Cooking the Books: Edna Lewis, an Icon of the American South

BlogHer Original Post

Edna Lewis is one of those people you wish you'd known in real life. Kim Morgan from A Yankee in a Southern Kitchen writes, "Edna is deceased, having just passed [in 2006]. If she were here, I would be so bold as to give her a call. I have questions for her about the food and recipes that she wrote about. Would she explain them in greater detail?" Who is Edna Lewis? If you're curious about American regional cuisine, if you have roots planted in the American South, if you simply love simple food cooked simply, well, you'll find Miss Lewis' 'number' inside the poetic pages of the four cookbooks bearing her name.

Miss Lewis -- really, that's what she was called -- was born in Virginia in 1916, the granddaughter of a freed slave. She learned to cook from her Aunt Jenny, foraging for fresh ingredients, preparing them simply. She told the New York Times in 1989, "As a child in Virginia, I thought all food tasted delicious. After growing up, I didn't think food tasted the same, so it has been my lifelong effort to try and recapture those good flavors of the past." She captured those good flavors in her first restaurant, Cafe Nicholson in Manhattan, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a time when female chefs were few, black female chefs even fewer. Her food was simple and delicious.

Southern cuisine brought Miss Lewis fame, but it is the graceful blend of her words and her food that makes her beloved among food bloggers. Molly Wizenberg of the food blog Orangette confesses:

"For almost a year now, Brandon and I have performed a particular ritual at the start of each new season. It’s going to make some of you want to roll your eyes and gag - and really, be my guest; I gag a little just typing this - but I want to tell you about it anyway, because it’s kind of dreamy. You might even want to join in. Basically, the ritual goes like this: one night, when the season is just beginning, we climb into bed, prop ourselves up on pillows, and I read to him from Edna Lewis’s The Taste of Country Cooking."

~ Molly Wizenberg, in Like a Lullaby

Rina from the food blog Suitable for Consumption calls Miss Lewis' prose 'absolutely glorious'. "I've renewed The Taste Of Country Cooking from the library three times, and have come to the realization that I must own it. ... To tempt:"

"Another late afternoon feast would be the melons my father had gathered in the early morning from the melon patch while the dew still lingered on them. He would put them in a tub or water or underneath the shrubbery until we were ready to eat them. Before he ever sliced open a melon, he would always plug it - by cutting out a small piece which he would taste to see if it had the proper flavor. If it didn't, he would cast it aside until he found a good one. We would all be served in our turn and we would enjoy each bite, discussing which condiment made the melon even sweeter - salt or pepper. After the feast, the rinds were saved and made into pickle or preserve, and the rest went into the swill for the hogs. Then we would go off to do our evening chores."

~ Edna Lewis, The Taste of Country Cooking, as quoted in Edna Lewis's Summer Apple Pie

Pastry chef, cookbook author and food blogger David Lebovitz wrote a tribute upon Miss Lewis' death in 2006.

"I met Edna Lewis during a benefit that we were doing for Meals on Wheels in New York City. I walked in the kitchen and her long-time assistant and companion, Scott Peacock, was stirring what was perhaps that largest cauldron of steaming vanilla-scented milk I'd ever seen in all my restaurant years, using a giant whisk. ... Standing next to him, wearing a colorful shawl was Miss Lewis. Scott, the ever-polite southern gentleman and her best friend, always called her 'Miss Lewis'. (Imagine if my best friends called me Mr. Lebovitz!) Edna Lewis offered her fragile, delicate hand to me. It was bony and rough, signs of a life spent in a kitchen; years of chopping, measuring, mixing, and carving. In a tiny voice that was barely audible, she introduced herself. And like a fragile scoop of vanilla ice cream uncontrolably melting on a slice of warm apple pie, Miss Lewis' voice and manner had a way that would just make you melt."

~ David Lebovitz, Miss Edna Lewis

Food Bloggers Love Miss Lewis' Recipes

A Yankee in a Southern Kitchen
Little surprise, this food blog focused on southern cooking worships at the Edna Lewis altar, there's even an Edna Lewis tag. Here's a tasting plate:

Peach Cobbler "When I think of Summertime desserts, the first thing that comes to mind is a Cobbler. I grew up eating Cobblers, though the version I am used to is different than the Southern version. To me the difference is not so much in the way the fruit is prepared, but in the way the top is handled. The Southern version from my research seems to handle the top in two ways. Either a pastry crust that seals in the filling or a dumpling aka biscuit top that floats in the syrupy fruit in the dish. After making this Peach Cobbler, my vote is for the South."

Chicken Baked with Delicate Herbs & Bread Crumbs served with Cococonut Carolina Rice "Thirty minutes later both the chicken and rice were done. Oh how wonderful the kitchen smelled. I gently fluffed the rice and served myself a late dinner at 8pm. It was so good, and I am so loving this Southern thing. I am not a fan of rice, but am coming around on this one too."

Southern Caramel Cake with Fresh Strawberries "For the record, and you can quote me. This Caramel Buttermilk Cake is the best. I mean the absolute best cake I have ever eaten in my entire life. I am an experienced cake eater who has had her fair share of cakes. I also have a few years and a few pounds of qualifications under my belt to prove it. It is a miracle that I was able to take pictures of this cake for you, before I devoured it."

Dinner with Julie ~ Edna Lewis' Busy Day Cake
"This is the plain butter cake everyone should have in their repertoire; nothing is better to serve with fresh or stewed fruit in summer. Who needs shortcakes - or those little yellow sponges sold in the produce section - when you can so easily have a warm slice of buttery, sugary, sandy-crumbed cake? Instead of the usual strawberry shortcake, try simmering fresh blueberries in a small drizzle of maple syrup or honey until their skins burst, and spooning it warm over a wedge. The cake sinks appealingly in the middle as it bakes - if you don’t like this, bake it in a tube or Bundt pan."

The Paupered Chef ~ Edna Lewis' Fried Chicken
"Not only did I get some wonderful, thoughtful responses [to my fried chicken post], but many pointed me towards the same recipe that pan fried the chicken. For some reason, they kept talking about this lady named Edna Lewis. ... Who is Edna Lewis? I didn’t realize it at the time, but the she was one of the most respected Southern cookbook authors of her time. She is a beacon of fried chicken perfection."

The Wednesday Chef ~ Edna Lewis' Sour Milk Griddle Cakes
"...you spent two more weekends (two!) without knowing about these pancakes. Excuse me, griddle cakes. The batter sturdy and thick, impossibly so, and tangy with buttermilk, the cakes cook up into fluffy, flavorful rounds. A mixture of whole wheat and regular flour gives them added heft. But what really makes them is a gentle dousing in warm berry sauce and cool-from-the-fridge maple syrup."

Rachel Reads ~ Weekend / Monday Reads
"Another book I've been reading in bits and pieces is The Taste of Country Cooking (30th anniversary edition). I wouldn't call it a cookbook for general use but rather a look at what cooking used to be like--and I am SO GLAD that I don't have to butcher my meals. It's fascinating how much food preparation has changed in less than 100 years but also in what remains the same. Also, I was intrigued by how Lewis is a strong champion for local and organic eating--30+ years before it became a major movement."

The Sunday Night Dinner in Astoria ~ Happy Birthday, Edna Lewis
"I know it has all been said before, but I am eternally grateful to the woman who wrote the recipe (among many others) called Baked Tomatoes. ... There is great beauty in simplicity. Praise God for Miss Edna."

LEARN MORE ABOUT EDNA LEWIS
Edna Lewis: Fried Chicken & Sweet Potato Pie, a 20-minute documentary of Miss Lewis' life, worth watching
Edna Lewis obituary in the New York Times
Praise the Lard & Edna Lewis from Conde Nast Traveler

And you?
And you, is Edna Lewis new to you or an old favorite? If you've written about Edna Lewis, or posted an Edna Lewis recipe, leave a link in the comments!

BlogHer food editor Alanna Kellogg is fascinated by American regional cuisine, starting with the foods of her Midwestern roots and especially of her adopted home state of Missouri, where native black walnut trees grow thick along the riverbanks and in certain front yards, as shared along with the recipe for Chocolate Black Walnut Cake.

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