Today UNC Press publicity director Gina Mahalek chats with Sara B. Franklin, editor of Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original, just published by UNC Press.
Gina Mahalek: Edna Lewis can be said to be having something of “a moment.” Why this resurgence of interest in her, and why now?
Sara B. Franklin: That’s a really complicated question, and there are so many ways to answer it. As a food writer, I’ve noticed that we, as a culture, are in a moment of demanding deep storytelling and history behind our food. The prominence of the farm-to-table movement, shows like Chef’s Table, the rate at which food memoirs and blogs continue to churn out material… Lewis speaks to all of that. Her writing is so free of the hang-ups of today’s food culture. It’s political without being self-conscious or catering to the media. That’s so rare in today’s food culture, and I think readers and home cooks find Lewis refreshing for that reason.
People have also realized that the American South was really the last region to remain rural in character and agricultural in its economy, and so it’s natural to look to Southern voices for recipes and stories that connect American food to that particular way of life, that feel “authentically” American, although I hesitate to use that word because it’s so loaded. There’s been a lot written about this recently. But, in recent years, the people who have been responsible for, and have made a name for themselves, telling those Southern stories, have mostly been white male chefs (though certain women chefs—Vivian Howard is a prime example—have also entered prominently into the conversation). And the reality is it was women—and black women in particular—who crafted the cuisines of the South, blending African, indigenous and European techniques and ingredients together to make something terrifically unique and special.
I also think, more generally, we’ve become very interested in diversifying the voices in arts and culture—the Hamilton phenomenon is probably the best example of this. The question keeps coming up—how can we tell American stories through different lenses and, in some cases, truer lenses? Lewis is riding that wave. With all that’s happened in the U.S. and internationally in recent years—the senseless violence, the incredibly persistent racism and bigotry—I believe the call for diversity is genuine. The flip side of all this, though, is that we need to be careful that we’re not merely tokenizing certain people and their voices, be they women, religious, ethnic or racial minorities.
GM: What was your introduction to her?
SBF: I first learned of Edna Lewis while reading an issue of Gourmet magazine in 2008. I was still in college at the time, and I secretly—desperately—wanted to be a food writer, even though I didn’t know what that entailed. It was the issue where her essay, “What is Southern?,” was published posthumously (Jane Lear’s essay in my book talks about this.) I’d never been to the South, and I’d never heard of Edna Lewis before then. Her voice immediately captivated me. I loved how she linked food together with literature and culture more broadly—that made a lot of sense to me. I was also working on a small organic vegetable farm at the time, and it immediately revolutionized the way I cooked and my thoughts on flavor. Lewis thinks of agriculture and the pleasures of cooking and eating as part and parcel, and that was so resonant for me. Also, the reverential way the Gourmet editors wrote about Lewis signaled to me that she was tremendously important, and that I’d better start learning about her right away if I wanted to find my way into this field and not look like an amateur.
GM: How did this edited collection come about? How did you find the contributors?
SBF: I was working on a doctoral dissertation about Lewis’s editor at Knopf, Judith Jones, when I began thinking about this collection. I’m interested in so many of the cookbook authors Jones worked with, but I kept coming back to Lewis, and thinking and writing about how Jones and Lewis worked together. It was a big deal when Jones stopped working exclusively with authors who were writing about foreign cuisines, and began to work on American food. And I wanted to follow that thread.
Marcie Cohen Ferris, a mentor of mine at UNC Chapel Hill, and I happened to be down in Charleston one summer, and Marcie introduced me to Nathalie Dupree (whose interview is in this book). I began thinking out loud to her about my fascination with Lewis and how she seems to mean so much to so many people who work in food, and yet how unknown she still seems to be. By the end of that conversation, I had the idea for the book.
I thought it would be both really difficult and wholly inappropriate for me to try to write a biography of Lewis, so I began reaching out to friends and colleagues who I had a feeling had something interesting to say about Lewis. I also cold-called people who had written interesting bits about her elsewhere—Kevin West, for example. The book took shape incredibly quickly—from an idea to a fully fleshed-out concept with more than twenty contributors in just over two months. I take this as proof of people’s excitement about Lewis.
GM: What makes Lewis’s 1976 cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking, stand out from other southern cookbooks?
SBF: Its lyricism. Lewis had a simple but incredibly evocative way of writing. The recipes in Taste are beautiful, and the food they guide you to make is delicious. But Taste is a work of literature, too. Lewis had a literary editor, and the book was published by a literary house, so the writing was taken every bit as seriously as the recipes. That tends not to be the way we make cookbooks anymore, so that’s part of what makes it special.
I think of Taste as having a place in the southern literary canon, as well as being a landmark cookbook. Lewis speaks of so much in this book—race, slavery, land stewardship, biodiversity, the Great Migration. I could go on and on. Taste is a deeply political work without taking an abrasive tone. I think this is part of what makes Lewis’s work so universal, and also so brilliant. She understood that food was a way to get people to communicate across differences. She also understood, as all good writers do, that the more specific your storytelling, the more universal your appeal. By telling the story of her hometown, Freetown, Virginia, Lewis was able to tell a much larger—and, at the time, a pretty radical— story about the history of blacks in the American South.
GM: Where did Edna Lewis make her culinary mark?
SBF: So many places. That’s part of what makes her remarkable. She’s remembered as a quintessentially Southern cook, but both she and her cooking had a real following in New York City. She was both a restaurant chef and a home cook, not to mention a damn fine writer: a true triple threat! You just don’t see it very often. I think people admire her tremendously for that range of talent and her ability to speak to an audience on both the plate and in print.
GM: Why do you think Edna Lewis remains, as you put it in your introduction to the essays, “a cult favorite and underdog hero” in popular food history?
SBF: I think chefs and food writers—the food world, in general—has long been home to a lot of people that consider themselves misfits or outsiders. People tend to back into careers in food because they don’t fit into other boxes, or they’ve quietly nurtured passions for cooking, eating and writing about food, all the while knowing that food still isn’t respected as “real” work. We in the food community tend to make heroes out of the people who put unlikely pieces together and find success that way. Lewis found success with “country cooking” in the big city; she was a black female chef in an emerging food world that largely prized white men. Later, she had a gay male companion. She returned South when black Southerners were still moving north. She cooked professionally well into her old age. She’s outwardly amazing, and difficult to categorize. That makes her intriguing to people. That said, in the larger world, she’s a black Southern woman in a culture that still looks down upon African Americans, Southerners, and women, whether we like to admit it or not. For a long time, only those who were inclined to ignore or move beyond those biases discovered and appreciated Lewis. That is, I think, finally beginning to change.
GM: Very briefly, what are some of Lewis’s complexities that are explored in this collection of essays? What are some of the surprises that are in store for readers?
SBF: I think many people are so enamored of Lewis right now that they don’t look beyond the hackneyed, saccharine narrative that gets passed around about her. Lewis was a complicated woman, who kept a lot of her life quite private. She was involved in the communist cause, and was married, for a time, to a communist organizer. People also don’t realize she was a partner in Café Nicholson and that, like many chefs, despite the fact that she became quite well known and was sought after, she struggled financially throughout her career. In short, she was human.
GM: I very much like your phrase “the quiet power of cookbooks.” What can cookbooks accomplish that other books can’t?
SBF: Cookbooks make their way into homes, and invite cross-cultural exchange. All books, and lots of other art forms, for that matter, have the ability to do this. But what makes food different is that you literally incorporate another culture into your physical body when you eat a cuisine that’s not your own. That’s amazing! Cookbooks foster that, and therefore they’re also tools of subversion.
GM: How would you describe Edna Lewis’s politics?
SBF: She was a feminist, and also a communist. She was a race activist. She was a humanitarian and an egalitarian. She was an environmentalist, and also a nutritionist of sorts. I doubt she’d categorize herself as any of these, though, which is part of what makes her interesting.
GM: What makes Edna Lewis less knowable than other cookbook writers?
SBF: For one, her papers haven’t been made public. Also, Lewis came from a culture in which history and literacy were systematically denied, and so there isn’t much by way of historical record that speaks to the specific history of Lewis, her family, and her culinary roots beyond her living family members’ memories. We can try to extrapolate from other sorts of sources, but that’s not going to get us as close to Lewis as we might like.
Lewis was also famously soft-spoken—almost everyone who’s written or spoken about her alludes to this. Many of the cookbook writers of Lewis’s era are fairly unknowable, and a lot of that is our own fault: we, as a culture, didn’t think to plumb their depths or interview them extensively while they were alive. Now we’re all interested in food, and beginning to take food history very seriously as capital-H “History,” but it’s too late on many accounts. Many of the greats are already gone.
GM: Some of the essayists include recipes. Tell us about these.
SBF: You can’t talk about Edna Lewis without talking about her cooking, and many of the contributors to the book find that her influence on them is as much culinary as it is literary, if not more so. This is especially true for the chefs in the book. It was only right, then, to include recipes, to invite contributors to speak to the ways that Lewis has inspired them in the kitchen. It’s also a way to invite readers to participate in Lewis’s memory, and to understand that, by cooking and adapting her dishes, her legacy can continue forth and also evolve.
GM: Tell us a bit about Edna Lewis’s relationship with her editor at Alfred A. Knopf, Judith Jones.
SBF: Most of what I know about their relationship comes directly from Judith Jones, who I spent a great deal of time interviewing soon after she retired, so it’s important to note that my perspective is lopsided. That said, I do know the two women had tremendous professional respect for one another. Lewis dedicated Taste to both the people of Freetown and to Judith Jones, “for her deep understanding.” I love how intentionally vague that phrase is. To me, it suggests there was a depth to their relationship to which only they were privy, which is as it should be. As Jones loved to remind me, the author/editor relationship is a sacred one, and isn’t necessarily meant to be public. Both women, I think, really believed in the importance of privacy, the protection of which our culture was slowly chipping away at during both their professional heydays. So there’s a lot we don’t know, and probably never will.
GM: Although The Taste of Country Cooking and Lewis’s other books were celebrated during her lifetime, she did not enjoy financial security from their sales. Why not?
SBF: Nathalie Dupree speaks directly to the specifics of Lewis’s financial situation in her interview in this book. She spoke about how Lewis struggled, particularly late in life, to make ends meet, never earning quite enough from catering gigs and the proceeds of her cookbooks. Dupree speaks out of deep reverence for Lewis, and a sense that, as an American treasure, Lewis should have been looked after by her colleagues and publishers. But I think it’s important to consider this reality within its larger context. Many people who work in food, be they restaurant workers or writers, don’t experience much financial security; most are, in effect, freelancers, or at-will employees. Many don’t have benefits like health insurance or family leave. This is hard even when you’re in your prime, but as you age, this becomes more and more of an issue— people struggle to save, so retirement is tough. Lewis worked well into her 70s. She was tremendously energetic, and it’s obvious that she loved the job, but still, the American idea of “retirement” doesn’t exactly involve schlepping heavy pots and pans around in your old age.
GM: If you could ask Edna Lewis one question, what would it be?
SBF: Ha! I’m a person who asks a lot of questions (that’s why I write books), and there are a bunch of big, existential questions I’d like to ask her. But if I had to choose, I think I’d go with something both regionally and culturally provocative and also pragmatic: If you could cook with only one kind of fat forever, what would it be?
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Sara B. Franklin is a writer and food studies scholar teaching at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study.
Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original is available now in both print and ebook editions.