• 64°

The demise of a family member

Oh, Aunt Jemima, you’re gone. In the heaviness of my heart, I cannot let your passing go unnoticed as I lament yet another icon lost to us all. Who among you will ever forget her curvy, huggable figure molded into a glass bottle, filled to the top of her bandanna-wrapped head with sweet brown syrup? I wanted her to hug me. I wanted to hug her back.

I ask you, what other rigid glass bottle EVER! was so beguiling? Although my childish hands were not big enough to grasp around her skirts, I could grip her waist, ample as it was. Let’s face it, virtually nothing held a candle to Auntie’s unique bottle—except perhaps—the Log Cabin Syrup can.

I wonder how many grandmas crocheted little outfits for the maternal bottle? You know—like the ones they made to discreetly hide the toilet paper rolls.

Saturday morning at our house was always a pancake breakfast. Patiently waiting on the cupboard shelf, Jemima steadfastly prevailed the passing of another week when our hungry hands reverently held her again. Gently, gently we tipped her and poured out her amber glory onto our pancakes.

Why, she was as much a part of our childhood as popsicles, button candy and Klagge’s ice cream. Furthermore, she was the only one we knew of—then and still now—with the name of Jemima. All we had to do was utter that name and virtually everyone’s head immediately filled with visions of stacked pancakes, syrup cascading over their edges.

Aunt Jemima represented to us kids not a profile in racism. Heavens no! That never entered our minds. Instead we were consumed with the deliciousness of her extraordinary concoctions. We wanted to personally know her so we’d be invited to eat at her house. Heck, we wanted to be adopted by her! How I mourn her demise.

In 1889, two men (Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood), came up with the idea for a ready-mixed, self-rising pancake flour. Rutt had recently attended a vaudeville show where he heard “Aunt Jemima” sung by a blackface performer wearing an apron and bandanna headband. What could be a better image than that, he thought, for their product?

But, were you aware that later a real black woman was hired to portray Jemima? Few people ever knew that Nancy Green was born a slave in Montgomery County, Kentucky. She was, as well, a storyteller, a cook and a missionary worker. At age 56, Green was recruited by the R.T. Davis Milling Company to represent the Aunt Jemima formula and brand.

At the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Nancy Green demonstrated her delicious mix by serving thousands of pancakes to the eager crowds. Her booth was so popular that special police officers were tasked to keep the throngs from gathering. And staying! And eating!! Green was so popular that she was awarded a medal and certificate by the fair officials for her outstanding performance.

The company knew what a gem Green was and had her sign a lifetime contract to portray the image of Aunt Jemima. Undoubtedly, due to her captivating personification, overnight pancakes became hugely popular. Green stayed in the job until her death in a car accident in 1923.

Quaker Oats bought the Aunt Jemima Mills Company in 1926. Even today, after 131 years, Aunt Jemima pancake mix and syrup continue to represent warmth, nourishment and trust—the very qualities all mothers from all races and backgrounds want for their families. I’ll bet that in the many ubiquitous antique malls that cover the U.S. there is now a sudden upturn in the sale of old Aunt Jemima syrup bottles.

What a shame they’re empty.