Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Edna Lewis, Born April 16, 1916

My books by Edna Lewis and Toni Tipton-Marton,
whose book The Jemima Code describes many cookbooks including those of Lewis.

Edna Lewis had a long and fascinating life, from April 16, 1916 until February 6, 2006. She wrote several highly respected cookbooks, which have been re-issued quite a number of times with a variety of dust jackets. I've reproduced a few of them here, as well as the US postage stamp with her picture on it, issued in 2014.

I recently acquired my first of her books: the thirtieth anniversary edition of The Taste of Country Cooking, a memoir of her girlhood in Freetown, Virginia (published in 2006). Lewis describes events for each season of the year during her girlhood, with recipes illustrating what her family ate. Freetown, she writes "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." Around a dozen families lived in the town; their houses stood in a circle around the house of her grandparents. (From the Introduction.)

I originally thought that I would try some of the recipes in The Taste of Country Cooking, but in the end I decided not to do so. When I read them closely, I came to the conclusion that they are deceptively simple. I suspect that they would in fact be very challenging to make as they should be. Quite a few of them require ingredients that are not easily obtained or that I don't normally use, such as lard, rabbit and other game, sorghum molasses, special types of cornmeal, and guinea fowl (which is not a chicken!).

I suspect that even the ingredients that are familiar and easily available might differ from the ones that were used in rural Virginia almost a century ago -- after all, Lewis left Freetown when she was a teen-ager. For example, I considered making her gingerbread recipe, but I doubted that I could really replicate the flavor she described. Here's her description, which I think makes clear why I find her memoir wonderfully vivid but don't think I could achieve anything similar:
"Warm gingerbread was uppermost in our minds when the sorghum cane began to ripen, because sorghum molasses was such an important ingredient in gingerbread. Sorghum is a plant that looks very much like corn, with the exception of the grain which is formed in the tassel. ... Most farmers grew a small patch of sorghum. It was harvested in the fall, tassel and leaves removed. The cane was put into a mill driven by two horses moving in a circle, clockwise, pressing out the juice as they walked around. When it was all pressed out it was poured into a large vat and cooked to a heavy, sugary syrup known as sorghum molasses.
"The aroma of the new crop filled the kitchen. There would be molasses for breakfast and gingerbread galore until the novelty wore off. ... Warm gingerbread with fresh, skimmed, heavy cream was an exotic treat after a meal of fresh pork or game on a chilly fall evening." (p. 255)
Why is Edna Lewis so important? Here's what chef Alice Waters says in the introduction to the anniversary edition of The Taste of Country Cooking, which was originally published in 1976:
"Thanks to this book, a new generation was introduced to the glories of an American tradition worthy of comparison to the most evolved cuisines on earth, a tradition of simplicity and purity and sheer deliciousness that is only possible when food tastes like what it is, from a particular place, at a particular point in time. ... Back then, most of us were more or less resigned to the industrialization of our food, the mechanization of our work, the trivialization of our play, and the atomization of our communities. But with her recipes and reminiscences, Miss Lewis was able to gently suggest another way of being, one on a human scale, in harmony with the seasons and with our fellow man." (p. xi) 
Edna Lewis's fame is highlighted in this paragraph from The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks by Toni Tipton-Martin:
"I was awed by Lewis from the first moment I saw her, some years ago at a professional meeting of registered dietitians in Los Angeles. I noticed a small crowd in the hotel lobby buzzing around a statuesque African American woman with a magnetic smile, her graying hair swept neatly into a bun worn low at the neck. I shamelessly joined the groupie gaggle, which was clamoring for autographs in the way that paparazzi scratch and claw for snapshots of superstars. The regal lady leaned in close, whispered a few words of encouragement, then signed the paperback edition of her first cookbook... As we got to know each other better, I told her about my desire to reclaim the reputation of black cooks. Her tales of achieving culinary mastery as an executive chef and champion of artistic African American cooking strengthened my resolve. She emboldened me with a precious handwritten letter and an exhortation: 'Leave no stone unturned."" (p. 133)
I chose the Edna Lewis cookbooks for this Cookbook Wednesday to celebrate her 100th birthday. I also want to call attention to the remarkable book, The Jemima Code, an important work of American cookbook history. I will write more about it in the future.

Cookbook Wednesday is a blogging event organized by Louise at Months of Edible Celebrations.
Cookbook Wednesday


~~louise~~ said...

Goodmorning Mae:)
Congratulations on your first Edna Lewis Cookbook!!!

I'm delighted to hear you are pleased with it. I know what you mean about not feeling comfortable about using it on a regular basis for recipes. Historically, it sounds wonderful.

I have her book In Pursuit of Flavor and it too gives glimpses into her remarkable life. I hadn't known about The Jemima Code. I'll be addding it to my wish list.

Thank you for joining us for Cookbook Wednesday Mae and for your thoughtful selections of Ms. Lewis' accomplishments. I really enjoyed this post...

Pam said...

Yes, good choice! Edna Lewis did have a fascinating life and I'll be looking for more of her books. I have The Gift of Southern Cooking with Edna and Scott Peacock. It's filled with lots of good recipes, her Virginia cooking and his take on Southern food, filled in with good stories about them.

Kitchen Riffs said...

Edna Lewis is wonderful, isn't she? She was a genius at using local ingredients, and making something superlative out of them. Italian cooking (in Italy, I mean) does the same thing. Look around, though, and you'll be surprised at what you'll find. I can actually buy sorghum that's been produced less than 100 miles from where I live. And any good meat market will have the ingredients for making lard (which is seriously good stuff, and healthier than butter -- really!). Once you make a pie dough with lard, you won't go back. Anyway, fun read -- thanks so much.

Jeanie said...

Wow, Mae. What a comprehensive post. And a fascinating one, too. As mentioned on FB, I became familiar with her in Judith Jones' bio but I'd not heard of her before or tried her recipes. These sound like they might just be fabulous!

Marjie said...

A cookbook with such a fascinating backstory! I often wonder what the difference in flavor with some of those old ingredients is.