Posts Tagged ‘Southern’

Photo: Kinfolk.
Edna Lewis, sometimes called the “Grande Dame of Southern cooking.”

A long time ago, I made an Edna Lewis cake recipe that had been featured in the New York Times. Apart from its being delicious, the thing I remember most were curious little tips on cooking that she added. For example, she said to stir the batter only in one direction. To me that meant that I shouldn’t beat up on a cake while beating it.

Lewis died in 2006, a monumental figure in the world of cooking. At the Washington Post, Aaron Hutcherson wrote about taking a tour of Edna Lewis country.

“It was late afternoon when I checked into my hotel perched on the top of a hill in Virginia’s Piedmont region. The front-desk attendant mentioned the lovely view from my room as he handed me the keys. … With time to kill before my dinner reservation, I decided to rest. As I lay on the bed gazing out the window at the sun setting over the Blue Ridge Mountains, I was struck by the beauty of this majestic setting — and I began to understand why Edna Lewis loved her birthplace so much.

“ ‘I grew up in Freetown, Virginia, a community of farming people,’ Lewis wrote in her 1976 memoir/cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking. ‘It wasn’t really a town. The name was adopted because the first residents had all been freed from chattel slavery and they wanted to be known as a town of Free People.’

“Throughout her career, Lewis’s work served as a means of preserving the memory of Freetown and its people, and to share that with the world through cooking. About 10 miles from the town of Orange, there isn’t much of Freetown still standing save for the remnants of a couple of buildings, but through the creation of the Edna Lewis Menu Trail, its legacy in this region lives on.

“Organized by the Orange County Office of Tourism, the menu trail launched on Thanksgiving in 2022 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Edna Lewis Cookbook, and it runs through Memorial Day. It includes seven restaurants within 33 miles of one another, whose menus are featuring recipes from Lewis’s cookbooks or dishes inspired by her.

“Often described as the ‘grande dame of Southern cooking,’ Lewis was an accomplished chef and cookbook author who helped increase America’s understanding of the breadth and elegance of Southern cuisine. ‘It’s not all fried chicken and greasy greens,’ she said in a 1990 Washington Post interview. Beyond that, Lewis inspired the now-ubiquitous farm-to-table movement by championing the virtues of growing one’s own food and cooking with local, seasonal ingredients. When she died in 2006, she had been honored by just about every American culinary group, including the Southern Foodways Alliance and the James Beard Foundation, and now her impact is resonating again.

“The menu trail was created to celebrate the place that shaped Lewis’s culinary philosophy and educate visitors and locals alike about what she stood for. ‘She always insisted this is the area where it all started,’ said her son Afeworki Paulos from his home in Georgia, and I was ready to explore this nurturing ground.

” ‘My first stop was ClearWater Fire Grill in Locust Grove, where the whipped sweet potatoes with brandy, brown sugar and freshly grated nutmeg were a lovely match for the simply seasoned pork chops draped with a pan sauce. My server’s bubbly warmth put me at ease after the 90-minute drive from D.C. And with every interaction along the trail, I began to realize I was on the receiving end of the Southern hospitality Lewis embodied.

“ ‘The memories of that community that she grew up in and the care they took of each other and the hope they had for their future left an indelible mark on her,’ Lewis’s niece Nina Williams-Mbengue said over the phone from her home in Colorado.

“Lewis was born in 1916, one of eight children, and she learned to cook from the people in Freetown, who lived an agrarian lifestyle. After her father died, she moved North at age 16, first to Washington and then New York, where she found work as a seamstress. In 1949, she partnered with a friend who knew of her cooking prowess to open Cafe Nicholson, a French-inspired restaurant frequented by artists and celebrities, and served as its head chef. The Edna Lewis Cookbook, her first book, was published in 1972 and explored a variety of cuisines while tying recipes to her focus on seasonality.

“Chef Andrew Eppley was drawn to that tendency when skimming through Lewis’s work to find a dish for his menu at Vintage Restaurant at The Inn at Willow Grove in Orange — the site of that evening’s dinner.

“He settled on a rabbit dish from Lewis’s second book, The Taste of Country Cooking, then put his own creative spin on it. … ‘Some people come down and they don’t know who Edna Lewis is,’ Eppley said. ‘It creates a really great talking point and experience for our guests, giving them a little bit of history of culinary arts in the region, and everything she did not just for Southern cooking but cooking in general.’ …

“Eppley said what most stood out about Lewis’s cooking was the love. ‘It wasn’t like, “I’m trying to be the best in the world,” ‘ he said. ‘She was trying to cook food that she loves for the people and the community she loves.’ …

“Lewis ‘was very driven to let people know the contributions of African Americans to cooking,’ her niece Williams-Mbengue said. …

“Next to the [Bethel Baptist Church in Unionville] under a canopy of trees, there’s a group of picnic tables where I imagine Edna Lewis may have sat when she made her annual pilgrimage for the church’s summer revival.

“ ‘Her and my mother would serve food outside the church for revival,’ said family friend Mary Freeman, whose father farmed with Lewis’s brother. ‘She wasn’t a Southern cook who had all the awards when I was a kid. She was just Miss Edna.’ On top of the delicious pies, cakes and tarts Lewis prepared, Freeman remembers her as ‘a very quiet-spirited lady’ who was ‘very self-assured, very confident.’ ” More at the Post, here. Mouth-watering pictures.

A nice Kinfolk article — with no firewall — delves deeper into Lewis’s biography. Read it here.

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