It’s Women’s History Month!

March is a special month. Not because we celebate St. Patrick’s Day and not because we finally begin to see the first signs of Spring, but because it is Women’s History Month. Now more than ever looking back at the women who have paved the way for us is important. We sometimes forget how much our mothers and grandmothers stuggled for rights we take for granted today. We still have much further to go, but we have come a long way so far. I can’t think of a better way to kick-off Women’s History Month than by talking about Edna Lewis.

In March, I will highlight a few women who I admire tremendously. I admire them for their brilliance, tenacity, bravery, and grace. If you don’t know them, I hope you will learn about them and find as much joy in getting to know them as I have. I will share a new woman with you every week: Look for a new post every Sunday until the end of March.  This first week I am sharing a bit about the late great Edna Lewis. I will also feature: Julia Child, Bessie Coleman, Samin Nosrat and MFK Fisher.

Edna Lewis

I just learned about Edna Lewis last year on a podcast. Which, given her stature and the shower of awards she was given, is a shame. Why don’t more people know who she is? All Southern food lovers should be cooking out of her books and praising her as loudly as we do Julia Child. He story has more glamour and perserverance, more challenge and triumph than any other chef I know. She was raised in a town establsihed by her grandfather, a freed slave, traveled to New York from Virginia during the Great Migration and for a time was Marilyn Monroe’s seamstress. Even more amazingly, during the depth of Jim Crow, she became a restauranteur. Not just a chef in a restaurant, but a full partner in a thriving restaurant in New York City. By the end of her life Edna Lewis had numerous award from such culinary institutions as the James Beard Foundation, Les Dames d’Escoffier, The Southern Foodways Alliance and others… heck in 2014 she was on a postage stamp!

A Taste of Country Cooking

When I heard a bit of her story I immediately bought her classic book “The Taste of Country Cooking”. I have had this book for a year and open it up quite often for inspiration or to just a read through a chapter. It is a cookbook, in as much as it has recipes in it, but it is really more than that. It is a memoir of a place and time that is long gone. It is a trip to a place so different from our world today that it feels like I am transported onto a whole other planet. When I read this book I get some of the same joy that I get from traveling. I don’t know of any other document that shows life for newly freed slaves and their children and children’s children like this one does. She open’s with the following simple statement:

‘‘I grew up in Freetown, Virginia, a community of farming people. It wasn’t really a town. The name was adopted because the first residents had all been freed from chattel slavery and they wanted to be known as a town of Free People.’’

This place, is a place I will never experience for myself, but through her words I am able to get a little glimpse of that world. Its also a peek into the roots of gastronomy in America. This isn’t a cookbook full of soul food as we know it today. This is food that comes from the land, that is seasonal and connected to the rythms of nature. The ingredients might surprise you if you understand Southern food to be fried chicken, chicken fried steak, gravy and pork, pork and more pork. This isn’t that. It is farm-to-table before Alice Waters was even born. Alice Waters was actually inspired by Edna Lewis and while Ms. Waters might be credited with being the Mother of the farm-to-table movement, the grandmother is really Edna Lewis. In her book you will find menus divided by season and decriptions of planting and harvesting, of raising and slaughtering of cooking in community and a life lived surrounded by love.

An American Success Story

Her Freetown is idylic. It is filled with grace, and family and a quiet dignity. There had to be difficulties, this was afterall a community of former slaves living in the American south. Her grandparents never had the opportunity to learn to read, but they made darn sure their children would have a teacher. The community around them might not acknowledge their community as a town, but they were in fact a community, a town in every way that matters.

Edna Lewis overcame so much adversity to achieve her success. She had to deal with discrimination, segregation, and indignities I can only imagine but she is always described as regal, and gracious. She worked hard, she made food that honored the people she came from and the place that created her. She never once lost sight of what she knew to be true about home, food, her people and her culture.

Articles Worth A Read

If you want to read more about Edna Lewis there is a wonderful article in the New York Times that I highly recommend. Edna Lewis and the Black Roots of American Cooking

Books I Recommend

I will earn a small commision on some of the products on this page if you purchase through my link. I have only recommended products I know and love. I have not recieved anything from these companies for free.

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