Book Review — Edna Lewis: At the Table With an American Original

Cover of Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original

Edna Lewis: At the Table With an American Original
Edited by Sara B. Franklin
The University of North Carolina Press, 2018

Edna Lewis. The name likely rings a bell, maybe you’ve heard of her, maybe someone you know has one of her cookbooks. But she’s never been associated with a restaurant empire, and she’s never hosted a TV cooking show. If you’re not from the United States, you’ve likely only heard of Edna Lewis if you’re a fan of cookbooks and Southern cuisine. Don’t feel bad, most people in the US, including many food writers, only know her by name and are unfamiliar with the massive influence she’s had on food culture.

I won’t dwell too long on the facts — you can read about those in this collection of essays compiled by Sara B. Franklin. Lewis was born in Freetown, Virginia in 1916. She grew up in the farming community and understood and appreciated what we’ve come to refer to as “slow food” long before there was a name for it. She worked in professional kitchens in New York, Washington D.C., and Atlanta. She was an activist and a fashion designer, a food writer and chef. She also had an astounding influence on many chefs, food writers, and restaurateurs, as her elegant style — of cooking and living — changed the way Americans think of soul food and southern cooking in general.

Franklin has gathered stories and recollections from a vast cross-section of contemporary chefs and food writers. From Toni Tipton-Martin’s story of Lewis’ encouragement for her own book about African-American cooking, to pieces by Michael Twitty, John T. Edge, and Deborah Madison, all talk about Lewis’ influence on them and their own work, and on African-American cuisine.

While all paint respectful and occasionally awe-struck pictures of Miss Lewis, there is a fair amount of redundancy within the pieces. The story of Truman Capote wandering into the kitchen at Café Nicholson in search of more biscuits while Lewis was the chef there turns up a couple of times. Lewis’ words of advice to Toni Tipton-Martin to “leave no stone unturned” in her search to tell the truth about African-American chefs and cookery is quoted more than once as well. So by the end of the collection, the facts and stories are either solidly within the reader’s understanding of Miss Lewis, or else it starts to grate slightly. To be fair, I’m not sure how this could be avoided from an editorial standpoint with all contributors writing about the same subject, especially when some of those contributors only knew Lewis (or knew of her) in passing.

What is important is the acknowledgement of Lewis’ massive influence on American foodways, both from her books and professional work, and how she changed the way people think about Southern food, as well as local food, eaten in season, as fresh as possible. This collection will please those who are already Edna Lewis fans, and will undoubtedly make new fans of those who have just discovered the work of this magnificent woman and chef.

With thanks to The University of North Carolina Press and NetGalley, this book was reviewed from an Advance Reader Copy and may not include exactly the same content or format when published.