Edna Lewis and Me: Imagined Memories. A Reflection on Shared History in Central Virginia.
By Rebecca Dudley
“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…The spirit of pride in community and of cooperation in the work of farming is what made Freetown a very wonderful place to grow up in. Ours was a large family: my parents, my grandfather, three sisters, two brothers, and cousins who stayed with us from time to time, all living under the same roof. The farm was demanding but everyone shared in the work—tending the animals, gardening, harvesting, preserving the harvest, and, every day, preparing delicious foods that seemed to celebrate the good things of each season…Whenever there were major tasks on the farm, work that had to be accomplished quickly (and timing is so important in farming), then everyone pitched in, not just family but neighbors a well. And afterward we would all take part in the celebrations, sharing the rewards that follow hard labor.”
This is how Edna Lewis’ first cookbook The Taste of Country Cooking begins, by situating herself and her family in the central Virginia landscape at a particular, triumphant, moment in Virginia history, as descendants of freed slaves. It was in this setting that she learned, primarily from her mother, how to cook central Virginian cuisine. This food is marked by its seasonality and dependence on local cultivation and foraging—the book, appropriately, is divided according to the seasons (starting with Spring) with major calendar events nestled within each season, defining the year. The book unfolds its knowledge of grown and foraged foods layered with stories of who is visiting, how guests are welcomed, and precious fleeting moments of noticing the Virginian landscape. Ingredients put up in Summer (pickled watermelon rind) make a reprise on the Christmas Eve dinner table. Persimmons wine, made in late summer, is enjoyed in Hunting Season.
The temporal beat throughout the book and the recipes held within remind me of my own childhood, and of my own particular relationship, as the descendant of slave-holding whites, to the fraught shared history of this place and of our shared culinary traditions. Of the temporality of food, Country Cooking reminds me of my parents, who as stubborn gardeners put in squashes, peas, green beans, peppers, cucumbers, potatoes, sweet corn, melons, a slew of other herbs and vegetables and—vitally—tomatoes every year, and we children (two brothers, one sister, and myself) were required to help in the tilling, weeding, tending, harvesting, and putting up (or processing, you could say). We watched my mom put up hundreds of quarts of stewed tomatoes—the same recipe in Ms. Lewis’ book—and learned how to safely handle the hot glass Mason jars, and how to look at the lids to make sure they sealed—the same technique in Ms. Lewis’ book. My mom’s buttermilk biscuit recipe, taken from a community spiral-bound recipe book called Virginia Hospitality (I have my maternal great-grandmother’s copy, gifted to her from my great-aunt, and I regularly make pie recipes from it), is also the same as Ms. Lewis’. So too are the recipes and techniques for jams, pies, braised meats, salad dressings, pound cake, and stewed greens. The table settings, too, bring me home: a menu is not complete without butter, something pickled or something sweet (like jam), a biscuit or a slice of bread. No meal is complete without something sweet at the end, and no kitchen is ready to host without a (usually round) confection—my mom always had a pound cake or a sweet potato pie on the counter.
It’s a deeply romanticized set of memories—as much an imagining of home as a realization of it. Sitting at the kitchen table over the summer, my mom and I paged through some of these cookbooks, and she recollected memories of her grandmother taking late-summer harvests to the cannery, and of sugar cookies always well-stocked in a jar. In reading The Taste of Country Cooking, I feel as close to Edna Lewis as I do to my great-grandmother. We’re all from Virginia, our food traditions are deeply seasonal and contingent on hard (gendered) work, and, quite simply, we eat the same stuff and we do so in the same manner. We share, across time and—with me now in St. Louis and Edna Lewis moving to New York and ultimately Georgia—across space, the same substances, and reciprocal moments. Our hands work the same biscuit dough. We have a shared history, with beautiful food and family values.
But this history is also fraught and painful—I’m a descendent of the propertied, white, slaveholding class, and I am white. I imagine the ancestors of Edna Lewis working, enslaved, in the kitchens of my ancestors, perfecting the biscuit recipe, and feeding the children who grew up to become my grandmothers and fathers, who came to claim that biscuit recipe as our family tradition—another kind of harvesting. I imagine domestic moments of shared space, of women sharing in the labor of putting up foods, of mutual taking-care, and of racial dehumanization. I imagine someone tasting something really good and looking into someone else’s face who tastes that same thing in a moment of sensorial intimacy, while also holding onto and being inside of racial and class boundaries. What does it mean to share the substance of food, the placeness and practices of food, across a historical and racial boundary? Does it create a kind of kinship? And if it does, what does it mean for a young white woman in the year 2020 to recognize a kind of kinship with Edna Lewis? These are questions that I don’t yet know how to answer. But, in spirit of a liberated anthropology, I hope that to venerate these bonds and examine shared histories in a restorative way alongside the crucial critical work of writing and teaching the histories of racial marginalization, imagining intimacies might be a first step.
I did not know Edna Lewis, but I have come to know her through the writings of food scholars (like Sara Franklin, NYU), through interviews with people who did know and work with her (like chef and food activist Scott Peacock), and through podcasts and celebrations of her (too numerous to name). But most importantly, I have come to know her through her cookbooks, where her voice is clear. I imagine inviting her to my table, serving up fresh biscuits and sharing coffee.