Following the end of the Civil War, a Confederate general remembered pancakes a former slave made for him while he was stranded in her cabin. The fond memories led the general to connect the woman, Aunt Jemima, with a milling company in Chicago. Since the recipe for pancakes was only known amongst female slaves, the company paid Aunt Jemima--in gold--for her to supervise mass production of the pancake mix. It was a do-rags to riches story. And the story was an entirely constructed advertising campaign.
The actual history of Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix began in 1889 when two speculators, Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood, bought a bankrupt flour mill. They invented the mixture in hopes of creating a demand for their flour. Initially, it was simply called “Self-Rising Pancake Flour” but as Maurice Manring, author of Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima, explains, Rutt decided to name the flour after attending a minstrel show. Old Aunt Jemima was originally a song that was sung by field slaves, then later adapted and performed thousands of times at minstrel shows. When Rutt saw Peter Baker dance and perform as Aunt Jemima wearing an apron, bandana, and blackface at one of these shows, he decided to name his flour mix after the woman featured in the song.
R.G. Davis bought Rutt and Underwood’s company and turned it into a product with nationwide distribution. Davis also elaborated Aunt Jemima’s persona, hiring former slave Nancy Green, to portray her in appearances. Beginning at her debut at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Green would make pancakes and tell stories about cooking on the plantation in the Old South. Davis also hired James Webb Young to create advertisements featuring Aunt Jemima; they were popular starting in 1910 and peaked during the 1920s and 1930s. Manring says the full color, glossy ads were meant to capitalize on a romanticized antebellum South. He tells me, “They appeal to a certain type of nostalgia--maybe for a world that never existed--but for a world that is depicted as very gracious, luxurious, slow, and gentle, as a place where there were people ready to do things for you at a moment’s notice.”
Since the pancake mix was intended to primarily target housewives becoming accustomed to no longer having a servant, Manring provocatively describes Aunt Jemima as a “slave in a box,” explaining, “The reason I call her a "slave in a box" is largely because of the way the product was advertised to presumably white housewives and that is because it drew heavily on the themes of plantation slavery and on the servant who had the time and the ability to do things you don’t feel competent to do yourself. And who, by the way, loved doing it for you.”
Here are some of the various depictions of Aunt Jemima:
African Americans objected to the depiction of Aunt Jemima throughout the years, with the critique heightened during the Civil Rights Movement. During the 1960s, Quaker Oats altered Aunt Jemima’s appearance, slimming her body, lightening her skin, and swapping her bandana for a headband. In 1989, Quaker Oats celebrated its 100th birthday and revised Aunt Jemima’s image again, removing her hair accessories and presenting her as a working grandmother.
These revisions to Aunt Jemima don’t necessarily mean the end to the mammy stereotype. In the recently published book, Dethroning the Deceitful Pork Chop: Rethinking African American Foodways from Slavery to Obama, associate professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at University of California, Davis, Kimberly Nettles-Barcelón, explores its modern manifestation. Her essay, The Sassy Black Cook and the Return of the Magical Negress: Popular Representations of Black Women's Food Work was inspired by a confluence of factors, including discussions with her students, the real life experiences of black female chefs, representations of black women in film, and the works of Patricia Hill Collins and other scholars.
Since it isn’t implicitly offensive and can even have positive associations, the term “sassy” is complicated, explains Nettles-Barcelón. As a result of its ambiguity and variation in meaning, it can be used without being blatantly racist. Intentional or not, she notes that in certain situations, using a word like “sassy” can have a minimizing effect on the people being described. “What is interesting about these sorts of terms like sassy is they can often have different meanings and implications depending on racial ethnic identity and gender.”
The dichotomy of sassiness can be seen in both the movie The Help and in discussions surrounding it-- “sass” can be used as something to be praised and simultaneously as something to avoid:
The term “mammy” and the accompanying image are no longer politically correct, making the contemporary version appear in more subtle forms. Although the Sassy Black Cook may not wear a headscarf or have a rotund figure, there are always residual characteristics of the past, says Nettles-Barcelón. She cites Carla Hall as an example; tall and lanky, Hall doesn’t physically fit the mammy stereotype but Nettles-Barcelón still thinks her personality evokes images of the past. She writes:
So, Carla Hall, as a food personality, has entered into the world of celebrity chefs. She has built a brand--herself--that utilizes many racialized and gendered stereotypes of black women and food work: being happy and entertaining, providing sustenance that is emotional, spiritual, and nutritive to her charges, sustaining her cultural heritage through foodways, and doing the work for love--love trumps everything.
Such images, says Nettles-Barcelón, can be compelling but have real life implications for black female chefs who experience pressure to conform to a certain stereotype. Instead of succumbing to the pressure, Chef Tanya Holland opted to leave her cooking show, saying, “I was in the soul kitchen, so they wanted me to act sassy. I'm from suburbia, I'm educated, I have this plethora of experience. That wasn't the way I was going to act."
Another popular chef, Gillian Clark, believed race may have contributed to her reputation of having a hot temper, telling the Washington Post, "I'm led to ask, would you buy less pancakes if Aunt Jemima wasn't smiling on the box?" Clark says. "Is it because a black person that's doing the service industry [and] not smiling is offensive, because you feel that I'm not that much further from a slave? If I'm doing a domestic or a service job and I'm not smiling, is it triggering some impulse?"
Nettles-Barcelón takes inspiration from the work of American Studies professor Patricia Turner in combatting the mammy stereotype. She tells me, “One of the interesting things she does in her work, which I've tried to emulate to some degree, is to pair this fictionalized narrative with something that was actually happening in the actual moment where we saw black women trying to disrupt the social and political order of the day.”
This approach can be used to counter the dominant image associated with Aunt Jemima. While Nancy Green was in character telling stories and serving pancakes, a group of African American feminists were also at the Chicago World’s Fair, speaking about their plight and existing racial tension. The inclusion of information like this is not only more accurate, it shifts the focus away from antiquated relics towards actual lived realities.