The Melanin Martha wants Black food to triumph over its trauma

Jordan Wimby was the only Black kid on her Beverly block, and she ate like everyone else: Lunchables, Tyson chicken nuggets, TV dinners, and frozen potpies.

“Growing up I was surrounded by this conversation of racism, oppression, colonialism,” says Wimby, whose mother and grandparents were teachers (most of them CPS) who specialized in American and African American history, and Egyptology. “We talked about slavery. We talked about sharecropping. We talked about all these things I wasn’t learning in-depth in school. But at the same time we weren’t eating cultural foods, which was kind of confusing to me because my family was so embedded in Black history and Black culture.”

But back then, when Wimby was alatchkey kid in a single-parent home, her main priority was afterschool snacks, and the Food Network was there for her. “I always say Rachael Ray was my second mom. 30 Minute Meals was where it was at in sixth grade. My mom started seeing how passionate I was about food and cooking and she was like, ‘OK, I’ll buy the groceries if you wanna try some recipes. Just don’t burn the house down.’”

Today Wimby, who’s 27, is known as The Melanin Martha, a home cook exploring the intersection of food and Black identity, tapping into inspiration from the African diaspora and addressing issues of access, trauma, heritage, queerness, comfort, and self-care through cooking. She’s worked as a private chef, conducted cooking workshops for corporate clients, run bake sales through her Instagram, and on June 20, she’s taking over the kitchen at the Kedzie Inn for a Juneteenth Monday Night Foodball, the Reader’s weekly chef pop-up.

Wimby arrived at her particular focus circuitously—through Italy. Her family’s best friends in Beverly were an Italian family whose matriarch babysat her when her mother went back to school. “Everybody else was Irish, so we kind of gravitated toward each other.” Wimby’s Italian grandmother—she calls her Nonna—steeped her in Italian culture: the music, the language, the food, and after high school Nonna took her on a monthlong visit to Pieve Santo Stefano, her tiny home village in Tuscany.

“My family always talked about small towns being dangerous and not accepting,” says Wimby. “I was probably the only Black girl ever to be seen in this small town. I would get stared at, and there were lots of questions, but because I could communicate in Italian there was more room for understanding than just judgment. So after a month I was like, ‘I need to live here. This is not a question. I feel so at peace here. The food is delicious. People know who they are. People are kind. They’re racist in their own way, but it’s not systemic like it is in America.’ People were actually willing to learn and listen in ways I felt was not happening in the States.”

She came home for three months of waiting tables and babysitting until she had the funds and the visa to return. She spent a year and a half working at her Nonna’s family-owned winery before moving on to Florence, where she took cooking and wine classes until she ran out of money.

Back in Chicago she worked in the wine department at Eataly before embarking on a bleak, lonely year in San Diego, where her only solace was the farmers’ market. “The thing keeping me afloat was going to the market and finding a new item or ingredient, learning about it, and cooking with it.”

She returned to Chicago just before the pandemic. “I felt connected to Italy not because I was Italian but because there was this clear cultural understanding of who they are, and there was a beauty to that I never felt. I was always connected to Blackness through talking about trauma. My family was always talking about slavery, and racism, inequalities. There was never beauty to it. I would hear all these stories about Italians and the trauma they went through, which is very different from the Black experience in America and actually Black people all over the world. They still talked about how they turned that trauma into something that is beautiful, and so that got the wheels turning, especially during COVID and George Floyd.”

Wimby studied Black chefs and food writers like Leah Chase, Edna Lewis, Mashama Bailey, and Michael Twitty, and took deep dives into plantation records and colonial cookbooks, seeking out the enslaved chefs who made extraordinary foods from ingredients that came over with them or had been rejected.

Why is kale held to a higher standard than collards? Why is quinoa a prized ingredient, but it’s somehow unhealthy to eat rice? She wanted to trace the origins of ingredients like okra and how they’ve maintained a connection to Black food despite the brutal history in which they became staples.

“A lot of the time we don’t have a safe space to talk about the foods that we love and enjoy,” she says. “A lot of the time people look at soul food and they say, ‘Oh, that’s just slave food.’ I link [okra] to my identity, not only because it’s a food that is indigenous to African culture but it’s an amazing vegetable. It’s gorgeous. It grows in such interesting environments; people just don’t learn to appreciate it.”

Okra is on the menu June 20 at the Kedzie Inn, probably breaded and fried and served with a creamy, rich sauce. And Wimby is toying with the idea of a crème brûlée infused with hibiscus, the native West African flowers inseparable from Juneteenth celebrations. She’s still working on the rest of the menu, which she plans to drop this week. More on that later here, but follow her on Instagram for updates.

Be assured, each dish will have a story. “I think it’s important to tap into how certain food items got to America in the first place,” she says.“If I can create a space that is about teaching people who they are through where their food comes from and why they love certain flavors and certain dishes—why certain things make them feel like home and give them a sense of comfort and identity—I would feel very blessed. I want people to engage with my food and taste liberation in that way.”

The Melanin Martha
themelaninmartha.com
@themelanin_martha on Instagram




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