- Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original ed. by Sara B. Franklin
Known as the "quietest, most enigmatic star in the culinary firmament," Edna Lewis was born in Freetown, Virginia, a town founded by former slaves (p. 18). This "vibrant, creative, and hard-working community of families" provided her with a lifelong love of fresh, seasonal ingredients and recipes shaped by the local environment and culture (p. 243). In The Taste of Country Cooking (1976), Lewis shares the cooking of this community, along with reminiscences on its natural and agricultural rhythms. Yet Lewis's path was not confined to culinary arts: she also worked as a model, a dressmaker (creating clothing for Marilyn Monroe), a communist activist, and a pheasant farmer. She rose to prominence as a chef at New York's Café Nicholson, after John Nicholson offered her both a chef position and a partnership in the restaurant in 1949. As editor Sara B. Franklin writes, "[Lewis] is considered a key source on the black experience in the post-Reconstruction South, as well as a trailblazer of the contemporary revival and popularity of regional agriculture and cooking generally, and of southern food in particular" (p. 3).
Despite her renown among mid- and late-twentieth-century chefs and local food enthusiasts and activists, Lewis was not as well known as other like-minded chefs of her era, such as Alice Waters. A 2014 commemorative postage stamp created a wider public curiosity about Lewis because she was featured as one of five "Celebrity Chefs," alongside James Beard, Julia Child, Joyce Chen, and Felipe Rojas-Lombardi (p. 145). Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original offers a well-rounded portrait of Lewis through essays written by chefs, food activists, food writers and editors, academics, cookbook creators, and Lewis's friends and family members.
Because previously there was limited information about Lewis, this volume is an essential resource for scholars of foodways, culinary history, American [End Page 740] culture, and southern culture. The volume is structured in three sections: "Encountering Miss Lewis," "Miss Lewis Standing in Culinary History," and "At Table with Miss Lewis Today." The first section offers essayists' accounts of meeting Lewis, whether in person over a meal she prepared or on the page through archival research. This method of introduction allows readers new to Lewis's work to view her through a variety of lenses. Part 2, as its title indicates, explores Lewis's reputation as chef and cookbook author, examining not only her groundbreaking status as an African American chef but also the reasons she did not become a household name. In this section, Lewis is positioned within the African diaspora, American history, and the cultural specifics of her Virginia region. Here, the reader receives a full picture of Lewis's context and spheres of influence. The third section departs from a mostly academic tone to offer more intimate personal interviews and essays from Lewis's friends, family members, and close colleagues. A 2016 interview with Nathalie Dupree, bestselling southern cookbook author and cooking show host, is particularly revealing. Dupree offers details about Lewis's disappointments in personal and professional relationships, as well as her financial struggles, that are not detailed elsewhere in the book. "Afterwords: A Family Remembers" by Ruth Lewis Smith (Lewis's sister) and Nina Williams-Mbengue (Lewis's niece) rounds out the volume by adding a portrait of a generous family member and detailing family history.
Among the book's gems are the recipes sprinkled throughout. In most cases, the recipes demonstrate how a professional chef has modified a Lewis recipe or technique to make it, for instance, vegan or to use local ingredients found in Maine rather than in the South. While purists might balk at the variations, the recipes demonstrate Lewis's influence on contemporary food culture. There are also direct celebrations of Lewis, such as Alice Waters's "menu to celebrate the anniversary of Edna Lewis's birth … exactly a...