On a summer day in 1949, ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq, novelist Donald Windham, painter Buffie Johnson, playwright Tennessee Williams, and writer-provocateur Gore Vidal gathered at Café Nicholson, a bohemian supper club set in the back courtyard of an antique store on New York City’s Upper East Side. It was a heady moment. Williams had won a Pulitzer Prize the year before. Vidal had just published The City and the Pillar. Beneath the shade trees in proprietor Johnny Nicholson’s garden, they ate and drank. They smoked and gossiped. They posed and preened, fully aware that photographer Karl Bissinger was there to capture their idyll for posterity.
In those postwar days, the café, decorated in what Nicholson described as a “fin de siècle Caribbean of Cuba style,” served as a canteen for the creative class and a backdrop for fashion shoots. (Before it finally closed in 2000, the café also served as an occasional movie set; Woody Allen filmed scenes from Bullets Over Broadway there.) Paul Robeson was a regular. So was Truman Capote, who sometimes came bursting into the kitchen looking for biscuits.
Nicholson was the Barnum of their social set, presiding with a parrot named Lolita on his shoulder. Bissinger, who served the cafe as an early business partner and a sometimes gardener and host, made a living curating social tableaus for magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. During the postwar years he captured everyone from a languorous Henry Miller, lighting a cigarette, to a faunal Capote, reclining in a wicker chaise. But the photograph he shot that afternoon at Café Nicholson has proved his most famous. In a New York Times obituary of Bissinger, William Grimes called the scene a “class picture of the young and the talented in the American arts, more than ready for their close-ups.”
I first glimpsed the image on a postcard I bought at a Memphis bookstore. In that rendition, the black woman in the background was left unnamed. Because I knew a bit about the history of Café Nicholson and the role that Edna Lewis, the African-American cookery writer and chef, played there, and because my eyesight isn’t so great, I wondered, perversely, whether the black woman ferrying what appears to be a pot of tea to the table was Lewis.
Edna Lewis was the most respected African-American cookery writer of the twentieth century. Over the course of a long and varied career, she set type for the Daily Worker and labored as a dressmaker for clients like Marilyn Monroe. After working with Johnny Nicholson, she began to write and publish the cookbooks that earned her recognition as the grande doyenne of Southern cookery. Foremost was The Taste of Country Cooking. Published in 1976 and re-released in 2006, it was an homage to the land and larder of Freetown, the Virginia community where she grew up. In the foreword to that thirtieth anniversary edition, Alice Waters wrote that Lewis, the granddaughter of freed slaves, was an “inspiration to all of us who are striving to protect both biodiversity and cultural diversity by cooking real food in season and honoring our heritage through the ritual of the table.”
If Lewis could go unnamed in a picture that foretold the promise of America in the postwar era, I figured that image might serve as a metaphor for the lesser role Americans have long ascribed to African-American contributions to the culinary arts. Telling that story might be a way for me to pay down the debts of pleasure, both culinary and other, that a privileged white son of the South like me has accrued over a lifetime.
This spring, I attended a conference on food and immigrant life at the New School in New York City. Speakers from as close as NYU and as far away as UC Irvine talked about “gastronomic cosmopolitanism,” defined “neophilia” and “neophobia,” argued for the recovery of the “fragile orality of recipe exchange,” and predicted that, for those of us who study food, “epistemological implosions” are on the horizon. (I’m still not sure what that last one meant.) But what really walloped me was a speech by Saru Jayaraman, director of the UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center and author ofBehind the Kitchen Door: What Every Diner Should Know About the People Who Feed Us.
The people who put food on our tables, Jayaraman argued, often can’t afford to put food on their own. Primary among the contemporary culprits she identified was the National Restaurant Association, which she called the “other N.R.A.” Jayaraman said that when Herman Cain, the Republican presidential candidate and former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, was running the organization in the 1990s, he brokered a deal that has since kept the federal minimum wage for tipped workers like waiters and bartenders artificially deflated at $2.13 per hour.
Wages for non-tipped workers like line cooks have risen, she said, but not at the pace of other professions, nor have they earned benefits enjoyed by other workers, like paid sick days. Workers of color suffer the most. A four-dollar hourly gap separates them from white workers, she reported, citing two primary reasons. Within a single restaurant, workers of color are more likely to be hired for back-of-the-house positions that pay less, like busser and runner, and they rarely get promoted from those positions. Within the industry as a whole, workers of color are more likely to get jobs in fast food, which generally pay less than fine-dining jobs.
She was speaking, for the most part, about new immigrants. But listening to her talk on that early spring evening in New York City, I heard what sounded like an old Southern story of the black housekeepers I knew in my Georgia youth, who suffered under the burden of coercive social pressures while scraping by on substandard wages and hand-me-downs, retold in this modern American moment.
Jayaraman’s tales gave me a new reason to dig into the story behind Bissinger’s photo and the circumstances surrounding Edna Lewis’s tenure at Café Nicholson. Reading contemporary reviews of the restaurant, I learned that Lewis rose to fame there while serving simple and elegant dishes like roast chicken, which Clementine Paddleford, the reigning national critic of the day, described as “brown as a chestnut, fresh from the burr.” She also favored Lewis’s chocolate soufflé, which was “light as a dandelion seed in a wind.” In the New York Times archives, I discovered that the 1948 partnership offer from Nicholson was timely for Lewis, who grew up on a farm near Freetown, Virginia, but had no other demonstrable experience in the industry. At the time they began working together, Nicholson told a reporter, “Edna was about to take a job as a domestic.”
Café Nicholson employed a conceit that presaged the reigning white-tablecloth aesthetic of today. “We’ll serve only one thing a day,” Nicholson said to Lewis, as they schemed their first menus. “Buy the best quality and I don’t see how we can go wrong.” Long before farm-to-table was a marketing concept, Lewis was challenging chefs to learn “from those who worked hard, loved the land, and relished the fruits of their labors.” Her approach, like her cooking, was straightforward. In a 1989 interview, she told the New York Times, “As a child in Virginia, I thought all food tasted delicious. After growing up, I didn’t think food tasted the same, so it has been my lifelong effort to try and recapture those good flavors of the past.”
The archives at NYU, where Nicholson deposited his papers, yielded a cache of Bissinger photographs that made clear the afternoon he captured in that iconic image was not singular. More important, I discovered that I was not the only one who saw metaphorical possibilities in that 1949 black and white. In October 2007, Smithsonian magazine published Gore Vidal’s gauzy recollection of that moment at table on Johnny Nicholson’s patio. “For me, Karl Bissinger’s picture is literally historic, so evocative of a golden moment,” he wrote, with the mixture of brio, ego, and privilege that was his signature. “I don’t know what effect the picture has on those who now look at it, but I think it perfectly evokes an optimistic time in our history that we are not apt to see again soon.”
With that dispatch, Vidal, who wrote the introduction to The Luminous Years: Portraits at Mid-Century, a collection of Bissinger’s photographs, was finished. But Smithsonian wasn’t. Two months after Vidal’s recollection ran, the magazine published a letter to the editor by Edward Weintraut of Macon, Georgia. “I am troubled that his text does not make the slightest reference to the black waitress,” wrote Weintraut, a professor at Mercer University. “I found myself wondering whether she shared Vidal’s view about this time being so optimistic, whether she would welcome a revival of the society and culture in which this scene is embedded, whether she enjoyed a similar golden moment as the author and his friends did during lunches at Café Nicholson.”
Over the years, I’ve taken a number of swipes at the “good food” movement. Because I think too many of its members are surfing trends and indulging passions that will prove dalliances, instead of forging a true path toward a better-fed future, I’ve referred to overzealous twenty-somethings trying to effect change in our broken food system as agri-poseurs. After hearing Jayaraman speak, and after tracing the reception of the Bissinger photo, I recognize that my real complaint is that too much of the attention now focused on food skews toward natural resources instead of human resources—and that imbalance has proved more egregious when it comes to people of color.
Recent victories, won by groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which fights for the rights of tomato pickers in Florida, watermelon harvesters in Georgia, and others, have begun to right the wrongs in the fields. But precious little work has been done to address the plight of restaurant workers. The “meal that arrives at your table when you eat out is not just a product of raw ingredients,” Jayaraman wrote in Behind the Kitchen Door. “It’s a product of the hands that chop, cook, and plate it and the people to whom those hands belong.”
It’s a product too, of the men and women who serve that meal. Base wages for waiters and waitresses have not risen in more than twenty years. The notion that servers should be ill-paid conjures too easily a time when a permanent American underclass was defined by skin color. Today, the restaurant industry remains one of the last bulwarks of a system in which nameless workers of color labor out of sight, and often out of mind.
Readers with better eyesight than mine probably recognized on first glance that the woman in that photograph was not the same woman who appeared on the cover of The Taste of Country Cooking,wearing a lilac dress, picking tomatoes in a summer field bordered with sunflowers. Virginia Reed served the crowd that day. She wasn’t a metaphor. She was bone and flesh. Scott Peacock, who co-wrote Lewis’s fourth book, The Gift of Southern Cooking, published in 2003, and is now finishing a solo book about their relationship, told me that Nicholson and Lewis both called Reed a “character,” which I take to mean that she was a woman with a quick wit and a bawdy humor. She was also the cook with a clock in her head, who had an uncanny ability to divine the exact moment when the Café Nicholson chocolate soufflé was ready to pull from the oven. Not much else is known about her life, which was often the case with the black workers who ran Southern restaurants in the twentieth century, and is now often the case with the twenty-first-century immigrants who have replaced them on the cooking line, at the dish bin, and on the dining room floor.
I’m pretty sure that Bissinger did not intend that his photograph be read as a metaphor for the exclusion of black labor from conversations about excellence in the culinary arts. Along the path of my argument, Bissinger was a fellow traveler, which is to say that he, like Lewis, had once been a member of the Communist Party, focused on workers’ rights, the sort of thinker who would have owned up to a sin of omission. But I’m the petite bourgeois fellow who forced this issue. To do good work in the world of Southern food, I’ve come to believe, we have to start by paying down the debts of pleasure we owe to the men and women who sustain our society. For me, that means acknowledging Virginia Reed, the woman with the glowing smile and the clock in her head who brought that pot of tea to the table in 1949. For restaurateurs of today, that means renouncing the lobbying work of the other NRA, paying employees a working wage, and as Jayaraman puts it, taking the high road to profitability.
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