We Need to Thank Edna Lewis for Teaching Us the Joys of Eating Seasonally
When I first started writing about food in San Diego in the ’90s, local and seasonal food was what everyone was buzzing about. On the West Coast that meant California cuisine, Slow Food, and fascination with the flashy restaurants celebrity chefs were opening in Las Vegas. Looking back, I wish I’d known more about Edna Lewis, and the lessons she shared decades earlier about the beauty in authentic Southern cuisine, and eating with the seasons in her rural Virginia home town.
Although my parents are from rural Mississippi and Arkansas, I was nurtured in the suburbs north of Chicago. My most meaningful link to the South was through the foods that my mother’s relatives, reared in Mississippi, made: crisp golden catfish always paired with spicy spaghetti, the tender mustard and turnip green mix dotted with pink and white striped ham, and Aunt Fannie’s chocolate meringue pie with just a touch of lemon, and her teacakes, a recipe now lost to time. My only other glimpse into the delights of country life were my mother and aunt’s threadbare stories of making mud pies, braiding grass, catching catfish in a creek, eating possum and squirrel, and all the old folks’ herbal remedies, like asphidity to ward off colds.
But it was like an expansive new vista on Southern rural life opened this summer, when I binged on the feast of stories and recipes in The Taste of Country Cooking, Lewis’s treasured cookbook and memoir. During quarantine and this summer of Black Lives Matter, I’ve been exploring my Black culinary heritage, and chefs that didn’t get their due during their lifetimes. Lewis made me see my relatives’ home cooking and their life in the rural South in a new way — just as she did for the rest of the country. Really, she’s the one we need to thank for teaching us to appreciate the joys of seasonal eating.
From the first pages of The Taste of Country Cooking, Lewis transports readers with her memories of Freeport, Virginia, the idyllic Black town where she grew up, and the local foods the community planted, harvested, and enjoyed in season. There are stories of crisp shad roe and wild asparagus in spring; summer suppers of Virginia ham with red gravy and ripe melon with salt and pepper; and cool-weather delights like newly dug sweet potatoes, cold roasted pheasant, and country-fried apples.
Lewis carefully studied when each food was at its peak, and her book shares the best way to capture those flavors. We learn that summer is the best time for fried chicken because that’s when the best fryers mature; corn should be shucked on the first moonlit night in October; and persimmons taste best just after a frost that concentrates the flavors. She shares secrets of flavor that only farmers, or people who lived close to the land, knew.
Lewis left her Virginia home at 15 for the adventure of New York City, where she worked as a dressmaker and later opened Café Nicholson with a friend. Thanks to her storytelling, insights, and sense of wonder, Lewis is credited as being the figure to get New York food influencers, like James Beard and Craig Claiborne, to cotton to an expansive view of Southern cuisine that transcended fried chicken and biscuits. She helped diners see that American stone-ground grits, fresh black-eyed peas, and heirloom pork raised on hazelnuts and persimmons were just as praiseworthy as Italian polenta, spring favas, and prosciutto di Parma.
Rafia Zafar, a professor of English and African American studies at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Recipes for Respect, says cooking at Café Nicholson and Gage & Tollner, a Brooklyn institution for oysters and steak, put Lewis in the right place to connect with both food luminaries and literary ones, including Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, and celebrities like Gloria Vanderbilt and Marlon Brando. It was an exciting intersection of talent, and Lewis was at the middle of it all. Having Judith Jones, the famous Alfred Knopf editor who published The Diary of Anne Frank and Julia Child, behind her didn’t hurt either, says Zafar.
When Lewis published The Taste of Country Cooking in 1976, the landscape of Southern cooking looked very different from today. The Brennan restaurant family, Paul Prudhomme, and Justin Wilson were touting New Orleans’ Cajun cuisine, and Leah Chase was the reigning queen of Creole. John Egerton wouldn’t release Southern Food, his seminal road trip though dishes like po’ boys and barbecue, until 1987. Much of this was souped-up restaurant food: salty, buttery, and fried, sometimes served with a side of y’all come back. Nobody ate this way every day. Lewis celebrated a more real and accessible Southern cuisine. Her food was from the earth, built around seasonality, vegetables, and healthier dishes. Lewis was the evangelist for Southern seasonal food, as well as the way Black people from rural places cooked and ate.
During a phone call with Alice Waters (the iconic chef and restaurateur who wrote the foreword to the 30th anniversary edition of The Taste of Country Cooking), she told me she thought Lewis was so influential because of her deep belief in the importance of Southern food. “She was a very strong woman, a very determined person,” she explained. “Really food was the way of her expressing her love … she fell in love with taste, and that’s what happened to me too. That taste comes with seasonality, with ripeness, that’s where taste is, and so she followed her garden.”
Zafar adds that it was almost like a higher calling. “Lewis is someone … who sees her work as a sankofa,” says Zafar. (Sankofa is a Ghanaian word that means something you understand by looking back at the past. “If you look at her introduction she says she’s writing it for the next generation.”)
Scott Peacock was a young chef cooking at the Georgia Governor’s mansion when he fell under the spell of the woman he respectfully calls Miss Lewis. His family had grown okra, corn, and other crops in rural Alabama, but Peacock was eager to shed his country roots.
He wrangled an invitation to an event where Miss Lewis was speaking — and cooking — and was fortunate to find himself chatting with her. He confided that he longed to visit Tuscany to learn about Italian cuisine. “She said you should really learn about your own food before you go studying someone else’s,” Peacock told me. “I had no idea of what she could possibly be talking about. And that certainly wasn’t what I wanted to hear.”
At the time, he says, Southern food, along with drawls and y’alls, were looked down upon. Popular TV shows included Green Acres, The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle, and The Beverly Hillbillies. “It was aw shucks, good old boys and Granny Clampett was always cooking up something that was a punchline,” says Peacock. And who wanted to identify with that?
But Lewis’ turtle soup at the dinner that night was “transcendent.” That dish, which was the epitome of country cuisine, made Peacock reconsider his family foodways. Peacock’s father wasn’t formally educated (he dropped out of high school to join the Navy), but he knew that quail tasted better after dry aging for a day or so. He also knew that sweet corn tastes sweetest the day it’s harvested; after that, they fed it to their animals. Cooks from the city had to wait to read these bits of mother wit in books by culinary scientists like Shirley Corriher and Harold McGee. Lewis helped Peacock respect his culinary heritage, which inspired him to specialize in Southern cuisine, first at Horseradish Grill and then Watershed in Atlanta, where he earned a James Beard Best Chef of the Southeast in 2007 and an Outstanding Chef nomination.
Peacock became Lewis’s closest confidante, co-author of her last book, The Gift of Country Cooking, and caretaker at the end of her life. Of all the recipes in her repertoire, he said she especially enjoyed BlancMange (p. 14-15), a delicate almond gelatin; Yeast Rolls (p. 11-13) and Chicken Gelatine (p.83-84), a succulent casserole flavored with butter and thyme. He believes her work endures because it’s so honest. “She presented something that was very clean and fresh and pure without stereotype and apology,” he says. “It was beautiful and desirable and all would long to experience that on some level.”
I wish I had delved into Lewis’ culinary tales earlier in my life. But I’m grateful for 2020’s Black cultural renaissance, and I’m happy I’ve had the chance to explore the welcoming food culture in places like Louisville, Nashville, and Austin. Better late than never, right? If, like me, you’re feeling a little sad that you never got to know Edna Lewis during her lifetime, don’t despair. You’ll find comfort in the pages of The Taste of Country Cooking. “Once you read that book, you will know her,” Peacock says. “It’s a masterpiece and every syllable is her and is true as can be.”