- Published: 31 May 2013 31 May 2013
I was fascinated by the real-life story of Edna Lewis, the grand dame of Southern cooking. Born in 1916, Edna grew up in a farming community of freed slaves in Albemarle County, Virginia, where her family lived off the land and cooked with the seasons. In the 1930s she moved first to Washington, D.C., then to Manhattan, where she joined the communist party—the only political party that was in favor of integration—worked as a seamstress, an artist’s model, a window dresser, and in the late 1940s became chef at Café Nicholson, which catered to a clientele Mary Cantwell described in a Vanity Fair article as “haute bohemia.” Regulars included Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Tanaquil LeClerq, Truman Capote, Jimmy Baldwin, and the list goes on and on.
I became more and more fascinated with Café Nicholson. It was such an odd place, a bohemian enclave run by “lifelong bachelor” Johnny Nicholson, who kept changing the café’s location, bringing his cranky parrot, Lolita, along each time. (All three locations were in or near Sutton Place, the final one right next to the entryway of the Queensboro Bridge.) The restaurant was famous for its wonderful food and discreet atmosphere, yet despite its popularity, Johnny thought nothing of closing it down for weeks at a time so he could travel with friends to exotic locales.
There was something so elegant about the world of Café Nicholson, something so enchanting and sweet. I decided it had to play a pivotal role in the book, even though Edna Lewis only cooked there for a few years before going on to other culinary pursuits. Perhaps most remarkably, late in life Edna befriended Scott Peacock, a young, gay white chef from a tiny town in Alabama. Edna mentored the young man and eventually they wrote a cookbook together, edited by the legendary Judith Jones. Scott and Edna became so close that they lived together for the last few years of her life.
While I love what Scott and Edna’s friendship represents, their specific story isn’t the one I tell in this book. But I was interested in exploring a friendship that, like Scott and Edna’s, crossed boundaries of age, race, and sexual orientation. And I loved that Southern food, and the meticulous attention both Scott and Edna paid to its preparation, connected them. In my own life food has served as a place of connection over and over again.
In A Place at the Table, Bobby Banks is indeed a gay chef from the South who befriends an older black female chef and ultimately ends up living with her. But as far as I know that is the only way in which Bobby’s biography matches up with Scott Peacock’s. With Bobby, a preacher’s son, I was able to explore my own push/pull relationship with Christianity. Bobby also enabled me to examine the darker side of sibling relationships.
The most interesting thing that happened to me during the writing of A Place at the Tablewas that I actually met Johnny Nicholson himself, now in his 90s. He lives just across the street from where Café Nicholson used to be. I was deeply struck by something Mr. Nicholson said when I interviewed him. He spoke of how in our culture today, the young live on the computer: playing video games, updating Facebook statuses, tweeting. “What in the world are they going to talk about when they’re old and all they have left are their memories?” he asked. “What will their memories be?”