food made in a shack. This isn't the barbecue joint or the chicken shack. These are expressions of who the women like Lucille were and who we are. We are not anomalies. We are not rarities. We descend from generations of people with this knowledge and experience.
Jubilee is the execution. It is the collection of recipes that bring us to date by talking about modern interpretations of a dish by looking back over time and gathering recipes that were consistent throughout the Black experience—published recipes, not whatever was happening in restaurants and elsewhere, only those that were published for public consumption. My dream there was, [as reflected by] the title, to set chefs like Chris free . . . [and that] we would all be set free in our respective ways from this narrow representation. . . . Breaking down this stereotype continued the work that I was already doing and had done at Foodways Texas and Southern Foodways Alliance, which was to use food as a mechanism to bring people together in the way that a restaurant chef does by having an integrated restaurant-dining room. So both Chris and I have been using Lucille as inspiration in multiple ways to set all of us free.
TTM: One of the most popular photographs of Lucille that circulates is of her seated at a table surrounded by hundreds of little packages, and she is shipping off fruitcakes to Vietnam fighters and members of the armed forces. She did that while she was trying to create her own independence and serving her own family. Yet, her bio, in her philanthropic work, is long. When I conceived of The Jemima Code and Jubilee and this idea of using women as inspiration, I turned my attention to an African principle, which is the Sande concept. It is a practice of the women, of the elders of the village, taking the young girls with them to a third place—not home, not school, but some place beyond the village—and they teach them rites of passage and womanhood and bring them into adult life as young women. . . . I was so enamored of that concept and what it involved and the opportunity to use elder women as role models and teachers for the next generation that I modeled my nonprofit after it and used The Jemima Code and Jubilee like its textbooks. The project began during the Obama administration with elementary-aged children because Michelle Obama made a call to us to help bring down the obesity rates in underserved families. I joined Edible Austin magazine and created another program for families called The Children's Picnic. It was a free and open celebration of healthy food. Lots of vendors came into East Austin, and it was an opportunity for us to gather communally over food in an integrated session and to just learn more from our local farmers, for kids to taste fresh strawberries and to drink water.
Following that, I took culinary students from underserved high schools in Austin to New York City, engaged chefs there, and gave these kids an incredible vision of what life could be for them as chefs, beyond the experience in Austin. Lastly, I created an event called Soul Summit to bring more young people together with contemporary role models to give them an opportunity to learn from people that were already practicing the craft, whether they were chefs or authors or historians or mixologists. I wanted to bring to life the people that I discovered in the pages of cookbooks and food history. We intentionally hosted Soul Summit on the grounds of a historically Black college over Juneteenth weekend. There were all these touchpoints of Black food history that resonated throughout that weekend. Now, because of a grant provided through the Julia Child Foundation, we will be able to make another turn with this nonprofit and begin to speak to another marginalized group. We don't often think of women as marginalized, but we do realize that there is lots of inequity there, and we're going to be trying to do more to mentor, nurture, and educate young women in the field of food journalism.
CW: I think that we started our nonprofit and our business for the exact same reason that Toni started her business. She used her mastery to serve her community that was in need. We're chefs; we cook. With this pandemic, there's a real light shined on the food insecurity that's been surrounding us for as far as I can think back. It's not a new thing. People are now just hyperaware, myself included.
[At the beginning of the pandemic,] I kept one hundred percent of my staff on while we operated with eight percent of our normal business, so we needed to figure out a way to keep people working. . . . We started out working with our first responders, and then we moved into these food deserts, which were people from my communities: Sunnyside, Acres Home. My father's side of the family lives out there. I know these people; I know their palates.
That evolved into not only giving these communities fish but teaching them how to fish. Just as there was an opportunity to help them secure their food sources, there was also an opportunity to help them with job security. We started hiring people directly from those communities. It was just perfect timing, really, because you think about how every industry right now is struggling to attract the workforce back. This, to me, is a great opportunity because I know the power of this work that we do with the culinary arts. . . . You can do a lot of great stuff. So, we've employed about twenty-three people, all but two had zero culinary experience whatsoever. The beauty of this program we created, this vertically integrated ecosystem, is that not only are we finding a way to pay them, on average, to start at twelve dollars an hour to get involved in this—to learn, to have skin in the game, to put time into this—but also to get the benefit of seeing the dual purpose of the work that they're doing, because the food that they are learning how to make, the dishes they are cleaning, all that kind of stuff is benefitting their neighbors. It introduces dignity on a whole new level. If you know that your mother or your aunt who's right up the street, if her food security is coming from your neighbor right here because he's working over at Lucille's 1913, that neighbor's house is safe. We expanded the program to go from just the food production to what we're really trying to create: more jobs and mastery of the food experience. . . . There's no better way for me to think to start than to start outside, with the earth, with the seed. So as of right now we have fourteen acres around Houston on which we have two fairly sizable gardens. By the end of June, we should have another fifty-two acres and four men working.
This was all started with this town called Kendleton, which is 97 percent African American, where unemployment is high, $15,000 [per year] is the median income, and they are fifteen miles away from any fresh food sources. Land-rich, cash-poor, and there are no jobs out there. We're starting with the first twenty acres in Kendleton itself, and I'll employ close to 30 percent of their population working with Prairie View A&M University, which is full circle because that's where my great-grandmother started her culinary curriculum. So we're working with them and AgriLife at Texas A&M University to have them set up the curriculum to bring these people back to being masters of their own land and setting up a self-sustainable marketplace that gives the people of Kendleton direct access to this harvest which is born, cultivated, processed, and distributed by their own neighbors. Everybody wins. We're not handing things out, we're not trying to give a handout, we're trying to give a hand back. . . . It changes the whole dynamic—now it is neighbors serving neighbors and finding comfort through the process.
CW: In my family, personally, we have 180 years in Texas. Lucille wasn't the first entrepreneur in the family, but she was the loudest, and her contributions to Texan culture, to American culture even, go far beyond her contributions in the kitchen. I'll tell you my favorite story about her. When she was a young married woman, she wanted to start her own business. . . . She realized she had something she wanted to go out there and do, make a real go at it. Back in those days, a woman couldn't do anything without her husband's consent. He had to sign off on everything. No business decision was made exclusively on her own. She had to pass them to her husband, and he had to sign off. She was over that. So, she was the first woman in Texas to file femme sol—Latin for "woman alone"—which is a legal business divorce from her husband. They were together until death did them part, happily, but when it came down to business she was like, "I'm doing this on my own terms." That's why she is listed as Texas's first African American businesswoman.
TTM: The guacamole story for me is an opportunity to speak about her intellect and to explore the dual identity that she served. She understood—as I have had to and as Chris does with the food that he makes—that you're speaking to multifaceted audiences, and you meet them where they are. She didn't speak down to them, but this phonetic spelling was so enchanting to me when I pulled that recipe card. It is the first description that I gave of her because it spoke to her humanity.
The second card in The Treasure Chest that speaks to me in that way is the "recipe for a good life." We pulled that as an art element in The Jemima Code because that's the other contribution that African American women have made. When we look beyond the capital that they bring to us financially or in their skill sets, they were the nurturers of our homes and our spirits, and many, many of the cookbooks like hers begin with some type of meditation or poem or affirmation. They are uplifters, building up their communities, and that's the work that both Chris and I are also carrying on, using food as a mechanism for the uplift of the community.
There are some hard lessons within that story. We have to talk about the history of Texas sugar, and we have to talk about lots of painful memories, but it's important for us to do that so we can heal those wounds and then decide how we can use that information to fuel the next generation. I spent the day doing some research on sugar, and there's a story to be told in there. Do we start inspiring young people to become bakers and confectioners? Is that a way for industries that have been abusive and oppressive to make amends when we talk about reconciliation and reparations? What can you do that isn't a handout, as Chris said? Can you uplift a community by empowering them to empower themselves? How do you help people help themselves? And that's the work that Lucille did, the work that inspires us. Her nurture and her dedication to her community, for me, are equally as important, and it's visible in something as simple as either her phonetic spelling of guacamole—wah-ka-mo'-lay—or the recipe for a good life.
Toni Tipton-Martin is an award-winning food and nutrition journalist who is busy building a healthier community through her books and foundation and in her role as editor-in-chief of Cook's Country Magazine and its television show. She is a James Beard Book Award winner and a recipient of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) Trailblazer Award and its Book of the Year Award.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama invited Tipton-Martin to the White House twice in recognition of her outreach to help families live healthier lives. In 2014, she earned the Southern Foodways Alliance John Egerton Prize for this work, which she used to host Soul Summit: A Conversation About Race, Identity, Power and Food, an unprecedented three-day celebration of African American Foodways.
Tipton-Martin is the author of the award-winning book Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking (Clarkson Potter), a beautifully-photographed recipe collection that takes African American cooking beyond soul food, and The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks (The University of Texas Press), a widely-acclaimed, annotated bibliography that tells the story behind her rare collection.
Chris Williams was always destined to be a chef; he simply didn't know it yet. Drawn to study food from a young age, he attended Le Cordon Blue in Austin, Texas, and soon began traveling around the world working in eateries in Lithuania, England, the U.S., and all points in between. His insatiable hunger to learn everything about world cuisine unexpectedly led him back to his own family tree.
Chef Williams named his restaurant after his great-grandmother, Lucille Bishop Smith, who was an educator, culinary innovator, and successful entrepreneur. In August 2012, Lucille's opened in a 1923 Mission-style home on a quiet, tree-lined street in the Museum District of Houston. While Chef Williams's inventive and distinctively Southern culinary style means diners will always be delighted by unexpected pairings, often inspired by his travels, Lucille's legendary chili biscuits will always be on the menu.
In May 2015, Chef Williams, who is classically trained in Southern, French, Mediterranean, West Indian, and East African cuisine, was named the lone culinary cultural ambassador for the U.S. during a twenty-five-day tour of the Balkans—Slovenia, Croatia, Albania, and Serbia. The tour featured food lectures, hospitality conferences, and cooking demos led by Chef Williams. Chef Williams is also a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization that documents, studies, and explores the diverse food cultures of the changing American South.
Take equal parts kindness, unselfishness
and thoughtfulness; mix in an atmosphere of
love; add the spice of usefulness; scatter a
few grains of cheerfulness; season with smiles;
stir in a hearty laugh, and
Dispense to EVERY MEMBER OF YOUR FAMILY.