The Life and Legacy of Southern Cook Edna Lewis The first lady of southern cooking, Edna Lewis, was laid to rest this morning in Unionville, Va., at the age of 89. Food writer John T. Edge helps Debbie Elliott remember a woman who helped change the image of southern food.
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The Life and Legacy of Southern Cook Edna Lewis

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The Life and Legacy of Southern Cook Edna Lewis

The Life and Legacy of Southern Cook Edna Lewis

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

The first lady of Southern cooking passed away this week. Edna Lewis was born in Freetown, Virginia, the granddaughter of a slave. She became a popular chef in New York, catering to famous writers and artists, including William Faulkner and Truman Capote. Her 1976 cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking, was an eloquent tribute to farm life and the bonding power of food.

Ms. VERTAMAE GROSVENOR (NPR): (Reading) "Spring would bring our first and just about only fish, shad. It would be always served at breakfast, soaked in salt water for an hour or so, rolled in seasoned cornmeal, and fried carefully in home-rendered lard with a slice of smoked shoulder for added flavor. They were crispy, fried white potatoes, fried onions, batter bread, any food leftover from supper, blackberry jelly, delicious hot coffee, and cocoa for the children, and perhaps, if a neighbor dropped in, dandelion wine was added."

ELLIOTT: NPR's Vertamae Grosvenor, reading from the chapter on spring in Edna Lewis' The Taste of Country Cooking. Those essays and the simple yet elegant menus transformed the way people looked at Southern cooking. Edna Lewis died in her sleep at her home in Decatur, Georgia, on Monday. She was 89 years old.

Our regular culinary curator, John T. Edge, studied under Edna Lewis. Hello, John T.

Mr. JOHN T. EDGE (Contributing Editor, Gourmet Magazine): Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Sad news this week.

Mr. EDGE: Bad news indeed. I got the call Monday morning and soon called my wife, Blair. When I told her, she gasped. She was at that very moment baking Edna Lewis' very good chocolate cake for our Valentine's dinner.

ELLIOTT: What was so powerful about a Taste of Country Cooking that it could change the way the world looked at Southern cuisine?

Mr. EDGE: I think in many ways, Ms. Lewis kind of re-acquainted Southerners and the nation as a whole with the import of the ties between the farm and the table. She valorized this kind of simple, direct cookery that relied upon the freshest of ingredients. She said those ingredients mattered deeply, and cooking them in a manner that doesn't fuss with them too much, that puts them on a pedestal and bathes them in the beatific oil of lard is the way one should cook.

ELLIOT: Now, what you describe, this idea of fresh, seasonal foods, is something that we hear from a lot of today's popular chefs, right?

Mr. EDGE: We do, and we oftentimes associate that with California cuisine, with the pronouncements of Alice Waters, and in many ways Ms. Lewis' career mirrors that. But Ms. Lewis said, Look here, look to the South, and Ms. Lewis in some ways helped us see the value in our food. She gave us the pride to hold our cast iron skillets high.

ELLIOTT: She did not lead a simple life. She was a very interesting woman.

Mr. EDGE: She was quite complex and, you know, if her cookery and her book was iconoclastic, so was her personal life and her political beliefs. Ms. Lewis, when living in New York, worked as a typesetter in the typesetting department at the Daily Worker, the newspaper for the Communist Party. She was a woman engaged in the national dialogue about race and the import of it, and yet she was also an exemplar of Southern cookery and Southern culture. That complexity is Mr. Lewis. She shows us all that Southern cooking can be quite simple, but it's not simplistic.

ELLIOTT: John T., what's your favorite Edna Lewis recipe?

Mr. EDGE: That catfish stew. You know, when you think about catfish stew, some people have this vision of, you know, bones sticking up out of a pot. This was made with farm-raised catfish fillets in this really delicate tomato broth.

ELLIOTT: You need a little bowl of grits to go with it.

John T. Edge is the Director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Thanks, John T.

Mr. EDGE: Thanks, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Edna Lewis was buried in her family's plot in Unionville, Va. this morning. To try Edna Lewis' recipe for catfish stew, go to our web site, npr.org.

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