I am preparing to give a presentation about the Aunt Jemima icon. Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood sought to generate fond feelings for the self-rising pancake flour they developed through the figure of Aunt Jemima as she was characterized in a minstrel song. In order to cultivate enthusiasm for this early convenience food, they drew on post-Civil War nostalgia for an Old South where happy, well-fed black women cared for white families. In 1893, this portrait of an imagined South was enlivened when R.T. Davis hired Nancy Green, a black women who was formerly enslaved and had been working as a domestic for a Chicago judge, to portray Aunt Jemima during the Columbia Exposition in Chicago. For six-months, Green is said to have served more than a million pancakes while telling fabricated tales of Aunt Jemima’s life on Colonel Higbee’s Louisiana plantation. In 1925, The Quaker Oats company bought the Aunt Jemima trademark from The Davis Milling Company. Though Nancy Green died in 1923, the Quaker Oats company commissioned other black women to work in her place. Can you imagine? These women portrayed Aunt Jemima and in doing so dressed in red and white check gingham and wore bandanas on their heads and aprons over hooped skirts while making pancakes and singing songs at high schools, county fairs, and at women’s clubs throughout at least the early 1950s. She was sort of like Santa Clause, I guess.
In conducting family research for her memoir, The Grace of Silence Michele Norris learned that her grandmother had worked as an Aunt Jemima avatar. If you get a chance to read her very thoughtful and moving work, I think you will find the “Aunt Jemima” chapter compelling. But if time prevents you from reading the book, hop on over to Norris’s blog where she records the thoughts of a woman who experienced “Pancake Day” at her elementary school with an Aunt Jemima avatar hosting the event: http://michele-norris.com/your-stories/rodney-knolton-innocence-lost-is-tragic/; it’s a gem!
The Quaker Oats company won’t let Aunt Jemima alone! In 1994 Gladys Knight outraged black folk when she became the spokesperson for the product. And as recently as February 2011, Aunt Jemima got a Facebook page! Jennifer Franklin, Charley Schumaker, and Susie Tomlinson are three company employees of the Jackson, Tennessee plant who were chosen by their co-workers to represent the company in a social media campaign. If you go to the Facebook page, you will see them on a visit to New York City along with a short video of them working in the plant. Additional footage also shows Food Network Chef, Aaron McCargo demonstrating a recipe with Aunt Jemima frozen pancakes. Here’s the link: http://www.facebook.com/AuntJemimaFrozenBreakfast
Anytime I have given this presentation, I am presented with stories about how families have either used or not used Aunt Jemima products. Most often what they say is that in place of Aunt Jemima, some families use Bisquick either to make a claim against Aunt Jemima or simply because it has become a family favorite. What I find so striking in these conversations is that no one ever suggests that they can make pancakes without the aid of a box mix. So in honor of “Models Monday,” I’d like to offer my own recipe for pancakes.
First the dry ingredients:
1 cup of all purpose flour
1 tablespoon of white sugar
1 teaspoon of baking powder
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 teaspoon of baking soda
3/4 cup of milk
2 tablespoons of vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons of melted butter
Mix the vinegar into the milk and let stand for five minutes (this sours the milk thereby making buttermilk. You can also skip this step and just use 3/4 cup of milk). Whisk all of the dry ingredients together. Beat the egg and pour it, along with the vanilla, into the milk/vinegar mixture. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ones and stir until combined.
Cook as you would any box mix! Now, I like small pancakes, so I usually have leftovers. You can store your cooled pancakes in a plastic bag or in plastic wrap in the refrigerator. When you’re ready to eat them, you can put them into the toaster or the microwave. I prefer the toaster because they cook more evenly. If you want the convenience of a box mix, combine your dry ingredients ahead of time and store them in plastic bags in your pantry. Most people have the ingredients at home. But ultimately, when you make your own pancake mix, you are choosing “another model by which to live” and that’s much better than what is being presented to you in the marketplace…or as the story told on Facebook.