In the many decades that journalist and activist Toni Tipton-Martin watched the media cover African American food, she never saw her family’s story represented.
“Most of the food that we talk about as African American is soul food and the food of survival from the plantations and cabins of enslavement,” she explains. “We don’t talk about the middle and upper class African Americans who were entrepreneurs and classically trained chefs, people who were knowledgeable and proficient in their work.”
Toni wanted to create something that paid attention and honored those who cooked when resources were more widely available. And thus, “Jubilee” was born. The history-book-cum-cookbook is an intricate look at two centuries of African American cooking, a deep dive into a rich history that’s continued to open up the conversation about black cooks in America.
Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African-American Cooking, $23.30 on Amazon
“Jubilee” brims with a spectrum of dishes in order to provide the reader with the notion that black dishes and recipes were fluid and dependent on the seasonality and availability of the cook’s pantry. It aims to tell more than one story of the kitchen, rather than pigeonhole African American cooking into one bucket.
You’ll find recipes for okra gumbo bobbing with beef short ribs; braised summer squash shot through with onions; and lemon tea cake drizzled with an opaque glaze. Each recipe comes with a bit of history, and the book is filled with tidbits and asides, diving into the historical significance of, say, 19th century nibbles.
Related Reading: This Shrimp and Grits Recipe Is a Southern Romance
“Most people approach a cookbook [and] see recipes,” Toni says. “But the beauty of ‘Jubilee’ is it is a history book with recipes. In order to appreciate the freedom that is rendered not only to the ancestors, but also to the modern cook, is the freedom to choose. You can make the cake whichever way suits you, and it’s still a recognition of the past.”
Take Toni’s recipe for pineapple upside-down cake. Built out of a standard batter, the cake is tossed with hunks of canned pineapple, baked in a skillet, and daubed with sweetened whipped cream. It may look humble and unassuming, but dig deeper and there’s a story woven into the ingredients—namely the use of canned pineapple.
“We might not think today of canned food as something associated with privilege, [but] there was a time when the ability to reduce your labor by using a processed product was an expression of your access to ingredients,” Toni explains.
Ozark Trail 3 Piece Cast Iron Skillet Set, $21.99 at Walmart
Cooks can reach for canned pineapple—an homage to the origins of the dish—but today, having the freedom to choose between canned and fresh is all the more poignant and powerful. Armed with this history, this pineapple upside-down cake becomes a story that’s much more compelling and interesting—especially to the people who are going to eat it.
“Suddenly a dish that seems ordinary and mediocre takes on another expression when you realize the tradition that it springs from,” Toni says.
Ahead, Toni’s recipe for pineapple upside-down cake. Using a cast iron skillet is key—it caramelizes the pineapple before the cake batter is poured on top—and the pan doubles as the baking vessel. Serve as is, or with a dollop of whipped cream.
Reprinted with permission from Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking by Toni Tipton-Martin, copyright © 2019. Photographs by Jerrelle Guy . Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.
Pineapple Upside-Down Cake Recipe
Skillet cakes go back to this country’s Colonial times, when sponge cake and pancake batter were topped with apples, cooked apricots, prunes, or cherries and baked in a spider (a three-legged iron kettle) on top of an open flame, then inverted for serving. Annette Merson’s 1987 African Cookery: A Black Heritage is a catalogue of recipes, tips for dinner parties, and decorating ideas from African nations. In it, Merson linked the upside-down cake to Liberia, where a crown of caramelized plantains or banana slices decorated ginger-bread baked in a skillet.
Their contemporary descendant, pineapple upside-down cake, first appeared in 1926 when Dole held a pineapple recipe contest. The sticky-sweet treat increased in popularity, becoming a party favorite and a measure of a competent baker, during the 1940s and 50s. Improvisational soul cooks turned upside-down cake topsy-turvy, substituting canned sliced fresh peaches, pears, or fresh pineapple and rum for the classic topping of pineapple rings with a maraschino cherry center while retaining the original sponge cake base. Mine calls for crushed pineapple so that there is sweet fruit in every bite. And for a familiar taste of the South, try contemporary author and radio host Nicole Taylor’s way: She taps into the funky boldness of chopped black walnuts instead of the pecans.
Pineapple Upside-Down Cake
- 10 tablespoons (1¼ sticks) butter, at room temperature
- ½ cup packed dark brown sugar
- 1 (8-ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained, 3 to 4 tablespoons juice reserved
- 1 tablespoon dark rum (optional)
- ½ cup chopped toasted pecans
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¾ cup granulated sugar
- 1 large egg
- 1⁄3 cup whole milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Sweetened whipped cream, for serving (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- In a 9-inch cast-iron skillet, heat 4 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat until melted. Stir in the brown sugar, 1 tablespoon of the pineapple juice, and the rum (or another tablespoon of pineapple juice if not using rum) and heat over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Spoon the crushed pineapple on top of the butter-sugar mixture, and sprinkle with the pecans. Set aside.
- In a small bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together on medium speed the remaining 6 tablespoons butter and the granulated sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Beat in the egg, milk, vanilla, and the remaining 2 tablespoons of the pineapple juice. With a wooden spoon, stir in the flour mixture until the batter is smooth.
- Carefully pour the batter into the skillet, being careful not to disturb the pineapple topping. Bake until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then invert it onto a serving plate. Serve with sweetened whipped cream, if desired.
Header image by Jerrelle Guy.