“So many great souls have passed off the scene. The world has changed. We are now faced with picking up the pieces and trying to put them into shape, document them so the present-day young generation can see what southern food was like. The foundation on which it rested was pure ingredients, open-pollinated seed—planted and replanted for generations—natural fertilizers. We grew the seeds of what we ate, we worked with love and care.” ~ Edna Lewis (“What is Southern?”)
For me, she’s the one. The more I learn about Edna Lewis, the more I love her.
Since today marks the 7th anniversary of her passing at age 89, it’s a good time to celebrate her remarkable achievements as an award-winning chef, cooking teacher, caterer, cookbook author and Grand Dame of Southern Cuisine with a love-in-your-mouth piece of her Warm Gingerbread. Mmmmm-mmmmm!
Miss Lewis, as she was always known, grew up in the small farming community of Freetown, which is located behind the village of Lahore in Orange County, Virginia (about 66 miles from where I live). Her grandfather founded Freetown with two other freed slaves and started the first area school in his living room.
Long before it became chic to advocate fresh, organic, seasonal ingredients and field-to-table cuisine, Edna and her fellow Freetown residents were enjoying a bucolic live-off-the-land existence — growing, harvesting and preserving their own food, gathering nature’s bounty (seeds, fruit, nuts), fishing the streams, hunting wild game in the woods, cultivating domestic animals.
In The Taste of Country Cooking (Knopf, 1976), a classic of Southern cuisine edited by the brilliant Judith Jones (also Julia Child’s editor), Edna shares recipes and reminiscences of the simple, flavorful, uniquely American, Virginia country cooking she grew up with, lovingly describing how they anticipated the select offerings of each season and celebrated special occasions like Christmas and Emancipation Day with full-out feasts.
We are reminded that there’s nothing better than a freshly picked sun-ripened apple, relishing a dish of Spring’s mixed greens (poke leaves, lamb’s-quarters, wild mustard), celebrating Summer’s bounty with deep-dish blackberry pies, apple dumplings, peach cobblers and pound cakes, sitting down to a Fall Emancipation Day dinner of Guinea Fowl Casserole, “the last green beans of the season and a delicious plum tart or newly ripened, fresh, stewed quince.” As Alice Waters says in her introduction, “sheer deliciousness that is only possible when food tastes like what it is, from a particular place, at a particular point in time.”