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Nonfiction Picture Book Review for Women’s History Month – Chef Edna

 

 

CHEF EDNA:
Queen of Southern Cooking, Edna Lewis

Written by Melvina Noel

Illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera

(Cameron Kids; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

Chef Edna cover queen of southern cooking edna lewis.

 

This mouthwatering, treat of a book introduces readers to Edna Regina Lewis, with illustrations that pair deliciously with the prose. I was ready to book a trip to the South to sample all the tasty cuisine mentioned in Chef Edna written by Melvina Noel and illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera. Just look at that inviting cover! It speaks to exactly what this picture book is all about.

 

Chef Edna int1 when Edna grew up on a farm.
Interior spread from Chef Edna: Queen of Southern Cooking, Edna Lewis written by Melvina Noel and illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera, Cameron Kids ©2023.

 

Growing up on a farm in Freetown, Virginia, Edna was one of six children. She spent her childhood “cooking with her mother, Mama Daisy.” Life on a farm offered fresh fruit, vegetables, meats, and fish year-round as well as the opportunity for young Edna to learn every recipe. She made her mama’s biscuits “so many times she could make them by heart.” That and other tricks, such as listening to a cake to know whether it’s done (A bubbling sound meant it needed to cook more. No sound meant it was done.) became ingrained in Edna.

 

Chef Edna int2 making biscuits
Interior art from Chef Edna: Queen of Southern Cooking, Edna Lewis written by Melvina Noel and illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera, Cameron Kids ©2023.

 

When Edna’s father passed away, she left home at age 15 to work to help support her mother and the family. She headed to New York and did a host of jobs. Her seamstress skills brought her to the attention of celebrities and soon she was “making clothes for movie stars.” One of my favorite illustrations not shown here is of Edna strolling down a Manhattan street wearing one of her own designs with African motifs and “bright, bold colors.” And, while this brought in much-needed money, Edna still yearned for the farm in Freetown, being with family, and enjoying all the delicious Southern food she was raised on.

Edna met many people through her seamstress work. She “catered events and threw dinner parties for her new friends.” Everyone appreciated her scrumptious cooking infused with a love of the South. Demand grew. It’s easy for us to forget that today, with such a variety of food available that, in late 1940s New York, a female chef, let alone a Black female chef, serving up flavors of her hometown down south, was not common on the Upper East Side where she opened a restaurant with a partner. Famous people including poets, playwrights, and even a First Lady flocked there to see for themselves what Southern cuisine was all about.

 

Chef Edna int3 simple pure ingredients.
Interior spread from Chef Edna: Queen of Southern Cooking, Edna Lewis written by Melvina Noel and illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera, Cameron Kids ©2023.

 

With New York now her home, Edna continued to seek out “fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, and fish. Fresh seasonal farm-to-table ingredients for Southern cooking,” at Union Square Green Market. When I was growing up that market had long disappeared but it’s back again which I know would make Edna smile. Cabrera’s artwork in muted tones with brush strokes showing, conveys a thriving market of a bygone era.

In her lifetime, Edna the granddaughter of formerly enslaved people, worked at many different jobs where her creativity was put to good use whether as a window dresser, a seamstress, a cooking teacher, a cookbook author, or a chef. This “Grand Dame of Southern Cooking” worked in her later years to preserve Southern food, and was honored not only with numerous awards, but was featured on a U.S. Postal stamp in 2014! Since dates are not mentioned, readers may not always get a clear sense of the timespan in this biography but it’s clear from the art and backmatter that Edna never really slowed down noting that Edna worked “well into her early seventies.” The author has chosen an inspiring subject for this picture book that might even influence young readers to pursue a career as a chef.

After you finish the book, be sure to read Noel’s interesting Author’s Note and try your hand at Edna’s “Biscuits for Two or Three.” I know I will! Don’t forget to look under the book jacket for a sweet “undies” surprise from Cabrera.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Want to read more for Women’s History Month? Click here.

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Picture Book Review for Women’s History Month – Born Hungry

 

 

BORN HUNGRY:
Julia Child Becomes “the French Chef”

Written by  Alex Prud’homme

Illustrated by Sarah Green 

(Calkins Creek; $18.99 Ages 5-9)

 

 

BornHungryJuliaChildbyAlexPrud'hommeCover

 

 

Starred Review – The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

 

Julia Child’s grandnephew and the coauthor of her best-selling autobiography, My Life in France, has written an irresistibly delicious read if a picture book can be described that way. And, when coupled with Sarah Green’s gorgeous, mouth-watering illustrations, you might just have to run out and grab yourself a pain au chocolat to satisfy your craving after finishing Born Hungry.

This picture book memoir chronicles the travels, tastes, and meals that Julia Child experienced throughout her life, ultimately influencing her foray into cooking and broadcasting career as TV’s first-ever celebrity chef.  One apt and popular quote, “I was born hungry, not a cook” really sums up the essence of what this engaging bio is all about.

 

Born Hungry int1
Interior spread from Born Hungry: Julia Child Becomes “the French Chef” written by Alex Prud’homme and illustrated by Sarah Green, Calkins Creek ©2022.

 

Readers meet the young Julia McWilliams who wore “size twelve sneakers, stood six feet, two inches tall, played basketball, laughed loudly, and was curious about everything.” The author goes on to explain that Julia’s activity led to her having a rather large appetite. But because she grew up with a cook, she wasn’t encouraged to learn how to do so herself. Clearly, that did not stop her interest in food.

Early in her career during WWII, she worked in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), as a clerk typist for the US spy agency called the OSS. That posting introduced her to a wealth of new foods and it also introduced Julia to her future husband, Paul Child, who worked in the office next to hers. They shared the love of food, books, and travel. And while her love of cooking had yet to emerge, she did invent a recipe for shark repellant!

Back in the states after the war had ended, Julia made it her mission to learn how to cook. Now married, she thought cooking a meal would impress her husband. She even took a class but her attempts left something to be desired.

During a trip to Rouen in France, however, Julia had the best meal of her life, one that stayed with her and prompted a renewed interest to learn how to “make such a feast.” With Paul stationed in Paris for work, Julia enrolled in the renowned Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. She was the only female student and worked hard to hone her skills. She even read cookbooks in her free time! “I came to the conclusion I really must be French, only no one had ever informed me.” With her newly acquired expertise and love of French cuisine, Child eventually opened a cooking school with two friends.  She was committed to sharing what she’d learned with an emphasis on how “time and care” along with using fresh ingredients and reading the recipe before attempting to cook were key to creating “a thoroughly satisfying meal.”

 

Born Hungry int2
Interior spread from Born Hungry: Julia Child Becomes “the French Chef” written by Alex Prud’homme and illustrated by Sarah Green, Calkins Creek ©2022.

 

In the back matter, a comprehensive five-page Author’s Note details Julia’s life after 1961 when the couple retired from diplomatic service and relocated to Massachusetts. It’s in these pages readers learn about the cookbook that “changed Julia’s life.” Mastering the Art of French Cooking, written by Child along with two friends (and still in print), introduced an exciting new cooking approach to the American consumers who were hungry themselves to move on from canned goods to fresh ingredients in recipes that were fun to make. From there it was a public TV cooking show, followed by a long and illustrious career in the public eye. The rest, as they say, is history. If your appetite’s been whet, take advantage of Julia’s scrambled eggs recipe that is also included.

In Born Hungry, Prud’homme has perfectly captured Child’s zest for life (and the food in it) as well as her infectious personality that contributed to her enduring success. Green’s retro-looking art pops off the page and colorfully conveys both emotion and a keen sense of Child’s passion. For any parent or youngster who is curious about food and cooking, or looking for a positive example of a strong, influential woman who followed her dream, this picture book is a joy to read.

Click here for a Discussion Guide.

Read more about Alex Prud’homme here.

Read more about Sarah Green here.

For more information about Julia Child, please visit: juliachildfoundation.org

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