Edna Lewis evokes long-lost country spring through food

Danielle Dreilinger
The American South
The iconic chef Edna Lewis' most famous book, "The Taste of Country Cooking," celebrates the food and farm of her childhood.

“I will never forget spring mornings in Virginia.”

By the time Edna Lewis wrote those resonant words in “The Taste of Country Cooking,” she had long since moved to New York City and become a chef, cooking teacher and caterer. She was prominent enough to publish a cookbook with her name as the title in 1972, but her editor urged her to publish something more personal. So she wrote about the food of her childhood, organized by seasons. The result made the 60-year-old an icon.

With trees budding yellow-green and rosebushes sending out red shoots, I find myself thinking about “The Taste of Country Cooking.” There is something in the heart of Americans that loves a country story. Even if our houseplants shrivel and we can barely grow mint.

Lewis’ story has a particular power, because its peace was so hard-won. She grew up in Freetown, a Black community founded by people who had been enslaved, including her grandfather.

The free people of Freetown worked their small farms, coming together as needed; opened their own school and church; held concerts, poetry readings and other cultural events. The miseries of Jim Crow linger outside the margins of this book. Lewis presents a vision of Black independence as seductive as that of Wakanda — and it is true.

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“The Taste of Country Cooking” is as much a memoir as it is a cookbook. I have cooked from it, but mostly I read it, lost in longing.

In those far-gone springs, Lewis and her siblings ran outside before breakfast. They checked the setting hens, sprinkling the eggs with water if necessary, because the eggs had to stay moist to hatch.

Just across the stream from the barn, the woods began. In them, Lewis observed “the palest liverwort, the elegant pink lady’s-slipper displayed against the velvety green path of moss … a spider winding in his catch while his beautiful dew-laden web shimmered and glistened.”

Then they trooped in for breakfast. And what a breakfast! Shad soaked in salt water, coated in cornmeal and fried — to be exact, “fried carefully in home-rendered lard with a slice of smoked shoulder for added flavor.” Fried potatoes, fried onions, batter bread, any food left over from supper, blackberry jelly, hot coffee for the adults, cocoa for the children.

Critics credit Lewis, who died in 2006, with bringing Black Southern cooking to big-city, white-media attention. I don’t know that they give her enough credit as a prose stylist. I want to eat that breakfast and I don’t even like fish.

In Lewis’ writing, her family’s life on the Freetown farm overflowed with abundance. One treasure follows another like spring follows winter. Replete with dairy from the new calves, “we would gather wild honey from the hollow of oak trees to go with the hot biscuits and pick wild strawberries to go with the heavy cream.”

Edna Lewis was celebrated in a set of celebrity chef stamps in 2014.

You can cook from this book, as I said, but also you can’t. As I taste Lewis’ meals in my mind, I know that my food cannot taste the same. I have baked plain butter cookies, but not with new-laid eggs and butter from my own cows. I have canned strawberry jam, but it is not from wild strawberries. Cornpone made with cornmeal from a modern pantry, even if originally stone-ground, will taste bland, not earthy-sweet.

I also know that cooking on a wood stove, hauling all the water you needed, was hot work that made your shoulders ache. Her mother kneaded the milk out of butter for hours — think about what that really was like. She fed eight children three times a day without a refrigerator. The knowledge of this effort evaporates when I read Edna Lewis.

As I type this on a laptop in a city, about to eat lettuce out of a bag, my imagination follows Lewis as she picked leaves planted “along the garden fence near the well,” seasoned with vinegar and hard-won freedom.

Salad of Grand Rapids Lettuce Leaves and Romaine

From “The Taste of Country Cooking”

Serves 4 to 5

1/4 cup vinegar

2 teaspoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper

1 quart lettuce leaves and romaine, broken up

4 or 5 scallions, sliced thin with some green top added

"Put the vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper into a bowl or bottle. Shake or stir with a wooden spoon until all the salt has dissolved. Pour it over the lettuce and sliced scallions.... This salad holds for an hour without wilting, as it has no oil."

Danielle Dreilinger is an American South storytelling reporter and the author of the book "The Secret History of Home Economics." You can reach her at ddreilinger@gannett.com or 919-236-3141.

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