Turning Tragedy

by Toni Tipton Martin

The day my dad died under questionable circumstances in a Los Angeles hospital is the day I dedicated my career to community wellness and healing. It was June 1995. My mother had arrived a few days earlier to help plan the celebration for my oldest son Brandon’s graduation from Shaker Heights Middle School, just outside of Cleveland. Dad stayed behind in Los Angeles to work. While Mom and I busied ourselves with errands—the party supply store, the supermarket—King/Drew Hospital in South Central Los Angeles (known among rap musicians as “Killa King”) was trying to reach us. My home phone rang incessantly as we unloaded the car in the driveway.

“Your father has been in an accident—ejected from his car. His spleen was ruptured, but he is in ICU and doing well,” the surgeon said confidently. Still, I panicked. This trauma center once received so many gunshot victims that physicians headed to Vietnam took their training there. But in recent years, it had earned a horrible reputation as a place where patients check in and don’t check out. The doctor recognized my anxiety and tried to reassure me, “I am going to take a rest, but I’ll check on him in a little while. He will be fine until you can get here tomorrow.”

Several hours later, my body shook with total disbelief when I telephoned the ICU to see how Dad was doing. “Oh, he died,” the nurse on duty said with banal indifference.

Many years passed before I was able to speak aloud about that day, unless the storytelling involved police, reporters, lawyers or a few close friends. Eventually, my family accepted an out-of-court settlement. Jurors, we were advised, would never find in our favor—they’d be hard-pressed to believe that a hospital could be a dangerous place for patients. But these were not just any patients. King-Drew Hospital treated many of the city’s poorest citizens and undocumented immigrants. It was finally shut down in the years following our case as more and more people seeking medical care needlessly lost their lives.

Although my family and I could not ensure that what happened to us would never happen to another family, I vowed that Dad’s death would not be in vain. But how? I was an award-winning journalist and author on my way to becoming a cultural and culinary historian as a founder and president of both Southern Foodways Alliance (University of Mississippi) and Foodways Texas (University of Texas). “Activist” was not yet on my résumé. 

It took some time to figure out, but in 2008, I founded The SANDE (spirit, attitude, nutrition, deeds, effort) Youth Project—named in honor of the rituals practiced by African village women who sustain community through cultural tradition, farming, food preparation, entrepreneurship, clothing and musical production. The nonprofit promotes the connection between cultural heritage, cooking and a healthy community, and is modeled after the community-building concept of “third place” (the social place that’s separate from the other two social places of home and workplace). It was designed to be a space for transformation, and I envisioned it would be an incubator kitchen like San Francisco’s La Cocina, where cultural exhibits, healthy cooking classes and uplifting talks by visiting authors would empower self-care, decrease health care costs, create jobs and small businesses and build up underserved communities. 

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While SANDE struggled to find a home in Austin’s gentrified East Side, we hosted mobile activities that used cooking as social action for change—including pop-up public exhibits and creative opportunities for culinary students to practice their craft here and in New York City at the prestigious James Beard House. For the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, we partnered with Peace Through Pie, an organization that recognizes the power of food to bring people together and transcend social boundaries. We helped create the Children’s Picnic and Real Food Fair, a free public health event co-presented with Edible Austin in order to make fresh, local food fun for everyone. And last year, SANDE hosted a new signature event over the Juneteenth weekend—Soul Summit: A Conversation About Race, Identity, Food and Power. It was the first conference, locally or nationally, dedicated exclusively to African-American food culture.

Today, my recipe for healing is reaching beyond Austin’s city limits. Inspired by the core values and work ethics of role models I discovered in 300 rare African-American cookbooks, I recently published a beautiful, coffee table-style book entitled, “The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks.” From the authors featured in my book—whose writings date as far back as 1827—I learned about the management, organizational, technical and entrepreneurial skills of invisible kitchen workers. I observed educators and activists who improved the welfare of the people at their table, and who sustained the community and environment by recycling and repurposing, eating seasonally and locally, and canning and consuming plant-based diets. This book is just one of several already in the works as companions to SANDE’s community-building efforts. I hope they tear down stereotypes and misinformation and give cooking a new swagger that entices people to come back into the kitchen to cook their way out of poverty or poor health. A collection of 500 recipes from “The Jemima Code,” adapted for modern kitchens, is due out next year under the working title of “Jubilee!”

Will any of this help make cooking sexy? Will it develop more food scholars? Will it break down barriers, reduce race prejudice or tackle issues of inequity and access? If a new and improved King/Drew could be re-opened last summer (as Martin Luther King, Jr. Care Center), I sure hope so. Cookbook authors, food journalists, executive chefs, restaurant owners, kitchen designers and architects, food historians and archeologists, mixologists, urban farmers and vegans are still overwhelmingly white, while people of color suffer disproportionately from unemployment and diseases with diet as a risk factor. However, I believe that with the culinary wisdom expressed by the farmers and chefs at the Children’s Picnic, by the writers featured in “The Jemima Code” and by the speakers from Soul Summit, communities can be built where people are treated with dignity and where the healthcare system works for everyone. Call me Pollyanna, but my promise to Dad depends on it.