Memories of Southern Chef Edna Lewis
ED GORDON, host:
Renowned chef and author, Edna Lewis died at her home in Georgia this week at the age of 89. Lewis had no formal culinary training, but her cookbooks on southern cuisine garnered her praise and a wide following. NPR's Vertamae Grosvenor remembers the First Lady of Southern Cuisine.
VERTAMAE GROSVENOR reporting:
Edna Lewis was an elegant woman. Her classical presentation of southern food made you, as Chef Joe Randall says, want to put the South in your mouth.
JOE RANDALL (Chef): I have a picture of her and Leah Chase, Edna on one arm and Leigha on the other. Can you imagine the Queen of Creole cuisine on one arm and the granddame of southern cooking on the other? I just was in my world.
GROSVENOR: She honored the taste and the history of true southern cooking. The recipes in her cookbooks are so seductive; they make you go back to putting lard in your pie crusts. Her recipe for Whipped Cornmeal and Okra is so good it will make you fall in love with the slimy vegetable you swore you couldn't stand. She learned to cook, she said, by watching her mother feed their large family, and followed her example. We lived by the seasons, she wrote, in The Taste of Country Cooking. Chapter headings read, An Early Summer Dinner of Veal Scallions and the First Berries; Emancipation Day dinner in the fall, which she described in a 1993 NPR interview.
Ms. EDNA LEWIS (Chef): The food that you would carry would be food of fall which included game and a lot of people carry roast chicken which was a chicken that had become of age and you no longer could fry. And of course, pork and fall greens like turnip greens or mustard greens. And sweet potatoes and pickles and preserves and yeast bread and some dessert like deep-dish apple pie or damson plum pie.
GROSVENOR: And in winter, a dinner of chicken and dumplings and warm ginger bread. Someone said to me, they thought it was markable that Edna Lewis was a chef during the time when there were few black men and almost no women chefs. Truth be told, for centuries, blacks have stirred the pots in southern kitchens, on plantations, mansions, boarding houses, hotels, and riverboats. It's remarkable so very, very few got their due. Edna Lewis got hers. Scott Peacock.
Mr. SCOTT PEACOCK (Chef): If you saw her, you didn't forget her. We would be in New York sometimes, course she was very well-known there. And a lot of people would come out of storefronts. We'd be walking down the street and they knew who she was and they wanted to meet her, pay their respects. And in Atlanta for that matter too. People would just approach her and say, you know, you're so beautiful, I would love to photograph you, to paint you. She was just exquisite and regal.
GROSVENOR: She grew up in the farming community of Freetown, Virginia, where gathering fresh eggs, tending the animals were part of her day. She wrote, It wasn't really a town. The name was adopted because the first residents had all been freed from chattel slavery and wanted to be known as a town of free people. Over the years since I left home and lived in different cities, I kept thinking about the people I grew up with and our way of life. I realized how much the bond that held us had to do with food.
GORDON: NPR's Vertamae Grosvenor is the author of Vertamae Cooks in the America's Family Kitchen. This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.