Edna Lewis, late doyenne of traditional southern fare, in Gourmet
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The January issue of Gourmet is devoted to the food of the U.S. south — probably our sturdiest regional culinary tradition. I adore southern cooking, and the issue had my stomach grumbling from start to finish. I can think of few dishes that sound as satisfying as “simmered greens with cornmeal dumplings” (page 37).
Beyond the enticing recipes and food-porn photos, what really makes the issue work is the presence of the late Edna Lewis (1916-2006), the great food writer, chef, and canonizer of southern fare.
The granddaughter of slaves, Lewis was born on a small Virginia farm under Jim Crow. Like the southern European peasants whose cuisine inflamed the passion of Alice Waters and other U.S. food revolutionists of the 1970s, Lewis applied traditional techniques to the best seasonal ingredients she could find.
Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl, who lived in Berkeley during its culinary avant-garde period, reminisces in her editor’s letter about meeting Lewis at a California culinary festival in the 1970s.
Like so many Americans who were enthralled by the cooking of Europe, I was shocked to learn we had our own version of what the chefs call terroir. And I can still recall Miss Lewis describing the tastes of the fruits and vegetables she ate when she was growing up and her lament over the lost flavor of supermarket produce.
Cooking alongside the greatest French chefs of the day, Reichl reports, Lewis stole the show. Reichl can’t remember what the Frenchies cooked, but she has a vivid memory of Lewis’ biscuits: “so light and delicate that you closed your mouth over them only to discover that they had evaporated, leaving behind but a puff of warm air and a delicious memory.”
In the issue, Gourmet runs a previously unpublished Lewis essay, written in 1992, on the theme of “what is the south.” At the end of it, she turns to the question of small-scale agriculture and the evisceration she witnessed it undergo in her lifetime:
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 it rested on 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.