A Loving Tribute to a True Southern Food Legend
"Her cookbooks mentored me quietly, passionately. I am not certain which I relished more: her recipes for delicious country cooking or her storytelling."
In the new book Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original, chefs, food historians, writers, and others reflect on the life and work of the legendary Edna Lewis, often called the Julia Child of Southern cuisine. Here, Toni Tipton-Martin, author of the award-winning The Jemima Code shares how Lewis helped shape her career and the way we think about and cook Southern food today.
It’s 2:30 a.m. on Friday, January 14, 1995, and Edna Lewis can’t sleep. Although she is exhausted and weak from radiation, she is troubled by a conversation we’ve been having. She climbs out of bed, rips yellow paper from a legal pad, and then composes a three-page rant about African American food history.
A decade later, after the woman some have called the Julia Child of southern cuisine lost her battle with cancer at the age of eighty-nine, that note became a personal treasure to me. It also made me sad. Students of southern food cherished Miss Lewis’s culinary talent, authentic beauty, and quiet grace. Elsewhere, she was virtually unknown.
The words she penned that night strengthened my resolve to celebrate the invisible black women who fed America.
“Every group has its own food history,” Miss Lewis scribbled, with the kind of hurried penmanship that happens when thoughts are jumping out of your head and onto the page faster than you can capture them. “Our condition was different. We were brought here against our will in the millions, enslaved, and through it all established a cuisine in the south . . . the only fully developed cuisine in the country.”
Her concentration strays a bit as she talks about the food of old Harlem, survival cooking, and the poetry of Langston Hughes. But she regains focus and gets back to the point: “We developed but did not own it [southern food] because we did not own ourselves,” Miss Lewis laments, “but we established a regional cuisine.”
Before the arrival of this intimate letter in my office mail, ours had been an impersonal relationship, characterized by brief encounters at food events, and of course the mention of her name in a food article now and then.
It was the mid-1980s, and I was just beginning to get my footing as a budding journalist on the food staff at The Los Angeles Times, where rewriting news releases, generating small feature stories, and studying recipe development under the tutelage of our test kitchen director Donna Deane expanded my culinary knowledge. Fast.
I hadn’t swooned over a celebrity since Elton John’s rhapsodic “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” melted my high school pals and me into the front row seats on the lawn at Dodgers Stadium. But there I was, at a professional meeting of registered dietitians in Los Angeles in 1985, when I noticed a small crowd in the hotel lobby buzzing around a statuesque African American woman with a magnetic smile, her gray hair swept neatly into a bun worn low at the neck—long before the U.S. Postal Service put her gorgeous face on a Forever stamp. I was young and did not yet know her, but I purchased her book, then joined the groupie gaggle clamoring for autographs the way the paparazzi scratch and claw for superstar snapshots. The regal lady leaned in close, whispered a few tender words of encouragement, then graciously signed my paperback edition of The Edna Lewis Cookbook, “To Toni Tipton with Best Wishes Edna Lewis.”
I learned a lot from Miss Lewis after that. In time, her cookbooks mentored me quietly, passionately. I am not certain which I relished more: her recipes for delicious country cooking or her storytelling. I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Miss Lewis became one of the most important forces behind my James Beard Award–winning book, The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks, whether she nurtured in person, posthumously, or with the pen.
For one thing, her recipes relied on “fresh ingredients of fine quality” that you grow yourself, prepare when they are at their seasonal best, and serve elegantly. She recommended herbs picked from a pot on the windowsill to give interest and distinction to mundane foods. She taught that mayonnaise laced with fresh-cut parsley or tarragon gives seafood, cold chicken, even green beans exotic taste and aroma, while butter flecked with chives makes roast rack of spring lamb unforgettable.
She put the association with black folks and fried chicken into historical perspective, explaining that the first spring chickens were pan-broiled “as they were too delicate to fry,” but when they reached 1 1/2 to 2 pounds, her family fried them as a breakfast meat or a special treat at picnics. And she disputed the myth that black people don’t eat quail in a recipe that includes instructions for singeing feathers, reminding me of recipes in early twentieth-century black cookbooks for preparing slaughtered chicken for the pot.
Then there is the lovely way her cookery reflected the fusion of ethnic ingredients and great cooking methods from Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and America’s indigenous peoples and set off with accent marks, such as soufflé, vinaigrette, sauce béarnaise, and crème caramel. Babka and ratatouille helped me see the fancy and foreign names smartly attributed to her everyday farm food. In Miss Lewis’s kitchen, braised meats are called ragout, stewed fruit is a compote, potatoes are whipped not mashed, and steamed rice goes to the table molded and shaped into a ring.
When Essence magazine celebrated 100 years of enduring black culinary traditions in a 1985 food story, Miss Lewis represented, with pride, her ancestors’ creativity and ingenuity, boasting: “Many great southern cooks have been black women. Our people have been involved in cooking here since the establishment of this country.” And even though an article praising updated cooking by chefs below the Mason-Dixon Line, which appeared in COOK’s Magazine that same year, ignored her, Food and Wine magazine acknowledged her style of local and seasonal cooking, characterizing it as old-fashioned country cooking and somewhat different than the established soul food of black folks.
Our paths crossed again in 1994 when Miss Lewis and I shared the stage at a dinner celebrating African American cuisine in Washington, D.C. I told Miss Lewis that I wanted to reclaim the reputation of professional black cooks who, like her, had championed artistic black cooking and made sophisticated, versatile, delicious food in America’s middle-class homes but their contributions to southern cooking disappeared in history.
Her handwritten letter emboldened me with an exhortation: “Leave no stone unturned.”
As if it was that simple. Julie, after all, had Julia. In the mid-1990s, when I embarked on my research, there just wasn’t one single source conveying the rich and complicated history of America’s invisible black cooks. In fact, if it had not been for exaggerated mammy stereotypes recorded in the diaries and letters of slaveholding women, their letters to friends and family, nostalgic mythology in southern literature, and prejudiced imagery in advertising and media, these tireless, talented women would have had little written history at all.
I made peace with that unfortunate reality and moved a lot of stones—boulders, really—over the next few years trying to learn more about my ancestors’ unwritten history. I wore the aprons of America’s black cooks, literally and figuratively—exploring everything from scholarship and literature to music lyrics and fine art for evidence of their knowledge and skills. I ran up incredible expenses traveling to historical societies. Visited special collections archives at prominent universities and the Library of Congress. Searched the census. Read city directories. Studied oral histories and slave narratives. Treaded grooves in cemeteries. And spent a chunk of my kids’ college tuition on eBay in auctions of rare black cookbooks.
What emerged was a surprising alternative view of the “toothy, grin- and calico-swathed plump face” belonging to the world’s best-recognized black cook, Aunt Jemima. These cooks maintained gardens. Prepared and served free-range chicken and pastured beef and pork. Practiced classic cooking techniques. Recycled. Miss Lewis wasn’t the only, but she was the best-known.
Through recipes and recollections in more than 300 black cookbooks, I met cooks whose culinary skills, professional and personal values, work ethic, business sense, and passion for education and community were conspicuous and far-reaching. Like Miss Lewis, Freda DeKnight, the food editor of Ebony magazine, published a comprehensive recipe collection intentionally designed to help readers view African American cooks and their cuisine differently. Her 1948 cookbook, A Date with a Dish, featured more than 1,000 recipes for dishes being prepared and served in middle-class homes. The National Council of Negro Women also challenged the myths associated with black food and culture in 1958 in the Historical Cookbook of the American Negro.
Miss Lewis’s cookbooks continued the tradition, portraying a style that celebrated regional southern heritage, extended the black culinary repertoire beyond plantation poverty food, and defied racial segregation, essentially destroying the old mammy monument. Her writing challenged me to reimagine, then to reclaim, things I already knew about black middle-class cooking but ignored, or suppressed. Things like: the expression of love associated with my grandmother’s scratch cooking. The inherited desire to put wholesome food on the table connected to long road trips to the country, where my parents bought pastured meat. The way that the taste of processed food pales when compared to the deliciousness of freshly harvested produce from mother’s urban farm. The social and environmental responsibility conveyed by the can of bacon grease on the back of the stove, the ingenuity of repurposed leftovers.
Rare cookbooks, including Miss Lewis’s, helped me prove that these are values, not handicaps.
For more than 200 years, African Americans have struggled to bring their recipe collections before the book-buying public. The “something outta nuthin’” dimensions of chitlins, hoppin’ John, and fish cakes pigeon-holed my ancestors as great cooks, to be sure, but their accomplishments were usually attributed to natural instinct, innate ability, voodoo magic, mystique—even love—and confined to the borders of the Old South and sorrow’s kitchens. (This was especially true during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the domestic science movement was taking shape, or in the 1960s, when the Black Power movement infused everything, from dance and music to food, with soul.)
Of course, it is true that the dishes black families ate during hard times (soul food) are heralded for their industriousness. It is also true that these delicious creations are marginalized as purely survival food, incapable of inspiring. Which is a crying shame, because our culinary flair offers more than just a few make-do dishes for budget-conscious cookery. Ask yourself: Who else has made so much money by the association with a recipe—like pancakes and cornbread? How many restaurant chains built their reputation on a black cook’s perfectly crisp and juicy fried chicken? Whose mouth doesn’t water at the mention of light and flaky biscuits like those sold in the supermarket freezer section? What trip to New Orleans would be complete without a bowlful of gumbo brewed by a Creole chef? When did anyone successfully resist a simple but decadent piece of blackberry cobbler?
WATCH: Meet Toni Tipton-Martin of the Southern Foodways Alliance
Many black cookbook authors have tried and failed to tell the complete story of African American foodways, and I’m not sure I can do any better—an unfortunate that’s-what-you-get outcome of artificially segregating the southern food canon. In the effort to claim a space at the table of southern food history, black folks have proudly embraced the ingenious and industrious dimensions of southern cooking—soul food that limited black cooking to survival dishes made from lowly ingredients, such as unwanted pig parts, wild greens, and cornmeal. At the same time, “southern” food was a beloved regional style, known for its fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, greens, beans, decadent desserts and sweet tea, encoded as “white.” The canon became fractured.
The contributions my ancestors made were limited to their labor—working the fields where the food was grown, stirring the pot where the food was cooked, and serving the food in the homes of the elite—not their recipes, their intellectual property. Some regional cookbooks by white authors even used plantation language in their recipe titles, like pickaninny cookies and mammy’s muffins, or stereotyped images to distinguish black southern food from white the way Jim Crow designated public water fountains “Whites Only” or “Colored.”
Which left me wondering: What shall we call the food black women cooked when resources were plentiful? Why are delicious recipes that reveal aspects of living well considered inauthentic and not really African American—whether the dishes originally were prepared for middle-class black families or white employers? Why don’t we celebrate the kind of cooking that would have turned yesterday’s enslaved cooks, free cooks, railroad chefs, domestic workers, cooking teachers, restaurateurs, hoteliers, vendors, and retailers into today’s celebrity chefs—if they were white?
These cooks have always been with us here in the United States, hovering in the shadows as quiet culinary shepherds. For instance, a formerly enslaved woman interviewed in 1936 for the Federal Writers’ Project in Texas named Mariah Robinson described hard-working black women this way: “Us has ever lived ‘de useful life.’” What has begun to change is the perception of them. The Jemima Code introduced the world to the books black cooks like Miss Lewis wrote that validate their knowledge, skills, and creative abilities. With Miss Lewis and these authors as my muses, I intend to reframe perceptions of African American cooking by changing what we think about the people who cooked it—chronicling the transition of their skills from the villages of the African diaspora to the Caribbean and rural South and ultimately to grand displays of their talent on the dining tables and sideboards of America’s elite—whether those tables were in the homes of wealthy whites or upwardly mobile blacks in the North, South, East, or West.
The late, great James Beard said that Edna Lewis made him want to go right into the kitchen and start cooking. In The Jemima Code, I agreed with him. But for me, she does more than just that.
Without children of her own, she wrote to pass along ideas about natural farming to future generations, sharing how things were done in the past so we might “learn firsthand from those who worked hard, loved the land, and relished the fruits of their labor.” That truth—whatever it is called—inspirits confidence in my own rarely documented, often ignored middle-class culinary legacy, too. She gives me hope.
Every time I read The Taste of Country Cooking, I want to dig in the soil, care for baby birds, milk cows, make butter and preserves. Farm activities and menus and recipes prepared according to the time of year—sheep shearing and a spring lunch after picking wild mushrooms; an early summer lunch of the season’s delicacies and a prepared-ahead summer dinner; a morning after hog butchering breakfast or a fall hunting season dinner; Christmas Eve Supper, a dinner celebrating the last of the barnyard fowl, and a dinner of chicken and dumplings and warm gingerbread—all remind me of summers spent on my grandmother’s small farm in rural Southern California, where soul food staples were rare but fresh, wholesome food and culinary grace were plentiful.
I have walked in Miss Lewis’s footsteps on the opulent grounds of Middleton Place and stood in the kitchen at the Fearrington House, monuments of the Old South where her chocolate soufflé is still on the menu—evidence that black women left their mark on American cuisine in the dishes they left behind. And it is here, in these sacred spaces, where her quiet voice and stories of self-reliance and creative expression help me untangle the complicated mystery of white and black Americans cooking side by side—where their cultural habits and techniques crossed boundaries of owner and enslaved, or rigid codes imposed by Jim Crow—to establish a shared cuisine.
In A Woman’s Place Is in the Kitchen, Ann Cooper wrote that “Ms. Lewis paved the way for women into the professional kitchen, not only as one of the first women, but as a black woman as well.”
I would add that as black cooks, propelled by Lewis’s pilgrimage from “just another excellent cook in an apron” to “grand dame” of southern food, we also owe her our culinary freedom—liberty conferred on yellow legal paper.
“A Message from my Muse,” by Toni Tipton-Martin, from Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original edited by Sara B. Franklin. Copyright © 2018 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.org
Toni Tipton-Martin is a culinary journalist, author, and community activist. She is the author of The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks, the winner of a 2016 James Beard Book Award and a 2016 Art of Eating Prize and the recipient of a 2015 Certificate of Outstanding Contribution to Publishing from the Black Caucus of the Library Association.
The photo of Lewis above, by John T. Hill, is part of an exhibition presented by Ann Stewart Fine Art that will be on view at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, NC through May 7.