21
Jan
08

Edna Lewis and My Future Fortune

Edna Lewis

My grandparents were Arkansas farmers from Center Hill who raised supreme examples of everything – tomatoes, corn, peas and greens of all kinds, okra, watermelons, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, peaches, and apricots, even peanuts. You get the picture. And this doesn’t even begin to describe my Mamaw’s flower garden, an acre of texture and color that might have illustrated the lushest of seed catalogues.

My grandparents’ garden at Center Hill was special, but it wasn’t an uncommon sight in that part of the world. A lot of my friends had similar garden experiences when they visited their families. At the time I never thought about what it would be like not to have a family farm. I was too busy moaning as I sat on an overturned milk crate beneath the blazing sun to anyone within earshot about having to pick what seemed like enough strawberries to fill a box car (as my great-grandmother would happily pick row after row while standing bent at the waist).

I also didn’t realize that my Missionary Baptist grandparents and their place were part of a budding organic movement back in the 1970s that had at least a philosophical connection to Alice Waters and her seminal Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, where the mantra, now more powerful than ever, was that food should be locally grown, seasonal, organic and beautiful.

On the other side of the continent in 1973, by then living in New York and calling Richard Avedon and Truman Capote long-time friends, Virginia-born Edna Lewis was writing a book I’m now reading called A Taste of Country Cooking, a memoir/ cookbook of Southern food that unconsciously extolled the virtues of, you guessed it, locally grown, seasonal, organic and beautiful food; oh, and lard.

As I read Lewis’s book I feel a nagging sense of having been cheated out of my organic food birthright. Somehow, from their outpost in White County, AR, my grandparents were swept up by the early winds of that movement–composting (God help us if we tried to throw a way a tomato peel in the presence of my grandmother), minimally invasive pest treatments, and award-winning produce to show for it. Like a Mughal prince, I was rich beyond my wildest dreams but had no idea because it was all I’d ever known.

For me, calling Lewis’s Taste a cookbook sort of misses the point, since much of my fascination with it comes from glimpsing a year in the life of a Virginia farmer’s daughter, the grand-daughter of a freed slave. Why not make the focus of a book about a day in the life from that time and place about food, since sustaining a family essentially revolved around growing it, preparing it and eating it.

Edna Lewis died last year. She left this world very well. In her later years she met a young chef from Alabama named Scott Peacock, now the beloved head chef at Atlanta’s Watershed restaurant. I say young. Like me, he’s in his 40s, and since I still feel young I declare that he is, too. For her final seven years Miss Lewis, as he called her, lived with Scott in Atlanta, deepening what sounds like a profound friendship and cooking up a storm.

Together they wrote one of my favorite books, The Gift of Southern Cooking, in which wonderful things result from the intermingling of generations and the respect Miss Lewis and Scott show for people, place and the best quality seasonal ingredients. I know from experience that folks who love people and cooking that much typically also create incredibly tasty food.

I am keenly aware that I have much more in this life than I will ever deserve, but I must confess that reading about Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock’s work and life together gives me a hopeful and greedy sense that someday I will be rich again, the way I used to be.

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4 Responses to “Edna Lewis and My Future Fortune”


  1. January 21, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    Great post Troy. She’s beautiful.

  2. January 21, 2008 at 7:16 pm

    I love this post and the beauty of it. It makes me long for spring with planting gardens, fresh summer vegetables, and the cozy warmth of winter soups.
    My grandmother always told me to never eat a skinny woman’s food because it couldn’t possibly taste very good. Ha.

  3. 3 gunstreamgirl
    January 22, 2008 at 3:25 am

    i think the best way that we could honor her memory is to fry up a big batch of chicken and enjoy it with friends.

  4. January 22, 2008 at 12:33 pm

    Great idea Julie. Why don’t you hop a plane this weekend and we’ll do just that!


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