Edna Lewis, cooking farm to table before it had a name

I’ve been given the special opportunity to travel to Savannah, one of the South’s, and America’s, jewels to participate in a panel discussion on the topic of Edna Lewis, one of the 20th century’s most influential chefs and cook book authors, and a towering figure in the history of Southern cooking. She also happens to be the single most important influence on my own cooking and philosophy of food, so I’m over the moon with excitement to get a chance to be at Savannah Food & Wine Festival with some of the best culinary and literary talent in Southern food. Since I’m excited to talk about farm to table cooking and Miss Edna Lewis, I thought I’d share some thoughts on why you should be interested in her story, and why so many great chefs count her as a key figure of inspiration.

Edna Lewis was born in 1916 in a little town called Freetown in the Virginia Piedmont, not far from the famous Jeffersonian landmark, Monticello. Freetown was a different kind of settlement, in that is was settled by freed slaves including Miss Lewis’ grandfather, hence the name. This small, agrarian community was one in which food was central to daily life in a way we can scarcely understand today – everyone in the family was, by necessity, involved in the process of getting food on the table in one way or another. This might be by growing crops, vegetables, or foraging for wild fruits, vegetables, or mushrooms, going fishing or tending the dairy cows, and helping with the annual hog killing each winter. Once food was procured, it had to be processed or preserved and eventually cooked; peas had to be shelled, beans snapped and strung, corn shucked and put up in the crib, bacon salted and smoked, and all the other daily tasks that kept every member of the family busy in the pursuit of eating.

It was a way of life that Edna Lewis wrote about in her landmark book The Taste of Country Cooking (Knopf, 1976) which, while it wasn’t her first or her last cookbook, has become her signature work as the book resembles a “memoirs of the table” as much as it does a cookbook. Throughout its pages she memorializes the way of eating she knew growing up in Freetown, and what engrosses me every time I pick it up is how clearly she was blessed with a loving family and community that had the kind of dedication required to take the time to eat the way they did. Sure, by necessity they had to feed themselves, but to feed themselves as well as they did required a tremendous work ethic and commitment to one another to make the table a special place, one not just of sustenance but also of celebration, both of the Earth’s gifts but also of the repast taken after the labors of getting the food to the table.

The Taste of Country Cooking, published in 1976, is remarkable in another important way: it is laid out in seasonal menus, this long before any big city chefs had any pretension of seasonal cooking, much less buying from local farms. It would be several years before the idea started to take hold in some elite California restaurants before the trend became nationwide. It was revolutionary. To Miss Lewis, this was just how to eat.

The book is even what some chefs might now call hyper-seasonal, whereby a menu might change daily to reflect the local produce available right now, today, rather than in a more diluted spirit of what’s more generally “in season.” You learn when to get the shad and why that early spring day means certain accompaniments will be on the table, or why there’s bacon grease around in which to fry it. The first time I read the book, I became obsessed with the simple dish of creamed scallions because of her elegant explanation of the reasoning behind it – as the cows in the field are feasting on the lush, first-of-the-year green growth, they make the most delicious cream of the whole year, and what better to do with it than sauce the fresh green shoots of my favorite vegetable? Once we were lucky enough to find a small local pasture-based dairy to supply my restaurant with non-homogenized milk and cream much like that Edna Lewis had known, I began to notice the seasonality of the dairy, and the cream is by far at its most delicious at the beginning of Spring, when the pastures are as lush and green as they will be all year. And, each Spring you’re likely to find that simple dish on my menu, just for a few weeks.

There’s so much wisdom in her writing I could list examples until this blog is a mile long, but I also learned to appreciate the intimacy in the way she conveys her stories about food. She tells you the story in such well-crafted literary pictures that you are there, right next to her, on the farm, next to the stream, or in the kitchen. It’s as if she’s holding your hand.

For me personally, as a child of a German-American mountain farming family on one side, and a Ulster-Black Dutch Appalachian hillbilly family on the other side, one of the most important aspects of Edna Lewis’ cooking is how it transcends race. I’ve read the book so many times, I’m often able to close my eyes and listen to her tell me the stories in my mind, and it’s easy to dream and imagine it as my own family’s cooking. We had a strong work ethic too, and my family ate seasonally and close to the land as well, by necessity. We haven’t been blessed with such a gifted culinary writer as Miss Edna Lewis, but I think her writing is a gift to all of us, and since most of us Americans at one time lived in the country on farms and ate very much the same way, you might find some of your own family’s history within the pages of The Taste of Country Cooking. But, whether you are able to take the book so personally as I have, there is no question that through her stories of life on the farm, our common humanity emerges as we are able to feel the love and warmth of family and community. It’s the most human, compassionate cook book I’ve ever read.

Edna Lewis was able to take this upbringing with her throughout her life and forged a brilliant career first as a chef, then as an author. In many ways you could describe her life as magical, to be born the granddaughter of freed slaves and go on to be the chef of one of New York’s most celebrated restaurants in the early 1950’s, when women chefs we unheard of and African American women chefs, even less so. She penned what could easily be called the first, farm-to-table seasonal cookbook in the United States. The funny thing about it is, I don’t think she was trying to prove anything, or even trying to make a bold statement. She simply wrote, and cooked as, what food meant to her. In many ways, however, this was a bold statement in and of itself.

Through her writings, I came to realize that the real joys of cooking and eating come not from pushing the envelope needlessly while trying to come up with newer or novel versions of dishes as we big city chefs are endlessly pressured to do. The true joys of cooking and eating come from having the confidence to let a pot of peas be a pot of peas, or a chocolate soufflé be a chocolate soufflé. To me, that is more liberating than all of the ideas in all of the other chef-driven cookbooks of the last generation. To each chef, his or her own. I happened to find much of my voice through Edna Lewis.

A strange thing has happened over the last generation, as restaurants have become part of the fabric of everyday life and chefs seem to be the new celebrities du jour: African American talent has been overlooked, underserved, and underutilized. On recent trip to a Southern food mecca for a food and wine festival, I was perusing a publication by the city’s tourism bureau that is part of the hotel room literature package. On the back page of said publication, there was a photo montage of the city’s top chefs, about fifty of them. One was African American, in a city where they comprise 30% of the population.

We don’t often talk about race in our business unless it’s about immigration, but it’s a topic we should visit more often because it can tell us a lot about ourselves and the society we live in. Why are African Americans so underrepresented in our top culinary ranks today when more than 50 years ago, an African American woman blasted through the ceiling as if it was made of crepe paper? These are important questions that not only need answers, the underlying problems need real solutions. It’s hard to imagine Southern food today without the influence of Edna Lewis, but with each passing year it’s hard for me not to wonder what other talent and wisdom are we missing as African Americans, whose contribution to our culinary history is enormous, continue to be overlooked as talent today. Surely we are all poorer for the status quo.

I’m proud of my friend, Chef Joe Randall of Savannah, for uniting many of his colleagues and launching the Edna Lewis Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the cultivation and preservation of African American culinary heritage. One of the key missions of this organization will be promoting and advancing young African American culinary talent in an industry that is dominated by Caucasians. It’s my sincerest hope that by working with the foundation toward its goals, the future for all of us will look much more like the vision Edna Lewis’ dinner table lit up in my mind: a reflection of people at their best, and celebration of the many wants and needs we have in common; family, community, respect, love, and a beautiful, home-cooked meal.

edna lewis headshot