Classic Cookbooks: The Taste Of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis

Edna Lewis in 1980
Edna Lewis in 1980
Photo: Martha Cooper/New York Post Archives (Getty Images)
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Once upon a time, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, there was a small farming community called Freetown. Not a town precisely, it was founded by three families of freed slaves after the Civil War. Over time, eight more families joined. One of the first things they did was set up a school, taught by a graduate of Oberlin College. Although each family had its own farm and house—all built in a circle—they all came together to pitch in with the most laborious tasks such as hog butchering and wheat harvesting, which over time developed into community celebrations, complete with enormous feasts. “The spirit of pride in community and cooperation in the work of farming is what made Freetown a very wonderful place to grow up in,” wrote Edna Lewis, a granddaughter of one of the founders of Freetown more than a century after its founding. “Whenever I go back to visit my sisters and brothers, we relive old times, remembering the past. And when we share again in gathering wild strawberries, canning, rendering lard, finding walnuts, picking persimmons, making fruitcake, I realize how much the bond that held us had to do with food.”

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Lewis left Freetown as a teenager and moved north, first to Washington, D.C., and then to New York City, where she worked at a variety of jobs, including typesetter at The Daily Worker, pheasant farmer, dressmaker, docent in the Hall of African Peoples at the American Museum of Natural History, and chef at Café Nicholson in Manhattan and Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn. Eventually, through acquaintances in the food world, she met Judith Jones, the cookbook editor at Knopf who had worked with, among many others, Julia Child, James Beard, Madhur Jaffrey, and Joan Nathan. Jones was entranced by Lewis’ stories of growing up in Freetown and the food she and her family grew, gathered, raised, and ate. Every week for a winter, Lewis would visit Jones to share stories; Jones’ questions and prompts, she found, inspired near-perfect recall of her childhood, and she would go home and write those stories down on yellow legal pads. The result was the book The Taste Of Country Cooking, published in 1976.

There is something extremely comforting about reading about someone else’s idyllic childhood. In Freetown, there’s a time and a place for everything (often preordained by the position of the stars in the sky), everyone has a job to do, even the children, and they’re all happy to do it. The Taste Of Country Cooking tells the story of a typical year in Freetown, starting in spring and ending in winter, told through evocatively titled menus: “A Spring Breakfast When the Shad Were Running,” “A Cool-Evening Supper,” “Making Ice Cream on a Summer Afternoon.”

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There were no freezers in Freetown—all the ice was cut from the river in the wintertime and stored in the icehouse, another community project—and the only form of refrigeration was a wooden box submerged in a nearby stream. Everything else had to be carefully preserved and stored. Food was closely tied to the seasons: that shad only came in spring, chickens were best for frying in early summer, and wild grapes were at the ripest at twilight in the early fall. When the book was published in the ’70s, after Americans had spent several decades enamored of convenience food, seasonal cooking had become such a novelty that hippie back-to-the-land types who embraced it considered themselves revolutionaries. In the foreword to my edition of The Taste Of Country Cooking, Alice Waters, one of the leaders of that revolution, writes that Lewis was an inspiration to cooks of her generation: “For her, always, as it had in her childhood, pleasure flowed unstoppably out of doing. She saw clearly that the store-bought cake never brings lasting satisfaction; true contentment comes from baking it yourself, by hand, for someone you love.”

Lewis mentions more than a few times in The Taste Of Country Cooking that some of the flavors of her childhood are no longer available. The beef doesn’t taste right, what’s labeled “mutton” is usually just older lamb, many of the vegetables and herbs she loved are impossible to find in city markets. But this book isn’t a lament for the Good Old Days, and it’s not a polemic about the importance of eating only fresh food or a call for the revival of Southern cuisine (though it was, in fact, instrumental in promoting both). Instead, it’s a gentle reminiscence, an immersion in a lost way of life. In that respect, it reminds me of other books I loved when I was a kid about other kids growing up long ago: All-Of-A-Kind Family, Betsy-Tacy, Homer Price, and, most of all, the early books of the Little House series. In fact, I think if my mother had sat my sister and me down for our evening bedtime story and read us The Taste Of Country Cooking, we wouldn’t have complained. (This impression is reinforced by the line drawings scattered throughout the text.) What the book lacks in narrative momentum—there are no petty arguments or episodes of bad behavior and none of Lewis’ relatives or neighbors is even mentioned by name except for Aunt Jennie Hailstalk, “an elegant lady and masterful cook, who envied no one,” and Uncle George, who always brought the bourbon—it makes up for in detail. Hog butchering, as anyone who ever read Little House In The Big Woods could tell you, is dramatic enough without inserting any petty infighting. (And yes, there is a pig’s bladder! But while the Ingalls girls used theirs as a toy, the Lewis children turned theirs into a Christmas decoration.)

And the food! Here’s Lewis’ introduction to the chapter called “Midsummer Sunday Breakfast”:

The most pleasant memories come to my mind of a midsummer’s breakfast. Windows and doors were flung open wide. Our bare feet had become completely toughened and comfortable as we sat and quietly relaxed on a long bench behind the table where a platter of hot fried chicken rested, along with fried vegetables such as corn or cymlings [a kind of squash], sausage cakes, biscuits, batter bread or cornmeal muffins, jelly or preserves, coffee, and well water or milk for the children.

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Does this not sound like one of the most delicious breakfasts imaginable?

What struck me most while I was rereading The Taste Of Country Cooking this week, though, is its emphasis on community. Little House In The Big Woods describes the Ingalls family as proudly self-sufficient in their cabin in the middle of the Wisconsin woods (possibly the influence of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter and collaborator Rose Wilder Lane, who was, among many other things, a prominent Libertarian). Freetown, by contrast, is a collective. Everyone has everything they need, but the community couldn’t function if the families didn’t help one another out. Lewis mentions cousins and other relatives frequently coming to visit and staying on for weeks at a time. There are always enough food and beds to go around, and the saddest part of the year is September when the flow of summer visitors stops. (But they’ll be back.) Perhaps it’s no coincidence that as a young adult, Lewis became a communist.

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Most of all, the residents of Freetown are conscious of their shared history, that the community was founded by people who had once been slaves. They celebrate Emancipation Day instead of Thanksgiving. They grow geraniums, eat black-eyed peas, and raise guinea fowl as, Lewis points out, their West African ancestors did. (Later in life, she wore beautiful African-style dresses that she made herself.) Deep in the winter, when there are no farm chores to be done, Lewis’ grandfather holds court around the fireplace, swapping stories with his old friends, while Lewis huddles between her father’s knees and listens. “I was too young then to understand why so much time was spent in discussion,” she writes. “It was only afterward that I realized they were still awed by the experience of chattel slavery fifty years ago, and of having become freedmen. It was something that they never tired of talking about. It gave birth to a song I often heard them sing, ‘My Soul Look Back and Wonder How I Got Over.’”

Lewis’ father died in 1928, when she was 12, and four years later, in the depths of the Depression, Lewis left home. Freetown no longer exists, not in the way that it did when Lewis was a child. But there are no intimations in The Taste Of Country Cooking that any of this is about to happen. There’s no record of hard times or bad harvests or war or racial violence or Jim Crow, though history tells us that these things happened, too. This is a portrait of a place of great peace and beauty, painstakingly maintained by the collective effort of everyone who lives there. And maybe it’s possible to recreate it in some small way by cooking the recipes—each in their own time—that Lewis carefully preserved.

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Aimee Levitt is associate editor of The Takeout.

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There were no freezers in Freetown—all the ice was cut from the river in the wintertime and stored in the icehouse, another community project—and the only form of refrigeration was a wooden box submerged in a nearby stream. Everything else had to be carefully preserved and stored. Food was closely tied to the seasons: that shad only came in spring, chickens were best for frying in early summer, and wild grapes were at the ripest at twilight in the early fall.

Something people should keep in mind before they grumble about the quality/flavor of the tomatoes and peaches they can buy in January.