Sunday, November 30, 2008
In Praise of Edna Lewis
Edna Lewis's books are among my favorite cookbooks. I have three:
In Pursuit of Flavor
The Taste of Country Cooking
The Gift of Southern Cooking, which she wrote with Scott Peacock.
All of these books are fascinating and filled with good but relatively simple recipes. Among her achievements, Mrs. Lewis brought to the American table the great African American culinary tradition.
In a 1989 interview with The New York Times, Lewis said: "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 was ahead of her time in emphasizing the importance of the freshness of food and food in its season. With a foreword by Alice Waters, The Taste of Country Cooking is organized by season, with recipes and menus for each one.
Lewis's books not only are filled with wonderful recipes but her essays on foods, the food traditions that we hopes to revive and enable to survive, and the best way to make simple food delectable, her reasons for using non-double acting baking powder, and fascinating reminiscenes.
Ms. Lewis was a professional chef, who made the came to New York at a young age and first worked as a seamstress. Then, she became the chef for the new Nicholson cafe and helped make this watering hole for the cultural literati famous. She began writing up her recipes when she was forced by a broken leg to suspend her career as a chef. After A Taste of Country Cooking was published she became the chef of the famous Gaye and Bollner restaurant in Brooklyn, until her retirement in the mid-1990s.
Over a period of time she became friends with Scott Peacock, another Southern chef, but with an Alabaman culinary tradition, whereas Edna Lewis came from farther north--Freetown, Virginia. They eventually began cooking and Peacock took care of Ms. Lewis in the years before her death in 2006. Their co-authored The Gift of Southern Cooking is a real treasure. Just now looking at this book, I was surprised to see how few of the recipes I have actually made. I guess this is because I have read it from cover to cover so many times, I feel very familar with every recipe. Very simple and very good recipes that I have made are Shrimp Paste, Puree of Pumpkin Soup, Thyme-Smothered Chicken, Baked Pork Chops with Cranberries, Salmon Croquettes, Baked Eggplant with Peanuts (quite something), perfect Macaroni and Cheese, Asparagus and Scallion Pie, Chicken Hash, White Loaf Bread, and various corn recipes.
Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie is a documentary on Lewis that you can see right online.
Although I come from Pennsylvania, a state I have nearly religious adoration for, I love Southern cooking the best. I first learned about it in the November 1988 Food and Wine special issue on "Southern Food Rises Again." You bet. I immediately made the Greens in Potlikker, which was delicious and intrigued my family. Here is an essay by Ms. Lewis on southern cooking.