It is truly a bummer of a Valentine’s Day for me.
I wrote an announcement over at The Paper Palate about Miss Lewis’ death, but I thought I would give a few more personal thoughts here.
Miss Lewis was always her own person, who always went her own way. Born in Freetown, the granddaughter of a former slave, she grew up planting, harvesting and cooking fresh foods with the seasons in her rural community, and she learned early on what a difference truly fresh foods made in flavor.
In that sense, the very first time I picked up her first book, The Taste of Country Cooking, I immediately felt a deep and abiding kinship with this woman who was decades my elder, but whose early culinary experiences mirrored my own. She knew the experience of shelling fresh peas on the porch with her family, the taste of a piecrust made with home-rendered lard, and the incomparable sweetness of corn picked, shucked the dropped briefly in boiling water. She conveyed these memories in a way that could make those who had never done these things understand the importance of them, and from her, a generation of can-opener cooks first began to learn to make Southern food that was not a woeful concatenation of processed foodstuffs.
In her later years, she parnered with the young talented and openly gay chef, Scott Peacock, to write a book called The Gift of Southern Cooking, which was published in 2003 to great critical acclaim. Critics, cooks and food industry professionals all lauded the partnership between the two authors, a partnership that became a deep friendship, but Miss Lewis’ family felt differently.
As her health failed, Scott became her caretaker, a role that the two of them made legal as the years went by. The lived together, and Scott, even though he was running a very successful restaurant, took very good care of her.
Miss Lewis’ family launched a legal fight to try and force Miss Lewis, whom they said was not competent to make decisions regarding her care, to be given to their custody. Miss Lewis and Scott successfully fought them off, but, one wonders, at what cost to Miss Lewis’ peace of mind?
In addition to always thinking of Miss Lewis when I eat Southern food, I think I will always remember her as someone who embodied my belief that love is what we make of it, and there is nothing more sacred in the world than love between people. Kinship is not soley defined by genetics: it is defined by whom we choose to love.
Miss Lewis and Scott, who have received great support from the culinary community, were known fondly as “The Odd Couple of Southern Cooking,” because of their differences in age, race, and sexual orientation.
I think that their relationship embodied that which is most sacred about Southern cooking and food: love and sharing. They loved each other, and were happy together, and they forged familial bonds that transcended time, skin color and sexuality. They were kin in the truest sense of the word, and because of that, I think that every time I bite into a biscuit or tear into an ear of corn or fry chicken, I will think not only of Edna Lewis, but of her friend, Scott Peacock and their love for each other and the Southern food that they both worked to preserve and promote.
Photo courtesy of the New York Times.
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