Photo: Sara B. Franklin (left), Edna Lewis (right)
As we planned our tribute episode to Edna Lewis, we knew we'd want to talk to her family, friends and fellow chefs. We also knew that we should visit with Sara B. Franklin; she is a food writer and educator who edited a wonderful collection of essays about the work, life and food of Miss Edna called Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original. Franklin is also working on a book on Judith Jones, Miss Lewis’s legendary editor. Francis Lam talked with Sara B. Franklin about the lasting effect that Edna Lewis has had on the world of food, particularly how it views Southern cooking and cuisine.
Francis Lam: I am really interested in how you got interested in the work of Edna Lewis. I think we're both in the same boat in that we never knew her personally, we never met her in person, but we’re both fascinated and inspired by her. Tell me how you got to be that way.
Sara B. Franklin: I was introduced to her through Gourmet Magazine in 2008, when the editors published an entire issue devoted to the American south, and they built that issue around an essay that had been published posthumously, written by Miss Edna Lewis, called “What is Southern?” And in this essay, Miss Lewis positioned the culture of the American south, and the culture of the African American South in particular, alongside the work of kitchens – the workaday, quotidian work of kitchens – and also alongside music, literature, painting, and other forms of art. For me, it was this incredibly striking moment. As someone who's interested in food and desperately wanted to get involved in the work of food, it was a key moment in seeing what it was like to try to put food alongside these other bastions of culture, these other realms of culture, and to try to make sense of that.
I never heard of Edna Lewis before that. I loved cookbooks, I loved cooking, but I had no idea who she was. I didn't know much about the American South. I didn't come from there; I grew up in New York. I quickly realized I needed to know who she was if I wanted to learn about this world. So, I ordered some of her books and I read them and fell in love with her and cooked a lot from them. It was many years later that I was working with Edna Lewis's editor, Judith Jones, who is the editor that also published Julia Child, Madhur Jaffrey, Claudia Roden, really the canon of English-writing cookbook authors – many of whom weren't American. And she published Edna Lewis's most famous book, The Taste of Country Cooking, in 1976. In interviewing Judith Jones about her work, it became apparent to me that the book that she did with Miss Lewis was a real hinge point for her. She turned away from working primarily with authors who were writing about international cuisines and cultures to someone who was writing very explicitly about American cuisine and culture, and a very particular region within America. For me, it was this stand up, snap to attention and pay attention moment in Judith Jones's career. You think about the mid-1970s, what was going on politically in this country, the women's movement, civil rights, the Vietnam War has come to an end; it was this tremendous moment of conflict and confusion around our identity. What it meant to publish a book from the perspective of an African American woman about the American South, the rural American South, and through the perspective of a home cook. For many people who have come across that book, it was this beautiful piece of writing, it was extremely political in its sensibility, and unflinchingly direct. It was making a statement, but it was not going to jam it down your throat, and you needed to be ready to receive it and her, on your own time. I think for a lot of people that's come late, many decades after its original publication.
FL: What do you mean by receive it, when you say that came late?
SBF: Well, it's really interesting. You can read the The Taste of Country Cooking and love it as a cookbook and leave it at that. The recipes are wonderful; the prose is lyrical and beautiful. It writes of living on a farm in a farming community in a rural part of Virginia and moving through the seasons, the work of foraging, of working the fields, of putting food up in the kitchen, of eating alongside one another. But if you read more closely, if you look at the way the menus are organized, the holidays that are being celebrated, like Revival or Emancipation Day, this is a work of African American history in the American South, and of giving dignity to that culture as its own entity in a lot of ways that's separate from white American culture.
FL: I wrote a story about Edna Lewis a number of years ago, and in my research for that story, I called you up and spoke with you. You inspired me to think of a lot of things I hadn’t thought of before, including this idea of The Taste of Country Cooking being, in a lot of ways, a political work. Like you said, it's beautifully written and it's very easy, as a friend of mine put it, to think of Miss Lewis as just a sweet old lady writing about her time growing up in the country; it can certainly be read that way, and it's beautiful in that way. But, I was struck by how she positioned the life of rural black people in the early 1900s. Her grandparents, who founded the community [of Freetown, Virginia] where she grew up, were enslaved, they were freed slaves at one point. I think if you think of that story, you'd imagine a story that was one of hardship and trying to scrape by. She writes about it like the most beautiful society or the most beautiful community, it was a life of beauty. Literally children are singing in the book, and I thought that was so powerful and so remarkable to say, “Whatever stereotypes you have of us, if you're not including the fact that we created this beautiful cuisine and our children sing because of joy, your stereotypes are wrong,” and that's a profoundly political thing.
SBF: It's a massive corrective to so much of what had been written and what continues to be written, that the life of the American South – and black culture within that large series of regional cultures – was one of only hardship and poverty, and that, even though these may have been communities that were financially poor, their life was rich and food was central to that life, and that it included bounty. If this community had nothing else, they always had food on their table, and lots of it, and things that we think of still as luxury foods – meats, cream, butter, foraged mushrooms from the forest, this is stuff that people pay top dollar for now. This was everyday food by virtue of the life they had created for themselves.
FL: There's also this fierceness to it that I think is so, again, maybe subtle and maybe I'm reading stuff into it that wasn't intended to be there, but there's this scene I remember, a small chapter called “Hog Killing.” She describes the tradition of when you slaughter the hogs in the fall and put up all the different parts, and there's this incredible image of when then they take the bladders out and they blow the bladders up like balloons, tie them, and those are their Christmas ornaments when they're dried several months later. Can you imagine being that close to the guts, literally? But also, I remember reading it and the way she describes the hogs after they've been slaughtered. The way she describes them hanging quietly like statues, it's like that song “Strange Fruit,” it's almost like a lynch scene. And then I found later that, when she was young, there was a black man in a nearby community who was lynched after he had talked to a white woman and asked her to help them with their hog killing. I have no idea if that's what she intended to be a connection, but it's like, now, this many years hence, hopefully understanding history as we do and the reality of it, I can't help but think Miss Edna had those things in her mind, certainly. I don't know if she wrote them in that scene.
SBF: That's what I'm alluding to in the sense that she was so unflinching in her prose, that there was incredible frankness in what she presented you with – whether it was beautiful, or difficult, or often both at the same time – and that she was going to say it quietly. Many people who knew her spoke of her as being a fairly quiet woman. She often didn't say more than needed to be said, and sometimes she said nothing at all, but if she was going to open her mouth or put pen to paper, it was going to be with clarity, it was going to be concise, and she wasn't going to dart away from hard truths. And then, she was just going to place it there and leave it there, and you can receive it for the beautiful side, or you can read it for the difficult side. Or if you're ready, you can try to find both, the paradox in that, and I think therein lies her brilliance.
Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original
Edited by Sara B. Franklin
FL: You edited a collection of essays about her from many different perspectives, and it seems like there's been an Edna Lewis moment. What do you think is behind this resurgence and interest in her today?
SBF: I think Miss Lewis has always, then as now, presented us with a way to talk about and across difference. When her book The Taste of Country Cooking came out in 1976, that was part of what made the book so special, that it landed in the hearts of the people that it landed with at the time. More than 40 years later, that book still does the same for us; it helps us in a time of great division, with increasingly finding ourselves with barriers that we want to transcend and maybe don't know how to cross or transcend and talk to one another across those differences. She offers a way to do that, which is through the kitchen, by cooking together, sitting down together, breaking bread together, and acknowledging that we're all coming from very different perspectives. That's part of what makes her work feel timely right now. She was presented with a difficult era of truths that she lived through – in terms of the geography, the culture, and the economic, racial, and gender realities that she grew up with – but she was able to write and cook through those barriers. I think she still offers that to us now.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.