I was privileged to meet Edna Lewis, the woman some have called the “Julia Child of Southern Cuisine,” in 1985 at the annual meeting of registered dietitians in Los Angeles, where she was drawing a crowd of autograph seekers. I was young and didn’t know a thing about her, but I purchased The Edna Lewis Cookbook, anyway, then for the next 10 years she silently mentored me as I cooked from its pages.
It wasn’t long before I was allured by her incredible talent and her delicate, selfless manner, just like the rest of the crowd. That’s why I was particularly surprised and humbled when her strongly-worded letter arrived in my office mailbox with a challenge: “Leave no stone unturned.”
It was 1995, and Edna was exhausted and weak from radiation, but she gathered her strength and composed a three-page rant about African American food history, which said in part: “We developed but did not own it [southern food] because we did not own ourselves,” Edna laments, “but we established a cuisine.
“Every group has its own food history,” Edna 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.”
Ten years later, after Edna lost her battle with cancer at the age of 89, that letter became a personal treasure to me. It also made me sad. Edna’s culinary talent, authentic beauty, and quiet grace are cherished in the world of southern food. Elsewhere, she is virtually unknown.
Her words strengthened my resolve to celebrate the invisible women who fed America.
I knew it wouldn’t be easy. Julie, after all, had Julia; there just isn’t a single source that accurately portrays the history of African American cooks. In fact, if it had not been for Aunt Jemima stereotypes these tireless, talented women would have little written history at all.
Edna is just one of many affirming examples of real, professional empowered, beautiful – slim – black chefs who helped me re-think the link between African American women and the jarring portrait of the south’s “old black Mammy.” The powerful love language of their kitchens has taught me how to treat my children, how to give when my cup is empty, and of course, how to cook. And I mean really cook.
When I make Edna’s blackberry cobbler, my husband and kids each grab a spoon, stand around the steaming pan, and dig in, while I imagine her whispering the old-fashioned secret wisdom that used to be handed down between generations. I joyfully talk about the characteristics that intersect in the black women like Edna Lewis who fed this nation, but explain the ways they have been lost in lampoon. I discover that the woman I am becoming is a mere shadow of the women they were: patient and loving; smart, talented, hard-working; strong physically and emotionally, compassionate; multi-tasking.
I make peace with the harsh reality of my own double history, and that begins to break the Jemima Code.
Recipe: Edna’s Blackberry Cobbler
- 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup lard
- 1/3 cup cold water
- 1 cup sugar cubes, crushed
- 5 cups blackberries
- 4 thin slices butter
- 3/4 cups granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 1/4 cup light cream
- 1 cup Vanilla-Flavored Whipped Cream (recipe follows)
- Sift the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl. Blend in the lard with a pastry blender or with your fingers. When it is well blended and fine-grained, skrinkle in the water all at once, and draw the dough together quickly, shaping it into a ball. Divide in half and let rest a few minutes. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Roll out the dough and line an 8-inch baking pan. Sprinkle 2 to 3 tablespoons of the crushed sugar over the dough. fill with the berries, adding the pieces of butter and sprinkling with the granulated sugar mixed with the cornsarch. Wet the rim of the bottom crust and place the top pastry over it, pressing down to seal. Trim away the excess. With the handle of a dinner knife, make a decorative edge and then cut a few slits in the center to allow steam to escape. Brush the thop with a thick brush of cream and sprinkle on the remaining crused cube sugar. Place in a the preheated oven, shut the door, and reduce the heat to 350 degress. Bake for 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and set on a rack to cool slightly before serving. Serve with a dollop of Vanilla-Flavored Whipped Cream on top.
Number of servings: 8