Grand dame of
Food writer John T. Edge remembers Edna Lewis. A book excerpt
from ‘The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South’
Threading cornfields and pastures and stands of pine, Edna Lewis and her sister Jen Ellis drove the sinuous asphalt roads of Orange County, Virginia, in the 1980s and 1990s. They passed one of the two houses their grandmother, Lucinda Lewis, a skilled mason, helped build by molding and laying the bricks. Born a slave, she came to Orange County when a white landowner purchased her for $950. They steered alongside Bethel Baptist Church, which their grandfather, Chester Lewis, also born into slavery, helped found a century before. They talked of how he hosted the first school in the county for blacks and recruited a black college graduate to teach in a classroom in his own house. Skirting a stand of fruit trees, they drove past a meadow where their brother Lue Stanley Lewis tended cattle and pigs.
As the sisters traveled in and around the Freetown community, they talked of church suppers and Emancipation Day feasts. They spoke of fall hog killing breakfasts and spring wheat threshing dinners. They recalled suppers of corn pudding and country ham. The sisters talked of the Great Depression into which they were both born, and of the dismal institution of slavery, which two of their grandparents escaped. They spoke of the Jim Crow poll taxes that had once pushed blacks off voter rolls. And of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that had offered a glimpse of what was possible when black folk banded together.
Speaking of their shared past, the Lewis sisters conjured a rich and varied place where black farmers controlled their own destiny and agriculture was not demeaning work that shackled black Southerners. Instead, over the decades that unspooled after freedom came, Lewis and her family had embraced agriculture. They found joy among the furrows and reveled in the pleasures of the table. A century after Emancipation, as America stitched together the frayed tethers that connected the land and the larder, their stories inspired Americans who cast about for meaning in a world they believed bereft. At a time when chefs and educated eaters looked to France for inspiration, Edna Lewis argued, in her quiet way, that all true paths of self-discovery led the way home. Before Americans bandied the term farm-to-table, she lived by that credo. In the process she rejected soul food and shaped, instead, a black pastoral that resonated for generations to come.
Born in 1916 on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, 20 miles from Monticello, Lewis spun a narrative that was bucolic and rural. As William Faulkner illuminated northern Mississippi, and Randall Kenan mythologized eastern North Carolina, Lewis made a study of Freetown, beginning with “A Taste of Country Cooking.” Published in 1976, her book arrived as the nation celebrated its bicentennial and renewed a commitment to reckon with its past.
Lewis drew inspiration from her extended community and her family. Orange County had been an early center of black entrepreneurship. From the mid-1800s onward African-American women there peddled food to the trains that paused in the county seat of Gordonsville to take on water and coal. Before the Civil War, women earned their freedom with profits made selling fried chicken, coffee and fried pies.
Beneath starched white aprons, these black entrepreneurs wore brightly colored frocks. They wrapped their hair in multicolored bandanas.The women who worked the Gordonsville station flaunted their independence and their entrepreneurship. A century later when Edna Lewis stepped onto the national stage, she garbed herself in West African-inspired batik and dangled oversized pendants from her ears in a style that echoed the Gordonsville flair.
Edna Lewis’ rural life was her greatest asset. At a time when grocers sold the virtues of California-raised peas, frozen and bagged and available in any season, as consumers fell for Florida tomatoes, picked hard and green and ready for transport, Lewis introduced a counter narrative. Even chickens have a season, she said. During the late spring and early summer, when the feed was sweet, their flesh was firm and their size was ideal for frying.
Lewis found an audience for her narrative after leaving home. First in in New York City, then in North Carolina and South Carolina, finally in Atlanta, she interpreted her youth for an audience that longed to hear rural tales. “Growing up, we always gathered wild things to eat,” she recalled. “My brothers would pick watercress by the burlap bag full and hang it in the meat house to keep. Watercress would grow up under the snow and, after the snow melted and before the watercress bloomed, we would pick it too.”
Wherever she lived, Lewis brought her South with her. When I worked in Atlanta in the early 1990s, I took classes from Lewis and her protégé the Alabama-born chef Scott Peacock. I learned how to fry a small chicken in a big skillet of butter infused with country ham. Under her gaze, I pulsed butter with shrimp to make a paste that melted luxuriously over a bowl of grits. Later, as a graduate student, I interviewed Lewis about the ways she bridged the Virginia of her youth and the New York of her midlife prime.
Food followed her family everywhere, Lewis told me: “After people had gone off up north, we would send a big box of ingredients up to New York or Pittsburgh, a big cardboard box full of fresh ground cornmeal with eggs submerged in the middle, so that when they opened it up, they could have country eggs and cornbread. After I moved north, my sister would can watercress and then put it in a box full of cornmeal with maybe some ham and farm fresh eggs and ship it to me in New York City. I’d open it up and have a whole Southern meal.”
Lewis returned to Orange County to source ingredients. She returned to reconnect with family and neighbors. And she returned to tramp the woods, to forage for tastes that others thought lost. “I just hope people will like my cooking,” Lewis said before a New York City dinner she had provisioned with churned buttermilk, hauled from South Carolina. Her humility was honest. And it was attractive. Admirers flocked, first to the dinner parties she staged for the New York City creative class in the post World War II years, later to the restaurant kitchens she directed from the 1950s through the 1980s.
Lewis meant many different things to many different people. Friends and admirers called her pure, virtuous and regal. The fashion photographer Karl Bissinger referred to her as an African queen. Molly O’Neill, the food writer, referred to her as the grandmother of everyone’s dreams. Acolytes told stories of how she had milked her own cows back in Virginia, made her own baking powder and could determine when a cake was ready by listening. “When it is still baking and not yet ready, the liquids make bubbling noises,” she wrote. “Just as the cake is done, the sounds become faint and weak … “
Her admirers valorized the communal attributes of Freetown. And so did Lewis, who said that rural life required that neighbors cooperate. “If someone borrowed one cup of sugar, they would return two,” she explained. “If someone fell ill, the neighbors would go in and milk the cows, feed the chickens, clean the house, cook the food and come and sit with whoever was sick.”
Lewis championed agrarian lifestyles. “We never bought anything from stores except sugar and kerosene,” she said.
Her true talent was holding a gazing mirror up so that America might better glimpse itself. By sharing what she had left behind when she departed Orange County as a teenager, she helped America glimpse a way back and forward at once. Her rhapsodies of rural Virginia were harbingers of the Slow Food movement that Alice Waters would champion, previews of the broader Southern renaissance that would gain momentum in the 2000s.
After she left Virginia as a teenager, before she settled in New York City, Edna Lewis landed in Washington, D.C, where she worked as a cook at the Brazilian Embassy. Once she arrived in Manhattan, she ironed clothes for a laundry and worked as a prop stylist and a window dresser.
Lewis found her way while cooking in a New York City restaurant, remembered for combining Southern ingredients and French techniques, a tack that would, a generation later, describe the ethos of many American restaurants. When Johnny Nicholson and Lewis went into business together in 1948, she was about to take a job as a domestic, cleaning and cooking for a white family. Instead of returning to that work, which Lewis had been forced to do when she first arrived in Washington, D.C, she became a partner in a business that became a beacon of post-war possibilities.
Decorated in what Nicholson described as a “fin de siecle Caribbean of Cuba style,” Cafe Nicholson, on the ground floor of a 58th Street brownstone, served as a canteen for the creative class and a backdrop for fashion shoots. Nicholson was the Barnum of the social set, presiding with a parrot named Lolita on his shoulder. Lewis was understated, quiet. Her approach, like her cooking, was straightforward. “As a child in Virginia, I thought all food tasted delicious,” she said. “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.”
Cafe Nicholson employed a conceit that presaged the current white tablecloth aesthetic. They printed no menu, relying instead on the seasons and the availability of good produce and meats to determine the dishes. “We’ll serve only one thing a day,” Johnny Nicholson said to Lewis, as they schemed their opening. “Buy the best quality and I don’t see how we can go wrong.” Long before farm-to-table was a marketing concept, Lewis challenged chefs to learn “from those who worked hard, loved the land and relished the fruits of their labors.”
Nicholson imagined a “place where truck drivers eat and the food is really great.” It didn’t work out that way. Paul Robeson became a regular. So did Truman Capote, who sometimes came bursting into the kitchen looking for biscuits, which Lewis took pains to say she did not serve. Tennessee Williams, who lived across the street, often took his morning coffee at the cafe. He frequently walked Lewis home after work. Greta Garbo dined in the courtyard with her two poodles. After dinner one evening, William Faulkner asked Lewis where she had trained in France. She delighted in telling him that, at that point in her life, she had never left the country.
Lewis rose to fame cooking elemental and elegant dishes like roast chicken, which Clementine Paddleford, the reigning national critic of midcentury America, described as “brown as a chestnut, fresh from the burr.” She baked a chocolate soufflé that was “light as a dandelion seed in a wind.” She-crab soup bobbing with roe, pan-fried quail atop a bale of spoonbread, lemon pies poofed with meringue and chocolate cakes scented with coffee: Edna Lewis cooked food — first at Nicholson, later at Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn — that was rooted in the South but was not accurately categorized as soul food or country cooking. She actively rejected the term soul food, which she found limiting.
Her cooking was an act of recollection, a remembering of tastes and smells by a woman who delighted in the colors of wildflower petals and liked to stand in the middle of a cornfield to sniff the tasseled stalks. “This week we have been having beans and squash out of the garden, and they’re the best I’ve ever tasted,” she told a visitor to the family farm. “And I said to my sister, you know, in the city you put a lot of spices and herbs on food, but you really don’t need it. I don’t think people realize that. Food is so good out here.”
Lewis’ career was scattershot, reflective of Bohemian sensibilities and the sad realities of black employment in Jim Crow America. Before Lewis opened a restaurant in Harlem that closed in less than a year, she tried and failed to raise pheasants with her husband in New Jersey. After detours to take jobs at Fearrington House, a country estate near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Middleton Place, a former rice plantation near Charleston, South Carolina, Lewis became a freelance advocate for the revival of the foods of her youth. As she grew older, and her memories of Freetown began to fade, she dedicated herself to reviving a cuisine she believed was slipping from her grasp.
Norma Jean and Carol Darden, authors of the 1978 book “Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine,” traced their ancestry directly to slavery, too. Freed when he was 8, their grandfather Charles Henry Darden made his way to Wilson, a tobacco market town on the eastern flank of North Carolina, where he became the first black undertaker in the state. That vocation landed the family in the upper tier of black America. The Darden sisters collected recipes that revealed middle class life, which might have otherwise been lost in the rush to embrace all black cooking as soul food.
Lewis, along with cookbook authors Norma Jean and Carol Darden, expanded national ideas of what black food might be. Soul food was an important part of the story, they said. But neckbones and collards, cooked first in rural cropper shotguns and later in urban hotbed flats, were not the whole tale. Vertamae Grosvenor made a bigger grab when she said that her kitchen was the world, not the plantations of the South or the ghettoes of the North, “It seemed to me while certain foods have been labeled ‘soul food’ and associated with Afro-Americans, Afro-Americans could be associated with all foods … “
Lewis aimed to capture what she believed was being lost by unwitting neglect, and by a rewriting of American culinary history that excluded all black narratives except for the poverty-riddled ones. Later in her career when students in her classes heaped praise, Lewis deflected their attentions, saying, “Why that wasn’t anything but field food.” That sounded like false modesty. But Lewis meant it. Her people were farmers. And the foods she championed were what sustained them in the fields. “In the South, you didn’t have to be rich,” she said, sketching a broad definition of middle class life. “There was always something good to eat.”
Working at Cafe Nicholson, Lewis began to write and to develop the recipes that formed the core of her 1976 masterwork, “The Taste of Country Cooking.” Judith Jones, the Knopf editor who published Julia Child, shepherded Lewis into print. Child set a precedent for sales and intents for the women who followed. Jones built a stable of amateur women cooks. Expatriates, compelled to reproduce the foods and the places they left behind, these women wanted to keep those memories and tastes alive.
She signed Claudia Roden, who grew up in a Sephardic family in Cairo and began cooking after her family moved to London. Her aim in “A Book of Middle Eastern Food” was to “rejoice in our foods and summon the ghosts of our past.” Madhur Jaffrey, a native of Delhi, was an actress who moved first to England and then America. To reacquaint herself with the cooking of her mother, she wrote “An Invitation to Indian Cooking,” which Jones edited and Knopf published. “A Taste of Country Cooking” was Jones’s first attempt to apply that rubric to American food.
Lewis’ prose was lyrical and romantic: “I will never forget spring mornings in Virginia. A warm morning and a red sun rising behind a thick fog gave the image of a pale pink veil supported by a gentle breeze that blew our thin marquisette curtains out into the room, leaving them to fall lazily back. Being awakened by this irresistible atmosphere we would hop out of bed, clothes in hand, rush downstairs, dress in a sunny spot, and rush out to the barn to find a sweet-faced calf, baby pigs, or perhaps a colt.” And it was deeply grounded in place. She offered a child’s-eye view of the community she had called home. “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,” she wrote in “A Taste of Country Cooking.” “After moments of complete exhilaration, we would return joyfully to the house for breakfast.”
To a generation of serious American cooks, Lewis offered a way to appreciate American food that did not begin with burgers and end with apple pies. After publishing Lewis’s first book in 1976, Jones signed more authors for what came to be called the Knopf Cooks American series. She published books about New England and West Coast cookery. The South became a specialty. Jones commissioned “Biscuits, Spoonbread & Sweet Potato Pie,” the second book by Bill Neal, chef-owner of Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She published “Preserving Today” by Jeanne Lesem, who grew up in Depression-era Arkansas eating her mother’s pickles and preserves. For Jones, Jeanne Voltz wrote “The Florida Cookbook: From Gulf Coast Gumbo to Key Lime Pie.”
The success of Lewis and her inheritors set the standard in American food publishing for a generation of writers and readers. In the decades to come, Southern chefs would lead the revival of American regional restaurants. And Southern writers like Lewis would lead a reawakening of research into regional foodways. Together, they drove the next phase in the evolution of the region. By the 1980s, a South that had been defined by poverty and racism, by neglect and ignorance, gentrified as Southerners saw new value in old ways.
Edna Lewis feared for the future of regional food and drink. And she wondered aloud whether the contributions of African-American cooks would ever gain recognition. “Southern cooking is about to become extinct,” she said. “It’s mostly black, because blacks — black women and black men — did most of the cooking in private homes, hotels and on the railroads.” In 1992, Lewis gathered with John Egerton, Marie Rudisill, Eugene Walter and others for a Southern food festival on the Florida Gulf Coast at a new urbanist enclave called Seaside. Egerton brought his beaten biscuit brake. Scott Peacock, who had recently left his post as chef for the Georgia governor, arrived to assist Lewis with the Frogmore stew, pig ear salad and benne seed biscuits.
Over a long and boozy weekend, Walter gave interviews from the bedroom of his bungalow. Rudisill regaled all with sotto voce tales of how her nephew Truman Capote, a childhood friend of Harper Lee, really wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird.” At one point, all who gathered pledged to write a collaborative book with Walter as editor. Edna Lewis turned in her essay. In an exchange of letters with Walter, Lewis wrote, “For me the South is not just food. It is beauty, love, hate, art, poetry and hard work. I love what is good about it. It is what makes us who we are.”
By 1993, Lewis moved to Atlanta where she and Peacock made plans to offer classes through a local gourmet grocer, for whom they developed a line of packaged foods including baking powder biscuits and stewed butter beans. At about that same time, they founded the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food. For a magazine spread, they posed in a rice field, Lewis in a rocking chair, Peacock standing behind her.
To outsiders looking in, they were the odd couple of Southern cuisine, one black and aged and straight, the other white and young and gay. Considered another way, they were a harbinger of a reconciliation that was still on the horizon, a joining together of black and white, a living embodiment of the welcome table ideals advocated by student activists in the 1960s.
Lewis and Peacock dreamed of a school for Southern cooks who had become untethered from their forebears. “The philosophy of the school will be to teach children the historical and cultural perspectives of Southern food,” said Peacock, who became her protégé and then her caretaker when they moved in together in suburban Atlanta.
Peacock didn’t cotton to the New South dishes then becoming popular. “That doesn’t mean butterbean salad with cilantro and snow peas,” he said.
They both derided the tendency to prop any protein on a pool of grits and call the resulting construction Southern. Chargrilled lobster on grits with lemongrass sauce was not born of the South, he said. Too few people were using regional produce and cooking seasonally, she said.
Over the next three decades, a new generation of chefs rededicated themselves to the Freetown ideals recollected and practiced by Lewis over a long life in the fields and behind stoves.
Adapted from “The Potlikker Papers” by John T. Edge, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by John T. Edge.
ABOUT THE STORY
Described by Penguin Press as “a people’s history of the modern South, told through its food,” John T. Edge’s book, “Potlikker Papers,” examines the history, politics and culture of Southern food from the civil rights movement to today. It includes profiles of prominent figures such as Colonel Sanders, Paul Prudhomme, Sean Brock and, of course, Edna Lewis, whose life ended in Decatur in February 2006. Her chapter is a bittersweet reminder of what a treasure she was and how much she is still missed.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John T. Edge directs the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, is a contributing editor at Garden & Gun and a columnist for the Oxford American. In 2012, he won the James Beard Foundation’s M.F. K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award. Follow him on Twitter @johntedge, on Instagram @johntedge, or on the Web at potlikkerpapers.com
John T. Edge. “The Potlikker Papers. $45, includes book. 7 p.m. May 22. Highland Inn Ballroom, 644 N. Highland Ave, Atlanta. Presented by A Cappella Books. 404-681-5128, www.acapellabooks.com.