You Can't Have Southern Food Without Edna Lewis

In Depth
You Can't Have Southern Food Without Edna Lewis

In 2008, two years after Edna Lewis, the Grand Dame of Southern Cooking died, Gourmet published an essay written by Lewis that serves as a de facto manifesto for the way she lived her life through food. In it, she acknowledges that the food we traditionally think of as Southern now was the food made by “blacks, men and women,” and that it evolved and found its voice in service: home kitchens, too, but also hotels, the White House, and any other place in the South that depended primarily on Black labor. What Lewis describes in the rest of the essay as quintessentially Southern to her puts an emphasis on seasonal ingredients, fresh vegetables and meat. It’s cooking to the ebbs and flow of the harvest and the seasons: temporal cooking, with a focus on hyper-local ingredients, essentially slow food before Slow Food became a movement.

Lewis’s anointment as Grand Dame of Southern Cooking is because of the particular food she espoused, which is more traditionally Southern than what Americans usually think of as Southern food now. She became famous for The Taste of Southern Cooking, a work that earned the praise of culinary world luminaries like James Beard and Craig Claiborne, for both the recipes she wrote and also the form of the book itself, a memoir cum cookbook of the sort previously unseen. History remembers her as a sort of stereotypical depiction of a Black woman, born of formerly enslaved people, lifting herself up from her background’s limitations by cooking the food she grew up with, but that view is narrow-minded and inaccurate. What Lewis should be best-known for is how her attitude towards Southern food as seasonal, fresh, and inspired by the world around us changed the very notions of what Southern food means today.

“Southern is a guinea hen, a bird of African origin,” she writes in Gourmet, nodding to the African origins of many foods that are now considered traditionally Southern, like okra and the rice of the Carolina low country. “They live in trees around the house and make a big noise if strangers come around. Like any game bird, they have to be aged before cooking. They have a delicious flavor and are best when cooked in a clay pot with butter, herbs, onions, and mushrooms.”

What Lewis should be best-known for is how her attitude towards Southern food as seasonal, fresh, and inspired by the world around us changed the very notions of what Southern food means today.

The food Lewis writes about so rapturously is not necessarily the food traditionally associated with the South, though. Fried chicken has its place, of course, but before digging into a bucket of KFC, consider that Lewis’s version of fried chicken was celebratory, extraordinary, and also seasonal. “When Lewis was growing up in Freetown, she learned that there was a season truly perfect for frying chickens—late spring to early summer, when the birds were the right size and had the right feed—just as there was a season for peaches and a season for blackberries,” France Lam wrote in a 2015 profile of Lewis published in the New York Times. “Foods, Lewis argued, are always temporal, so all good tastes are special.”

Lewis’s ethos is similar in spirit to that of other stalwarts of contemporary American cuisine. In her lifetime, James Beard, Craig Claiborne, and M.F.K. Fisher all sang her praises, mirroring her emphasis on fresh, seasonal food and ingredients in their own work. Alice Waters, the founder of Chez Panisse, greatly admired Lewis’s work. There are traces of Lewis’s influence in modern Southern chefs like Sean Brock Mashamma Bailey and Vivian Howard, who emphasize heirloom produce varietals and cooking techniques borrowed from the not-so-distant past. Lewis’s impact on modern Southern cooking is immense, but the woman behind the food is not quite the public figure she deserves to be.

Edna Lewis was born in 1916, in Freetown, Virginia, a community founded by formerly enslaved people, created in part with her grandfather’s help. She left Virginia at 16, after her father’s death, and moved to New York, where she worked for a while as a laundress and a seamstress. When she met Johnny Nicholson in 1949, she joined forces with him at Cafe Nicholson, serving the kind of food that was popular at the time: Continental and vaguely French. But Lewis’s Southern roots drew ex-pat Southerners like Truman Capote to her table, in search of the nostalgic flavors of their past. She eventually left Cafe Nicholson, at the urging of her husband, Steven Kingston, a Communist who reportedly thought the restaurant was becoming too bourgeois. Though she remained a partner for some time, Lewis explored other vocations including catering, teaching cooking classes, and at one point running a pheasant farm with Kingston. (It closed, because all the birds died.)

Lewis’s impact on modern Southern cooking is immense, but the woman behind the food is not quite the public figure she deserves to be.

In 1972, Lewis published her first cookbook, co-written with Evangeline Peters, a socialite who had used Lewis as a caterer. Peters introduced Lewis to Judith Jones, a cookbook editor at Knopf who was responsible for bringing Julia Child to the American masses; as the story goes, once she started talking to Lewis about her upbringing and the food she liked to cook and eat, Lewis’s most well-known book, The Taste of Country Cooking was conceived.

The Taste of Country Cooking resonated because it espouses the kind of cooking that we now take for granted in fine dining—ingredients that are true to the seasons, with a respect for their origins. Lewis’s book served partially as a memoir, too, chronicling the harvest rituals and foraging of her childhood in Freetown. But it was also revolutionary for how it broke and remade the boundaries of what constituted Southern food in the public eye. Lewis made clear that there was a difference between Southern and soul food, and the latter falls under the umbrella of the former. Southern food, she argued, is an entire cuisine based in and around the fresh and the readily available. It is Southern because of the person making the food, but it is Southern because of its context. “The foundation on which it rested was pure ingredients, open-pollinated seed—planted and replanted for generations—natural fertilizers,” she writes in Gourmet. “We grew the seeds of what we ate, we worked with love and care.”

The weight of Lewis’s impact is now so embedded in modern cooking culture that it is by now, ubiquitous. Restaurants proudly advertise the provenance of their arugula and farm-to-table dining has trickled down to fast casual salad chains whose menus change seasonally, based on availability. People are willing to be on a waitlist for heritage beans from Rancho Gordo. “Southern is all the unsung heroes who passed away in obscurity,” Lewis wrote—but because of her, now, she is no longer.

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