In an age of reality shows like Hell’s Kitchen, Cake Boss and BBQ Pit Masters, with food and drink restaurant profits at $766B in 2016, Americans may be watching the Food Network, but they’re eating out. My family included, despite our grandfather being the first African American to own a restaurant in Cincinnati, Ohio. My mother used to tell stories about having to go to the restaurant before going off to school. She and her sisters, my aunts, would make pie crusts for cobblers or vegetables and meats for dishes that would be served for the day. My mother, being the youngest at the time, said that she would have to stand on a step-stool because she wasn’t tall enough to reach the cooking counter. One of my nieces texted me a few weeks ago asking for my mother’s rice pudding recipe. Everybody told her to ask me because I’m the only one who could have it. I’m also the only one who knows the art of “scratch-cooking.”
I don’t have that recipe, nor do I remember ever having it. Over the years, I have lost track of the 40 or so recipes that my mother passed on to me: ambrosia, although I never liked it very much, monkey bread, a recipe that actually came from my aunt, my mother’s sister, and some other dessert recipes like coconut layer cake, with a pineapple filling. I have vivid memories of sitting at that red kitchen table with its chrome legs, eating around the pineapple filled layers that I’d always save for last. I never made that coconut cake. Most of the food that my mother and her sisters cooked, the way they cooked, the ingredients that they used, are not my culinary ways.
Before my family migrated to the Midwest, they lived on a small farm in Covington, Georgia. My great-grandmother who spent most of her young adult life enslaved was a farmer after emancipation. She taught her son, my grandfather, to farm, and farming ended with him. Sure, my aunts had vegetable gardens. I remember them tending to tomato plants and small flower gardens. My mother wasn’t much of an outdoor gardener; the farming/gardening blood was passed on to me. Some years ago, I had a desire to move to an area where I could do some very, very small scale farming. That didn’t happen.
But now living in a house where the front and back yard provide more than enough space for vegetable, fruit, herb and flower gardening, where most of my summer days could be spent in the yard, my idea to farm would have involved more time and energy that I now devote to writing and art. Perhaps my Grandpa Banks thought the same: he could either farm or open a restaurant. He chose the latter and he and my grandmother, Carrie, taught their daughters the ins and outs of cooking. Their daughters were master cooks and canners. I remember pickled watermelon rinds and pickled peaches with cloves, stewed tomatoes and cha-cha, a spicy tomato condiment that we would pile high on stewed green beans with red potatoes or mixed greens with ham hocks. Steaming dishes of garden vegetables, ham with a glassy brown sugar glaze, adorned with sliced pineapples, maraschino cherries in their centers. All the southern cuisine that my mother and her sisters created would rest on my aunt’s lace crochet covered dining table.
But like I said, I don’t eat that kind of food anymore. I stir-fry greens or simply eat them raw. I have stewed and canned tomatoes with the tomatoes from my garden, and I’ve made pickles from Russian brown cucumbers. But aside from that, the old ways of eating have given way to vegetables eaten steamed or raw, fish, a little chicken, and like a growing population of Americans, gluten and dairy-free eating. I haven’t eaten ham hocks and salt pork in over 40 years. This was a concern of Edna Lewis, the Grand Dame of the art of southern cuisine, that African-American southern ways of cooking and eating, the way of from the field to the table, would be lost.
“Over the years since I left home, I have kept thinking about the people I grew up with and about our way of life. I realize how much the bond that held us had to do with food.” Edna Lewis
Lewis was born and raised on a farm in Freetown, Virginia on April 13, 1916. Freetown was a farming community founded by Lewis’ grandfather and his friends after emancipation. Lewis grew up in a community of cooks whom she watched intently, familiarizing herself with the ritual preparations of southern cuisine. She learned how to gather berries and smoke meat. Virginia’s was an aristocratic strain of soul food, on the dining tables of the elite; it was an amalgamation of French cuisine, Native-American and African spices and ingredients. It was the cuisine of chef James Hemmings, enslaved chef to Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.
As a teenager, Lewis left Freetown alone during the great depression and migrated North along with most African Americans at the time. She left with a belief that southern cooking and eating is connected to nature. Her cookbooks emphasize the importance of cooking, eating and getting the best flavors from what the seasons provide. Her first book, The Taste of Country Cooking, Lewis wrote elegantly and reverently about the nature of southern cuisine’s seasonal roots.
Francis Lam says that early on in the book, one feels the appreciation and gratitude that Lewis felt and expressed through her cooking. A reverence for the land and the food that it provided. Lewis describes a spring morning on the farm:
“A stream, filled from the melted snows of winter, would flow quietly by us, gurgling softly and gently pulling the leaf of a fern that hung lazily from the side of its bank. After moments of complete exhilaration we would return joyfully to the house for breakfast.” Edna Lewis, from The Taste of Country Cooking
Once out of Virginia, Lewis made a brief stop in Washington, D.C., then headed for New York City where she became a seamstress. She designed copies of Christian Dior dresses for Dorcas Avedon and the African dresses that would later become her signature style. She also made dresses for Marilyn Monroe. She married Steve Kingston, a member of the communist party, and became a member of the communist party, working for the newspaper, the Daily Worker. She participated in demonstrations against segregation and became familiar with the white bohemian, artistic community of New York City. John Nicolson, a member of that community, opened Café Nicolson, and asked Edna Lewis to be the chef. 58th Street, on the East Side of Manhattan, Lewis cooked for the likes of William Faulkner, Eleanor Roosevelt, Tennessee Williams, Marlon Brando, Gloria Vanderbilt, Truman Capote and many others.
“Buttermilk and Sour Milk
When I can get it, I like to use buttermilk in biscuits. Buttermilk is the liquid that separates from solid butter during the butter-making process, and although plenty of butter is made today, real buttermilk is hard to come by. The buttermilk sold in supermarkets is cultured skim milk, which I don’t think adds very good flavor to biscuits, pancakes, or anything else. If I want a tangy flavor, and do not have buttermilk, I sour some milk myself by adding a tablespoon of cider vinegar to sweet milk for every cup or so called for in the recipe.” Pg. 213, In Pursuit of Flavor
There was no printed menu at the Café, and dishes were determined by seasonal fruits and vegetables, and the availability of good meat. Lewis’ meals were simple, never complicated, but always flavorful. Mussels with herbed rice, perfectly roasted chicken, a simple Boston lettuce salad with garlic and lemon dressing, and of course, Lewis’ signature dessert, chocolate soufflé. Lewis cooked at Café Nicolson until the late sixties when she injured her leg and couldn’t stand long hours in the kitchen.1 While she was recovering, she was approached by an editor at Knopf, Judith Jones, who turned Edna’s recipes into The Edna Lewis Cookbook (1972). This publication would be followed by The Taste of Country Cooking (1976), In Pursuit of Flavor (1988), and finally The Gift of Southern Cooking (2003), co-authored with her partner, Scott Peacock.
Lewis would later leave the New York City where she had arrived during the era of Jim Crow and de facto segregation and head to New Jersey, where she and her husband pheasant farmed until all the birds mysteriously died; she opened and closed her cooking school. She took a job as a docent at the Hall of African People in the American Museum of Natural History. She held chef posts at Middleton Place in South Carolina, and Gage & Tollner in New York City. She returned to Freetown, Virginia nearly every year, even when there wasn’t much left of the farming community that she grew up in.
Lewis transitioned in 2006, and nearly 12 years after her death, most African-Americans, and Virginians alike, do not know the Grand Dame of southern cuisine, Edna Lewis. These are the days when everyone is working to pay the mortgage and the bills. Most kitchens are equipped with micro-wave ovens for quick, three-minute warm-ups. Farming and working in the fields have gotten a bad rap, and KFC and Popeye’s are the dominant narrative on country fried chicken; Wiley’s Eat Your Greens is how greens, string beans and cabbage are seasoned for a quick meal before Down Home With the Neeleys comes on the Food Network.
“In those days, we lived by the seasons, and I quickly discovered that foods tastes best when it is naturally ripe and ready to eat.” Edna Lewis, pg. VIII Introduction, In Pursuit of Flavor
Best Edna Lewis Recipes, Epicurious: https://www.epicurious.com/recipes-menus/favorite-edna-lewis-recipes-southern-food-menu. Recipes include sides and vegetables, seafood gumbo, sautéed chicken with hominy casserole, blackberry cobbler (one of Lewis’ favorite fruit cobblers) and fried apple pies.
Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cl6JVMoMN44
1 Some sources contend that Edna Lewis fell not in New York City, but on the farm in New Jersey, where she and her husband were raising pheasants. It was during her recovery in New Jersey that she was approached about writing her first cookbook.