“My first memory of who I was was food,” Edna Lewis told a historian in 1984. She had learned cooking by watching her mother, her aunt, and the other women in their small community cook on wood stoves, she said. She learned to tell if a cake was done by listening to it – “the liquids make bubbling noises.” She learned to use the cool well-houses and streams for refrigeration.
The inhabitants of the Virginia village of Freetown grew and harvested vegetables and fruit. They gathered berries, caught fish, and hunted game from the surrounding woods and fields in season. They grew and threshed their own wheat. Lewis’s grandparents, along with others of the older generation, had received deeds to their plots of land after Emancipation in 1865.
The first thing that generation did, she said, was plant an orchard. They were planning for the long haul, planning to stay on that land. The meaning of the town’s name was double: they were no longer slaves, and they were also free farmers, not tenants or sharecroppers.
“Their spirit of pride in community and cooperation in the work of farming is what made Freetown a wonderful place to grow up,” she would write later in The Taste of Country Cooking, the cookbook that made her famous. “The farm was demanding but everyone shared in the work – tending the animals, gardening, harvesting, preserving the harvest, and, every day, preparing delicious foods that seemed to celebrate the good things of each season.”
“It has been my lifelong effort to try and recapture those good flavors of the past.”
In 1976, when she was approached by Julia Child’s editor to write the book – part memoir, part country-living manual, part cookbook – she had spent many years away from Freetown. After her parents died, she’d moved in the 1930s, as a teen, to New York City – part of the Great Migration.
“When I was a girl, they used to hang black men,” she told an interviewer once, bluntly. “You couldn’t do anything about it because they’d kill you. It scared the life out of us.” In New York, Edna faced different kinds of prejudice: the limited work opportunities, the daily slights: having to use a separate entrance door to her job. She joined the Communist Party, she said, “because they were the only ones who were encouraging the Blacks to be aggressive, and to participate. They gave me a job typing.” It was there, too, that she met her husband, Steve Kingston, another Communist activist.
In the Party, she found a sense of the community that she’d left behind. She also found herself using the skills she had learned in Freetown at weekend CPUSA dinners. Johnny Nicholson, a fellow party member (or at least fellow-traveler) who came to those dinners, told her that he was planning to open an Italian-style café, and asked her to cook for him.
He was thinking cappucinos and pastries. She had other ideas. Shortly afterward, Café Nicholson opened at 58th and Third. The menu was simple, delicious – and all Edna. Choice, she thought, was overrated. She would make one main dish a day, with sides and dessert. People would eat what was put in front of them. And it would be so good that everyone would enjoy it.
She also owned 50 percent of the place.
Café Nicholson, bohemian New York with a southern twang, was a huge success; regulars included William Faulkner, Marlon Brando, Eleanor Roosevelt, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Greta Garbo, Salvador Dalí, and Gore Vidal.
Lewis’s way of thinking and writing about food – she wrote the book on a series of yellow legal pads, which her niece typed up – was something entirely new. We would now call these recipes “farm-to-table.” Each time of year had its proper food, and knowing how to cook was partly knowing when to cook. This kind of deep knowledge was what she wanted to preserve.
Lewis published four cookbooks in all, and went on to work as a chef in several prestigious restaurants, including Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn. She started the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food, and over the course of her career won numerous awards including, in 1995, the James Beard Living Legend Award. She died in 2006.
“As a child in Virginia,” she told the New York Times in 1989, “I thought all food tasted delicious.… It has been my lifelong effort to try and recapture those good flavors of the past.”
She did so – and in the process she recorded the community that those flavors were born in. “I grew up,” she said, “among people who worked together, traded seed, borrowed setting hens if their own were late setting.… If someone borrowed one cup of sugar, they would return two. 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. I guess rural life conditioned people to cooperate with their neighbors.”
Her attention to the subtle details of well-prepared food was only one aspect of her attention to the world from which that food came. “You felt all through her writing,” said her editor, “that she was giving thanks for something precious.” As she once told an interviewer, “I grew up noticing.” In The Taste of Country Cooking, she describes a southern spring: “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. After moments of complete exhilaration, we would return joyfully to the house for breakfast.”
Sources: Edna Lewis, The Taste of Country Cooking (Knopf, 1976); Sara B. Franklin (ed.), Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original (UNC Press, 2018); Joe Rendall (interviewer), “An Interview with Chef Edna Lewis,” video (YouTube, posted May 18, 2009); Bailey Barash (director), “Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie,” documentary film (bbarash.com).