In one respect, Edna Lewis’s childhood put her at an advantage over many American chefs: She grew up knowing what food should taste like.
This happened in Freetown, a small farming community in central Virginia founded just after the Civil War by three newly emancipated Blacks, including Lewis’s grandfather, Chester Lewis. Freetown eventually grew to eight families who lived in a cluster of houses surrounded by their fields and barns. The Free People, as Lewis called them in her second book, The Taste of Country Cooking, were entirely self-sufficient. They grew, killed, cooked, or preserved almost everything they ate. There was no refrigeration, aside from an icehouse and a cooling box in a stream. The result was that all food in Freetown was served at its appropriate season, at the peak of its flavor. This went not just for fruits and vegetables, but also for fish, poultry, and meat: Fried chicken, for instance, was reserved for the few weeks in late spring and early summer when the young chickens were at their most tender. And if you missed it, you had to wait another year.
Freetown’s families shared their food and their labor. In Lewis’s writing, there’s a sense of the place as pure and untainted by American consumerism. (It’s probably no coincidence that as an adult, Lewis joined the Communist Party.) Freetown’s residents did not celebrate Thanksgiving; instead, every September, they celebrated Emancipation Day. In the winter months, the old men would sit around the stove and talk about the old days of chattel slavery. For Lewis as a little girl, there was a sense of safety and of awe: Once we were slaves, but now we are free.
‘‘She just didn’t have any notion that these people were less-than because they were poor farming people. She wanted to make their lives count,” Lewis’s niece Nina Williams-Mbengue told the writer Francis Lam in 2015, near the centenary of Lewis’s birth. ‘‘Imagine being enslaved, then rising above that to build your own town. Aunt Edna was always amazed that one of the first things they did was to plant orchards, so that their children would see the fruit of their efforts. How could those pricommunities have such a gift? Was it that the future had to be so bright because they knew the past that they were coming out of?’’
There is no sense in Lewis’s work of privation and hardship, only hard work richly rewarded. There’s also no sense of what some readers may consider the harsh realities of life in the Jim Crow South. But then again, there were no white people in Freetown. And most children, unless they are incredibly unlucky, get to feel safe and protected in their own small world. Whatever Lewis knew or didn’t know about the outside world, the Freetown that she chose to remember and record in her books in clear, bracing prose was a sort of paradise. But it didn’t even survive her childhood: It was lost to the Great Depression. Lewis herself left in 1931 after the death of her father, joining the Great Migration to Washington, D.C., and then New York City. She was 16.
“I didn’t have any feelings about leaving,” she said later, “none at all. That was the Depression. What kind of work was I going to do on the farm?” But in the North, she discovered, nothing tasted right.
A lot of what Lewis did during the next 40 years remains unknown. Or, rather, we only know what she chose to share. But it’s a matter of public record that in 1949, she became the cook and also a part-owner of Cafe Nicholson, a tiny, opulent restaurant on the Upper East Side founded by two men who had tasted her cooking at Communist Party potlucks. She had no formal training aside from watching her mother and aunts in the kitchen back in Freetown, but that was more than enough. Cafe Nicholson quickly became a hangout for visiting celebrities and homesick Southerners. There was no menu: Customers ate what Lewis chose to serve them. Truman Capote habitually barged into the kitchen to demand biscuits. Clementine Paddleford, the food editor at the New York Herald Tribune, gave her a rave review, particularly for the roast chicken and chocolate souffle, and described Lewis “peering in from the kitchen, just to see the effect on the guests and hear the echoes of praise.”
And then after a few years, Lewis left Cafe Nicholson, maybe, some theorize, because her husband, Steve Kingston, a fellow traveler in the Communist Party, found her uptown cooking too decadent. They moved to New Jersey and ran a pheasant farm for a while. They returned to New York, Kingston died, and Lewis worked as a lecturer in the Hall of African Peoples at the American Museum of Natural History. At least that’s the story that keeps getting repeated. No official biographer has appeared to fill in the gaps.
In the early ’70s, while Lewis was laid up with a broken leg, her friend Evangeline Peterson convinced her to compile a cookbook of her recipes from Cafe Nicholson. The result was The Edna Lewis Cookbook, published in 1972. But before that book even reached the printers, Judith Jones, the most influential cookbook editor at the time and maybe ever, got wind of it and invited Lewis in for a chat. They got to talking about Lewis’s childhood, and Jones asked Lewis to write down her stories, and then Lewis, with the help of her sister Jenny who had remained in Virginia, painstakingly recreated the recipes. The fruit of their efforts was Lewis’s second cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking, published in 1976.
Lewis’s country cooking was not soul food. Soul food was Northern, not Southern. It was the food of privation, of people making do with scraps and things from cans to substitute for ingredients they missed from back home (though later, this became a source of pride). Or, as Lewis put it, “That’s hard-times food in Harlem, not true Southern food.” The Southern food Lewis had grown up with was the cuisine that had been developed by Black cooks on plantations, a combination of African and European techniques using the freshest ingredients. Southern food was the food of plenty.
The book made Lewis famous. By then she had evolved into her final form: a stately woman who wore her white hair in an elegant knot at the back of her head and habitually dressed in African gowns she sewed herself. Despite her many years in the North, she still spoke with a Virginia accent, and there was something about her manner that inspired old-fashioned respect: Everyone, even people who knew her well, referred to her as “Miss Lewis.”
What the book did not do was make her rich. She continued to work in restaurant kitchens until she was 79 years old. In her old age, her friend and collaborator Scott Peacock (they co-wrote The Gift of Southern Cooking) also became her roommate and caregiver, and Alice Waters arranged a fundraiser among fellow chefs so she could pay her bills, which all seems in the spirit of Freetown. And yet still not enough, considering the tremendous influence she had on American cooking.
While The Taste of Country Cooking is a poetic look back at Lewis’s childhood world, its 1988 follow-up, In Pursuit of Flavor, is more practical, less of a memoir and more of a conventional cookbook for the modern world. The Taste of Country Cooking is a joy to read, but the recipes are absolutely tied to Freetown. Anyone who tries to recreate them with ingredients from a different terroir (please, let’s not even consider the supermarket) is only setting themselves up for failure. In Pursuit of Flavor recognizes this problem and attempts to remedy it. “I have noticed that as people get older, they’re apt to complain that food simply does not taste as good as it used to,” Lewis writes.” I don’t believe this has to be true, and that is why I have tried, in working on these recipes, to give you all kinds of suggestions to make food taste the way you remember it.”
Or, more precisely, the way Lewis remembered it. More than half a century may have passed since she left Freetown, but her taste memory was impeccable, and she had worked hard to develop her techniques for recreating those flavors, even in a Northern city. It wasn’t easy. Most supermarkets in the ’80s didn’t stock locally grown vegetables or freshly caught fish, let alone anything organic. Farmers markets were rare. Many people still believed margarine was a good idea.
Lewis ordered her readers to buy the freshest food they could sniff out (literally), to demand it from their butchers and fishmongers if they had to. She abhorred plastic and advised re-wrapping meat and vegetables in foil or waxed paper and decanting milk and cream into glass bottles to keep it colder. She thought commercial double-acting baking powder had a bitter aftertaste and invented her own recipe. She could tell a cake was done by the sounds it made.
Even if you’re not growing or killing your own ingredients, getting things to taste the way they should is a lot of work. It’s also expensive. But for Lewis, that’s no excuse: “With cheap wine, cheap sherry, cheap anything,” she writes, “you cannot get good flavor.”
True enough. As I learned to my cost when I attempted to make Lewis’s Shrimp Sauteed with Butter, Garlic, and Parsley. Although Lewis was adamant that shrimp should be fresh because getting good flavor from defrosted shrimp is chancy, I decided to forge ahead with some precooked shrimp that had been hanging out in my freezer for quite a while. And indeed, they heated up chewy and bland, though passable enough to land in my stomach instead of the kitchen trash. I imagined Miss Lewis leaning over my shoulder and whispering what a fool I was. After I made a rubbery cornbread with stone-ground yellow cornmeal instead of water-ground white cornmeal — again, it was in the cupboard, I didn’t feel like running out to the store — I imagined she might actually be offended. Why on earth was I ignoring her superior taste memory and hard-won expertise from a lifetime in the kitchen? Who was I, who grew up in the Northern suburbs in the ’80s on a diet of processed food, to doubt her?
And she would have been right. I have never had to grow, capture, or kill my own dinner. I don’t know what it’s like to wait all year for corn or fried chicken or even strawberries. Everything I could ever possibly want has always been available to me on the shelves of overly refrigerated supermarkets. The only exceptions are garlic scapes, cherries, and sandwich-worthy tomatoes and yes, I treat them with far more reverence because they are so rare.
As Lewis wrote in her posthumously published essay “What Is Southern?,” “We grew the seeds of what we ate, we worked with love and care.” That’s what would have made all the ingredients used in Freetown kitchens so precious. Maybe they genuinely did taste better, but by showing them respect, you also honor your own labor and the labor of your family and neighbors.
I finally began to appreciate this when I made the Peach Cobbler with Nutmeg Sauce. It was the first day peaches were available at my neighborhood farmers market. I skinned and chopped them, sandwiched them between two layers of sugar, and covered it all with a stick and a half of butter cut into thin slices (this is not a typo; and there’s another stick and a half of butter in the crust). This is the sort of cobbler that has a top and bottom crust, both made from pastry dough. Why is it a cobbler and not a pie? I’m not sure; this is a question best answered by a Southerner. It’s not for me to question anything so divine. The sugar, butter, and juice from the peaches melt together into a sort of nectary caramel. The pastry is flaky and crisp, almost as though it’s been laminated. There’s no soggy bottom, maybe because the bottom crust has to rest in the fridge for a while, covered by a thin blanket of sugar. The nutmeg sauce is really a nutmeg-seasoned syrup, and it also tastes good on other things, like pancakes and banana bread. Everyone who tried this cobbler was in awe.
It always sounds insincere when a food writer declares something the best [fill in blank] they have ever eaten. So I will say this instead: It was worth waiting all year for. Which may actually be the greater praise. Who would have thought, with all the food technology available to us, that the best way to make things taste good is to treat them with respect? And it’s silly that we needed someone to remind us of this, but here we are. Thank goodness Edna Lewis remembered.
Aimee Levitt is a freelance writer in Chicago.