The Edna Lewis Foundation, and why it matters

I received via the Southern Foodways Alliance on Twitter, a wonderful bit of news the other day – The Edna Lewis Foundation has been granted 501(c)3 status with the mission to promote African American culinary heritage. I’m sure for the founders this was extra sweet as we are in the midst of African American History Month, and Miss Lewis has earned a special place in that history.

I’d argue that the most powerful aspect of Edna Lewis’ legacy is how fluently her cooking transcends race – her foundation was 100% grounded in the African American experience, but as you might gather from the title of her signature literary work The Taste of Country Cooking, that experience is larger than race – her cooking was about her personal experience growing up in a small African American agricultural community in the Virginia Piedmont, it’s an American experience, it’s human. For me personally, the book was as important for what it didn’t say as what it did – throughout its pages I was able to live, vicariously, a bygone American way of life, and what dumbfounded me and still does to this day is how eloquently this one single work puts the lie to every racist misconception of not just African American cooking, but of the intelligence and industry of folks of African descent.

Over the years, many forward thinking African Americans have turned their backs on soul food, believing it to be the product of evolved slave kitchen cooking and the labors of poverty, and since I haven’t walked a mile in their shoes, I cannot understand and certainly not judge that particular viewpoint and recognize it as a logical conclusion of thoughtful, intelligent people, while many African Americans continue to embrace it as their heritage, for better or for worse. What I can vouch for is that most white people think of African American cooking within this very narrow set of soul food dishes, and while many white folks love at least some soul food for what it is, the fact that almost every white person I know thinks African American cooking = fried chicken, catfish, greens, sweet potato pie, etc. is perhaps the most powerful evidence of lingering racism in America today. Stop putting African Americans in that box, just stop it! Yes, African Americans have a history with those very foods and they are delicious, but they represent such a tiny sliver of their history and heritage (a heritage you and I share with them as Edna Lewis can show you) that to make soul food the beginning and end of the African American Culinary Story is absurd, to put it nicely.  If you need therapy for your narrow preconceptions of African American culinary heritage, your treatment begins with a thorough reading of The Taste of Country Cooking.

Agribusiness and the food processing industry would have us all believe that before they figured out how to make chemical fertilizers from fossil fuels and to make shelf-stable culinary fats that resemble plastic more than they reserve food, we were all eating gruel and starvation was rampant. Where that was true, it was true as it still is today – hunger and malnutrition are the product of inadequate distribution of food and lack of access. Edna Lewis showed what was always true, which is that if folks – black or white (or name the race or creed) – had access to food, especially the land to produce it, we in fact ate better back then than we do even today.

Compare the menu Miss Lewis proposes for a n Emancipation Day dinner, with what can be had on the menu at a Chili’s, or from the refrigerator case at Jewel, and bear in mind, this was all grown and processed at their home, no jars of jam or brown-n-serve laziness here:

Guinea Fowl in Casserole Garnished with Watercress

Steamed Wild Rice

Green Bean Salad with Sliced Tomatoes

Grape Jelly

Parker House Rolls with Butter

Purple Plum Tart or Stewed Quince with Special Cookies

In context, but one generation removed from bondage, you might find this extraordinary as a menu you might like to see in an upscale Contemporary American restaurant even today. What’s even more extraordinary is that Edna Lewis could translate the cooking of her heritage in a way that makes it come alive in a way that is relevant for all Americans with a history in the country, at the same time putting the lie to the narrow preconceptions of African American cooking perpetrated by a media culture more interested in selling ideas that are easy to understand rather than pursuing the complex truths of the history of African American food traditions.

It’s true that this was all hard work, but these days we also work hard, often in unsatisfying careers, in order to be able to buy food produced without the kind of love, family, and community that Miss Lewis knew growing up and spent her life championing. I believe it’s always time to assess where we are and how we got here, and now is as good a time as any. Every time I pick up The Taste of Country Cooking, I can’t help but be overcome with angst at how horribly misguided our food system has become in this country and that strikes right at the heart of my own family, as I consider our history as a family of the land and my heritage coming from a long line of farmers.

Personally, The Taste of Country Cooking took me back home through generations of my own family and their experience, from putting calves to pasture in the spring to making homemade wine in the summer and fall and butchering hogs in the winter, not to mention the joys of fishing and picking berries and putting the fruits of those efforts on the table. Even as she became, against all odds, a famous chef in New York, her cooking never tried to be anything. It just was. There was a confidence in the seasons and simplicity that I still struggle with every day. In her words, American life as both of our families knew it is so vivid, so real and compelling beyond even her words, it elevates the meaning of our common heritage in a way that I still grasp to communicate, except to say it is our common heritage. Her family could so very well be mine, and I’d think she would say the same of my family and hers were she alive today. That’s powerful stuff, and it’s instilled in me a desire to pursue our oneness in my own personal way, something I’m still coming to terms with and what I suspect will be a lifelong journey.

In light of what I’ve just said about her first book (though all of her books are must-haves, especially the collaboration with Scott Peacock) there is a giant, hulking elephant in the room when we consider the state of the good food movement, and from the elephant emanates a fetid odor. That odor is the extreme whiteness of the good food movement, something that ultimately threatens the success of what we are trying to build but more importantly, threatens our very equality, our solidarity, and the justice we all seek for the land, air, and water, all of which are linked to every singe human being regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or creed.

I’m so proud of my involvement with the Green City Market and the many charities we work with every year, but I have to point out that it strikes me every year at the Green City Market’s Chef Barbecue and similar events – if the crowd got any whiter I might think I was at a Phish concert. I enjoy volunteering in the schools and (hopefully) inspiring young children of all races to cook, definitely at home and for those inclined, professionally down the road. But I’ll say this – there is no ultimate good and no ultimate justice if what we do doesn’t benefit people of all races and classes. In the words of the Southern Foodways Alliance, “Pastured pork and local collards should not be the province of wealthy patrons and gourmet fetishists.” They need to be the province of all. Everyone needs to be involved, we need to hear all voices as difficult as it is sometimes, and we all need to benefit. That starts with more listening and less pontificating.

To that end, the Edna Lewis Foundation seeks to promote African American culinary heritage and provide resources for professionals and more importantly, culinary students with scholarships and educational initiatives. The foundation is new and it is young, but it needs our support. Now is our chance to see the seeds planted by Edna Lewis grow into mighty plants that will someday bear fruit. We need more African American chefs, for their talent, their unique experiences and perspectives, and for their voices. We also need more African American culinary authors, writers, and tastemakers. Here’s a great opportunity for all of us, and another hat tip from me to Edna Lewis.

Taste of Country Cooking