Edna Lewis is not well-known in Britain. But she should be. The award-winning chef, writer and cookbook author elevated Southern cooking – the food of the United States’ Deep South – so that it sat at its rightful place alongside the greatest cuisines of the world.
Her legacy in the States is powerful. The granddaughter of enslaved people, she was born in Freetown, Virginia, a settlement established by her grandparents following the abolition of slavery. Food was a big part of the community. It was both seasonal and well-seasoned, and resourceful through necessity, but never dull. Little of their food was shop-bought – it was grown, caught and foraged by the community, which was a huge influence on a young Edna until she moved away to Washington DC and later, New York City.
In the late 1940s, she opened a restaurant with an antique dealer friend that became popular with the rich and famous, including Truman Capote and Marlene Dietrich. She went on to write four best-selling cookbooks and win several awards. And though few know Edna’s name here, the foods she revered and celebrated – fried chicken, cornbread, shrimp ‘n’ grits – have become woven into the fabric of British food culture so deeply it would be hard to imagine a world without them.
I might have never learned of Edna, who died in 2008, had I not listened to The Splendid Table, a podcast hosted by Francis Lam. It’s American, but the beauty of podcasts – especially those about food – is how they transcend both time and geographical borders. The food Edna Lewis championed would make mouths water the world over. Who can listen to talk of her stewed quinces without thinking of British autumns and our own homegrown quinces?
The Splendid Table is one of a handful of my favourites that have educated and entertained me.
A podcast about food, race, gender and class that is funny, thought-provoking and tackles subjects that I’m always thankful for. It’s taken listeners into a prison cell in France, where Dany Hellz Kitchen (@dany_hellz_kitchen) creates culinary masterpieces on an induction hob and whatever scant ingredients he can get from the prison canteen. Their episode of Black erasure on the American barbecue scene was important, highlighting the dominance of white-owned barbecue joints – especially Franklin’s – and zealous pursuit of brisket to the detriment of black-owned barbecue joints and the foods on which barbecue was founded.
Lucy Dearlove’s podcast is a celebration of the foods found throughout the UK, and the wonderful people grafting away behind the scenes that make it so special. From a community kitchen run by two women, fermentation and Isle of Mann bake bonnag, Lucy has a knack for seeking out brilliant hidden stories. She’s travelled to Nottingham to speak to the founders of MuseumAnd, a museum celebrating the contribution of Caribbean people to the UK, including the food. She also spoke to the late Saima Thompson, who died in June aged 31 after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Saima founded the award-winning Masala Wala Cafe in south east London, that broke the mould for Pakistani and South Asian restaurants in the UK.
The Splendid Table
The Splendid Table began life as a radio show and has become a leading light in food podcasts. It celebrates eating from all over the world, and explores what drives those at the centre of it. From Edna Lewis, mentioned in the introduction, to brilliant chefs Madhur Jaffrey and Nigella Lawson, as well as topical episodes that delve into a given subject, such as bread from around the world – sourdough to beigels and injera. What’s particularly brilliant about The Splendid Table is their Q&A episodes, during which you can ask their star guests your burning questions. It’s like having Salt Fat Acid Heat star Samin Nosrat on WhatsApp…almost.
The white dominance of the wine industry would make it appear a space unwelcome to black and minority ethinic winemakers. But Item 13’s chat with Ntsiki Biyela, a former domestic worker-turned-winemaker, brings hope. She makes wine in South Africa and has consulted in France. Ntsiki’s episode is just one of the brilliant discussions around food and drink in Africa featured on Item 13. The podcast shines a spotlight on foods from Ghana, Ivory Coast, Morocco and more, while exploring issues such as the shame that can be felt at eating food from one’s own culture and food for mental health. Host Yorm Ackuaku also features African ex-pats – such as Nigerian Tokunbo Koiki of London’s Tokunbo’s Kitchen.
The podcast from Serious Eats approaches food in gloriously geeky detail. Host Ed Levine’s connections to people in food gives him unparalleled access to the most sought-after interviewees. And unusually for a man in his position, he is aware of his privilege. He uses his platform to give cooks, chefs and restaurateurs of colour a platform and challenges male guests who fail to include any women in their dream dinner party guest lists. As the UK looks inward at its own failings with Black representation in hospitality, their interview with Soleil Ho, the San Francisco Chronicles’ restaurant critic, was especially pertinent. She spoke of banning certain words from her column, such as ‘ethnic’. She said: ‘When you say ethnic restaurants, I would beg… people who are listening, to think about what kinds of restaurants you’re including under that umbrella. Are only some restaurants under that umbrella or all restaurants, because don’t we all have ethnicity?’
The Food Chain
Do you enjoy mukbang? If you don’t know what that is, you may be part of a shrinking minority. Korean for ‘eating broadcast’, it is videos of people eating vast amounts of food… and little else. Mukbang has become something of a phenomenon and in a particularly brilliant episode of The Food Chain, those behind the trend – the ones creating the videos and those who enjoy them – explain how it provides comfort. The podcast, from the BBC World Service, often looks at the most popular foods and associated trends and breaks them down, exploring their origins and questioning why they are so widely consumed. Their topics are hugely varied and always insightful – from celebrating fried chicken to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on global food production lines.
Black Food Tales Podcast
Bringing brilliant chats with black British foodies, Black Food Tales has operated under the radar compared to other bigger podcasts. The episodes are long, but it is worth it for the gems. Host Lisimba Pink curates discussions that tell of foods from Africa such as pondu – a dish made from cassava leaf – and Tanzanian pilau rice. And he dares to confront one of the most controversial issues in African cuisine: whether Nigerian of Ghanian jollof rice reigns.
Radio Cherry Bombe
Cherry Bombe is a feast of brilliant women in food. Hosted by Kerry Diamond, she takes us to meet people whose stories vary from the inspiring to the devastating. A favourite was her chat with Deborah VanTrece, a former air hostess whose travels around the world– and meals with families and in restaurants all over the globe – inspired her. When she and her colleagues went on strike from the airline, her exposure to international foods led her to catering school. She’s since started a successful restaurant in Atlanta in the US. It’s an uplifting tale – especially for anyone thinking about changing career.
Queer The Table
A podcast celebrating all things queer and food – it’s a joy. ln one episode, listeners join a dinner on a table decorated with rainbow flags, hosted by stalwart lesbian activist Kay Lahusen at her retirement home in the Philadelphian suburbs. The lifelong campaigner hosts monthly LGBTQ meals and we are lucky enough to join one wherever in the world we happen to be. She’s now 90, and the series caught up with her when she was 88. The episode documented the gay rights struggle through the voices of now-elderly activists, and was a hugely important piece of audio documentary. There are episodes on lesbian pot-luck lunches which explore the early movement and pokes fun at stereotypes of foods eaten by gay women. There’s also the story of Shaquanda’s Hot Pepper Sauce, founded by drag artist Andre Springer.
Have you listened to the BBC Good Food Podcast with Tom Kerridge yet?