Reviewing a summer read that celebrates the healing power of food and the importance of finding a place to call home.
We’ll be chatting with Susan Rebecca White via Twitter and giving away a copy of “A Place At The Table” this Friday, July 19, from 1-2 CST (2-3 EST). Join us using the hashtag #southernlit.
Atlanta author Susan Rebecca White received a copy of African American Chef Edna Lewis’s cookbook “The Gift of Southern Cooking” back in 2003. She had moved from San Francisco to Virginia to attend graduate school, and her mother gave it to her as a welcome home gift. In addition to the classic Southern recipes, White was inspired by the relationship between Lewis and the book’s co-writer Scott Peacock.
She began to wonder what brought Lewis and Peacock together. Just doing a search for Lewis’s name brought up information about Cafe Nicholson in New York, where Lewis worked as a cook in the 1940s. “Going deeper and reading her book about growing up in Freetown, Virginia, which was a farming community, and reading about how their family grew everything they ate and cooked according to the seasons, it was kind of like the more I pulled on the string of her story, the more interesting things came out,” White says.
She initially planned to write a novel about the friendship between the two chefs – an older black woman and a young gay man – but was also fascinated by Freetown, the cafe and what it must have been like for a Southerner in New York during that time. White also knew that she didn’t want to just write a biography of Lewis or Peacock. She wanted to tell her own story. A third character, Amelia, is going through a divorce and it’s with her that White inserts a piece of herself into the book.
“About three months before my husband and I separated, I started writing this character of Amelia and I didn’t really know where she came from,” she says. “I think on a subconscious level, I knew who she was and how she was going to be connected, but I wasn’t quite ready to face it. It ended up being that Amelia’s story, at least on an emotional level, dovetailed with my own personal story.”
White opens “A Place At The Table” with a prologue that introduces the reader to Alice (the Lewis character who is also a nod to Alice Waters) and her brother James in Emancipation Township, North Carolina, in 1929. By the end of the chapter, the pair, who are so close they can often read each other’s minds, witness an event that leaves them separated for life.
Next, the story moves to Bobby (the Peacock character) in Decatur, Georgia, in 1970. His brother thinks he’s a sissy, but he and his mother share a special bond. He’s also very close to his grandmother, Meemaw, and it’s her he turns to when the secret of his sexuality is discovered at home and he’s forced to either leave or be sent to military school. With help from Meemaw, Bobby moves to New York and starts a new life as an openly gay man.
It’s there that he gets a job at Cafe Andres (based on Cafe Nicholson), meets the cafe’s notorious Chef Alice and begins to settle into himself. Amelia enters the picture a little later as an empty nester who is trying to save her marriage. Just like Alice and Bobby, her sense of “home” is being upended and the people she thought of as family no longer fit that description. Amelia helps to tie the story together when she discovers an old family secret that will forever connect her to Alice and her long-lost brother James.
White says she felt strongly about needing a third story to anchor that of Alice and Scott. Since she doesn’t work from an outline, she let the story progress naturally on the page until figuring out how the three characters would finally intersect. She did interview gay men who grew up in the South in the 1970s to get an idea of the struggles they experienced and also had the good fortune to track down original cafe owner Johnny Nicholson at his New York apartment.
Still, she says this was the toughest book she’s written so far. “I felt really really proud of it, but it was hard,” she says. “I was going through a divorce, I was really worried about money, I was living in other people’s apartments for a year and a half. There was more of a pressure on this book than I’ve ever felt.”
White was also worried about getting the story right. Unlike her previous book, “A Soft Place to Land,” which dealt with a white girl growing up in a blended family in Atlanta who moves to San Francisco – something she’s experienced herself – she couldn’t relate to these characters in that way. “I don’t know what it’s like to grow up black in the Depression or to be a gay man in the seventies, so I was so much more self conscious when I was writing this and there was so much fear that I kind of had to shove aside and not worry about til I got the work done on the page.”
An obvious foodie, frequent shopper at her local farmers market and home cook, White didn’t have any trouble determining the role food would play in the story. Seven pages in, we get our first delicious description from her:
“While Alice craved sweets, her brother loved meat. Chops and ribs and butt and bacon. Sausage sizzling in its own fat, the key ingredient in the white gravy Mother fixed, which she poured over biscuits, made tender and flaky by a lacing of lard through the flour.” – Prologue to “A Place at the Table”
For research, White says she cooked from Lewis’s cookbooks and looked through old church cookbooks to find out what kinds of dishes Bobby’s mama would have been making. Dishes like Lewis’s famous chocolate mousse, roast duck with green olives and boeuf bourguignon were actual favorites at Cafe Nicholson and attracted writers Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams (pictured at the cafe in the bowtie below) and Carson McCullers for their comforting qualities. White includes the tale that Capote drove Lewis mad with his requests for fried chicken, which she refused to make, telling him “I’m not your mammy!”
At Cafe Andres, Bobby is able to recapture a piece of home by infusing Southern favorites into the menu, resulting in corn muffins on the tables, shrimp and grits as an entree and a banana pudding dessert with pieces of toasted pound cake from Meemaw’s recipe.
“A sadness like hunger spreads through my chest, and I try to distract myself from it by focusing instead on what I might prepare for Tuesday’s lunch special at the cafe. If I could find grits somewhere I could make Mama’s casserole with cheese and garlic. Serve shrimp on top. Dress it up with some basil cut in a chiffonade, maybe give it a fancy name – call it corn and crevettes – and serve it forth to the New Yorkers who will have no idea what they are eating, who will have no idea they are eating my loneliness transformed.” – Bobby in Chapter 10 of “A Place at the Table”
While White (pictured at right) wasn’t able to visit the original Cafe Nicholson, which closed in 2000, she was able to see the building and walk the block to imagine what it would have felt like to arrive for dinner there. She also stumbled upon its founder Johnny Nicholson while talking to doormen in the area. After one informed her that he was still alive and living across the street from the cafe, she talked with him for almost two hours one day.
Some things are better left to the imagination – White didn’t interview Peacock for the book – and despite talking with Nicholson, she was largely left to write the cafe as she saw it in her mind. “It just seemed like this magical place,” she says. “Just every Southern writer and non-Southern writer congregated there and it seemed like this little respite from the city and this place where the real world kind of stayed outside and there was this loveliness about it. And I’m sure that’s to some degree idolized, but I think it really was a special place at a special time in history.”
Capturing the magic of the cafe, emotional bonds between family and friends and power of food to connect us to one another, “A Place At The Table” is White’s finest work yet. You’ll find yourself teary eyed at some parts, rushing to buy an Edna Lewis cookbook at others and planning an intimate dinner party with a few special friends by the end.
“A Place At The Table” is one of our Summer Reading List picks. See the full list here, and stay tuned for the chance to win a copy of the book on Friday!
Author photo by Dorothy O’Connor.