Book Review — 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.

Lucky Dip – Monday, October 3rd, 2011

Good lord, no… not the Danish butter cookies! Denmark rolls out a fat tax. [Globe and Mail]

Between the war on obesity and food-related stereotypes, soul food (fried chicken, collards, et al) is dying a fast death in the US. Should we be destroying cultural foodways that are linked to health problems and racism, or rushing to save them? [Zester]

It’s an ongoing joke in the beer community that some brewers will put just about anything in their experimental beers. And it’s actually true; check out this list. [Bites]

What chefs and restaurateurs think about you folks who make reservations and then don’t show up. (Does you back hurt? Because there might be voodoo dolls involved.) [Eater]

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Lucky Dip – Thursday, September 8th, 2011

How awesome is this? Supermarkets that grow produce on those vast expanses of useless flat roof. Win-win-win. [Toronto Star]

Polish up your resume, wanna-be restaurant critics; rumours are that Sam Sifton, critic for the New York Times is moving on to the national desk. Who will get the tasty top job? [Eater]

Who cares about celebrities when you’re enjoying a good steak frites? La Societe overcomes its reputation as a richy-rich hangout. [NOW]

Cookbooks as literature. [The Awl]

McDonald’s here in Canada is getting all swankified. But you’ve gotta love Eater’s reasoning on the inclusion of fireplaces; “it’s cold in Canada”. That’s right, all year long – that day in July when the temperature cracked 40°C – that was just a dream. A cup of coffee in front of the McD’s fireplace will be a welcome reprieve from shivering in our unheated igloos. [Eater]

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The Harlem Shuffle


67 Richmond Street East
Dinner for two with all taxes and tip plus beer or wine: $110

The Harlem Shuffle – an R&B song originally written and recorded by the duo Bob & Earl in 1963, named after a line dance step that is an homage to the dance clubs that existed during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. More recently, the rearranging of plates on a table at Harlem Restaurant when it becomes obvious that too many side dishes have been ordered.


The term “authentic” gets bandied around a lot these days when it comes to food, with most people not really knowing what the authentic dish should taste like in the first place. So when a commenter on a food-related board dissed the food at Harlem for not being “authentic soul food”, I found myself shaking my head.

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