NY Times: Edna Lewis and the Black Roots of American Cooking

I love southern cooking. Of course, I do mean poor folks food, which is what I grew up around in the south. While my family ate mostly German food, such as pork, sauerkraut, potatoes, sausages and such, living near the Glades in south Florida, I also was exposed to more indigenous stuff, such as all you can eat catfish and hushpuppy fries on Friday night out on a dirt road in sawgrass country. My father used to take me way out west on Tamiami Trail to fish in the creek with bamboo poles, cause with bamboo poles you didn’t need to pay for a license to catch dinner.


I developed respect for make-do food. I read recently that food used to be a much greater part of the family budget. According to The Atlantic, “Families used to spend more than 50 percent of our income on eating and clothing. Now, the average household spends well under 20 percent.” * I raised children when it was something like 30% on average, but then I was living in Alaska, and the cost of food was way about average. The fish from the Tamiami Trail Creek was replaced by salmon from the fish wheel on the Tanana River in Fairbanks, at a $1 a piece. It was chum salmon, which most people fed to their sled dogs, but it would last us a couple of meals after roasting it, over coals in the ground, stuffed with onions and butter. The leftovers became salmon patties with fresh dill from the herb patch. Potatoes came from the garden, if the moose hadn’t eaten them. I went to the supermarket on Thursdays, when the food that was near its pull-date was marked down.


Today, for most people, food is rather taken for granted, and much of it is wasted. It comes canned or frozen, or in boxes. Mostly for a lot of people it comes hot wrapped in stay warm containers fresh from the fast food purveyor. Our relationship to food has become a distant abstraction, focused on satisfying our most basic tastes; salt, sugar, and fat. And speed is essential. Run someone over, but get me my pizza in 30 minutes.

Edna Lewis’ cookbook, ‘‘The Taste of Country Cooking,’’  “recall[s] scenes of growing up in Freetown and the foods they had gathered, grown, harvested, shot, hooked and cooked.” This is what today is called “slow cooking”. Or “farm to table”. What it really is is learning to live well on little. To turn the sow’s ear into, well, a very well presented sow’s ear.

“The book is, in one sense, a country manual, with instructions on picking wild mushrooms and the best way to turn dandelions into wine. (It tastes like Drambuie, Lewis offers helpfully.) It’s also a cookbook, because there are teaspoons and tablespoons and ‘‘cook uncovered for 10 minutes.’’ But perhaps the truest way to describe the book is as a memoir told in recipes, where every menu, dish and ingredient speaks to her childhood in rural Virginia and how her community made a life from the land, taking pleasure in the doing of many things.”

Food and cooking have been cheapened in more ways than price. Fast food and cheap food are the anchors of family life in the US. Cooking takes time and experience and most people have neither. On the other extreme, as a clear point of where you are on the social food chain, we are told we should be purists, ethical consumers who spend $6 for a bottle of asparagus water from Whole Foods.

Edna Lewis spent her lifetime incorporating the experiences of her culture and ancestors into a repository of southern cuisine. This is cooking from sometimes the meanest of ingredients that is taken their highest level. I can’t wait to get my hands on the book and read her story, and probably to try some of the recipes. But I do know that the secrets that make her cooking legendary are bred in the bone, and I won’t be privy to them.

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