2019-02-07 / Opinions

Book Review

Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original

Although there are many delicious recipes in this book about Edna Lewis, it is mainly a book about her life and legacy, compiled by Sara Franklin. “She moved through the world as an African-American woman only two generations out of slavery.” An artist, fashion designer, and writer, she was and now is most famous as a cook.

“Edna Lewis was born in Freetown, Virginia, a small community founded by emancipated slaves, including Lewis’s grandfather. … The community proudly strove to be self-sufficient, growing almost everything its inhabitants consumed, saving purchases only for such processed goods as sugar, flour, and coffee.”

She moved to Washington, D.C. and then to New York as a young woman. Friends and acquaintances admired her cooking. Her first paid cooking job was at Café Nicholson in New York. Her reputation as a chef and caterer grew. Her first cookbook was The Edna Lewis Cookbook, followed by The Taste of Country Cooking, published in 1976, making her famous. In it, she told about her upbringing and the joys of communal living, as well as many recipes of Southern cooking.

After her success, many southern cooks began to publish their own books, updating Southern classics, paying attention to local specialties and history of place. “The Taste of Country Cooking powerfully reframed Southern food for American readers and cooks.” Soul food, borne of the Great Migration, paid tribute to African and African-American influences on Southern cooking.

Edna Lewis’s life and legacy goes beyond her cooking. This book explores the mythology surrounding her and deepens our understanding of her contributions. Essayists like Alice Waters and John E. Edge recall their impressions of her. Joe Yonan includes her recipe for Southern Baked Beans.

Part II looks at her influence on culinary history. Scott Alves Barton gives his version of her Benne Wafers. Others discuss how she has left us with a conversation and many questions. Edna Lewis influenced many of today’s prominent cooks and food writers.

Nathalie Dupress reports on her encounters with Lewis and how financial worries bothered her, in spite of her seeming success. In a chapter called “It’s not all fried chicken and greasy greens,” Mashama Bailey explains how Lewis’ books helped her to determine her own cooking practices. She opened The Grey in Savannah. She includes several recipes, as does Annemarie Ahearn.

Even if you’re not hungry, check on Edna Lewis at the Mary Willis Library.

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