Kingston Author Sara B. Franklin Tells Oral Food Histories

Photo by Natalie Conn

Oral historian and author Sara B. Franklin dishes on finding her career path and giving voice to stories of women in food and agriculture.

Sara B. Franklin’s first experiences with food were a bit… complex. During her childhood in the suburbs of Westchester, her parents made it clear that food was something to be enjoyed. Simultaneously, she was influenced by “mixed messages” of 90s diet culture — her home had both processed foods and a vegetable garden, and she remembers feeling conflicted about the enjoyment of cooking, especially with the advent of the Food Network. “It was not consistent with the feminism I was growing up with, which was go to work and hate cooking,” she notes.

But Franklin, 35, soon learned that food was rooted in kindness and empathy when the neighborhood women — always women, she adds — brought meals over while her mom combatted an illness. She went on to discover new ingredients and food cultures in Boston while studying public health and American history at Tufts University.

Sara B. Franklin in Tannersville, Greene County. Photo by Natalie Conn.
Sara B. Franklin in Tannersville, Greene County. Photo by Natalie Conn.

During her time there, Franklin fell head over heels in love with growing food while working at an organic farm. Her interests in “cooking, eating, health, social movements around equity and access all converged,” she says. The experience fundamentally changed everything — how she cooked, what she liked to eat, the kinds of food to keep in her pantry and refrigerator, and her attitude toward body image and ideas of fullness and hunger — and inspired a vocation.

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“I basically created a career that allows me to do what I want to do,” says Franklin, “which is to be nosy and get into people’s intimate spaces — meaning their kitchens — and talk to them about their lives,” she says.

“I never really know what I’m thinking until I write it down.”

It’s been quite the career. Franklin, a Kingston resident and mother of 5-year-old twins, has received high praise for her two books, Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original and The Phoenicia Diner Cookbook: Dishes and Dispatches from the Catskill Mountains (which she co-authored with Chris Bradley and Mike Cioffi). The latter was named a 2021 finalist for best American cookbook by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

Book jacket courtesy of University of North Carolina Press
Book jacket courtesy of University of North Carolina Press

Her next project (title is in the works) is a biography of the iconic Knopf cookbook editor, Judith Jones, best known for working with Julia Child. An authority on Jones, Franklin received a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholars Grant last year for the book.

“I never really know exactly what I’m thinking until I write it down,” says Franklin, explaining how she comes to her work, which explores food and agriculture and its ties to popular culture, media, performance of gender, care, and identity. “Journalism and the idea of going out into the world, talking to people and learning about their stories felt like an extension of my curiosity and how I understand the world. I didn’t know oral history was … a thing that existed until significantly later after college.”

Book jacket courtesy of University of Clarkson Potter
Book jacket courtesy of University of Clarkson Potter

Oral history involves in-depth, long-term projects with more personal and emotional “digging into people’s lives and histories in ways that are very different from the way I was taught biography and history,” she says. Franklin notes that history is predominantly told from the perspectives of white men; oral history, she explains, is one way of uncovering other stories, often in a more nuanced way.

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Franklin has written for numerous food and mainstream publications. She teaches food and oral history courses at NYU’s Gallatin School (she received her PhD in food studies from the university, too) and at its Prison Education Initiative at Wallkill Correctional Facility. She has also worked in sustainable agriculture farming at the American Museum of Natural History’s Our Global Kitchen exhibition and collaborated with agricultural and culinary activists in South Africa and Brazil.

Food was traditionally mocked as a field of study, says Franklin. Her goal is to add stories of women rooted in food and farming to the archives of history “to legitimize the record around how we think about food and how central it is to our identity. Because we all eat, food is a unique conduit for talking to people about their lives.”

Related: This Is How to Spend a 24-Hour Day Trip in Millbrook

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