Edna Lewis and the Mythology Behind Modern Southern Food

Cynthia Bertelsen

Mythologies do arise periodically in the culinary world. Take the idyllic representations of Italy and their nonnas or the mythology now surging around Julia Child and La Pitchoune, her French pied–à–terre, now a cooking school.

A theory, floating around in today’s food world, suggests that slave cooks wielded an enormous influence – verging on the mythical – in the kitchens of antebellum America, essentially creating Southern cuisine and, by extension, much of what could be called traditional American cooking. That could very well be true.

However, proponents of this theory seem not to have examined in detail important aspects that could discredit the accepted wisdom:  Did slave and black cooks have as much influence as popular theory has it?

Powered by the mythology that has grown up around Southern food over the last several decades, many voices claim ownership, hurling harsh accusations of cultural appropriation, and silencing and shaming contrary opinions. The argument is not easy to prove, as it remains hampered by a lack of statistics, contemporary documentation, and clear evidence of outright ownership of recipes.

The buzz surrounding culinary idol Edna Lewis, the granddaughter of slaves from Virginia, provides a good example of this growing mythology. Like another iconic American figure, Julia Child, Miss Lewis made invaluable contributions to the cuisine of the United States, in particular that of the American South. By recording regional recipes and told crucially important stories about daily life in the Jim Crow era, Miss Lewis thereby initiated the current conversation about the role of black cooks in American culinary history.

In January 2008, Gourmet magazine published – posthumously – an essay by Miss Lewis, “What is Southern?” Redolent with both myth and fact, Miss Lewis’s article extols the beauty of the land and the contributions of many writers and musicians, all sons and daughters of the South - Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Eugene Walter, Richard Wright, Marie Rudisill, Carson McCullers, Reynolds Price, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Elizabeth Spencer, Tennessee Williams, and Craig Claiborne.  

In the following piece, I offer a critical look at "the Southern Julia Child" and delve a bit into the mythology swirling around her, questioning what is essentially a yearning for the Promised Land, the myth of a cuisine that may well never have really existed, except in the fallibility of memory.

Oak Alley Plantation, outside New Orleans. Designed by Joseph Pilié and built in 1837

In a time – the early 1950s – when a black chef, and especially a black female chef, was as rare as a chicken with incisors, culinary legend Edna Lewis became head (and only) chef at the Café Nicholson in New York City. Homesick Southerners such as author Truman Capote used to hang around the back door, hoping for a taste of Miss Lewis’s buttermilk cookies or at least a fresh biscuit slathered with strawberry jam. Or maybe a slice of lemon chess pie. With the assistance of Evangeline Peterson, a white socialite, Miss Lewis published The Edna Lewis Cookbook (1972) and thus preserved a large number of those recipes from Café Nicholson.

A formidable artist in the kitchen, Miss Lewis could cook, no doubt about it. Her four cookbooks* and larger-than-life reputation attest to that fact. Her first three cookbooks appeared without any reference to their being Southern in nature. This no doubt reflected the snobbery of the time, the belief that Southern cooking was all grease and grits.

According to the stories larding her books, particularly The Taste of Country Cooking (1976), she grew up on a farm in Freetown, Virginia, a settlement populated by freed slaves. Unfortunately, Freetown no longer exists, with nothing but a few fruit trees marking the earth. She learned to cook with the seasons on that farm, no real surprise, since most people – white and black – followed the rhythms of the sun in the days before reliable refrigeration. 

But just what did Miss Lewis cook? In a 2015 award-winning  New York Times essay - “Edna Lewis and the Black Roots of American Cooking” - Francis Lam quoted Miss Lewis’s niece, Nina Williams—Mbengue, who said ‘‘She always talked about how, in spite of these people being slaves, they created a cuisine that would become world-renowned.’’ Miss Lewis herself told The New York Times Magazine in 1992 that she feared that black cooks would lose their claim to that creation. ‘‘ ‘It’s [Southern cooking] mostly black, ‘ ’’ since blacks ‘‘ ‘did most of the cooking in private homes, hotels and on the railroads.’ ’’ Her words echo those of Karen Hess in Hess’s “Afterword” to What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking:  “I should note that most of the recipes in all [her emphasis] Southern cookbooks are, in fact, largely recipes gleaned by the writers from African American cooks, their own, and others.”

I ask: How can anyone be 100% certain of this? Is a person from certain cultural and culinary backgrounds cooking for people from other cultures creating something new?

Ms Child presents a monkfish to her startled audience in "Julia Child and Company"

Consider, for example, the numerous cooks today from Latin America in a multitude of restaurants, cooking everything from French to Japanese and beyond. Might there not be another factor at play to explain some types of culinary assimilation, for example, traveling or being exposed to dishes such as the Spanish ones included in Mary Randolph's The Virginia House-Wife (1824), provided by her sister, Harriet Randolph Hackley, who lived in Cádiz, Spain at the time?

The hypothesis that slave and black cooks created Southern cuisine may require attributing more power in the kitchen to the cooks than they realistically possessed, given the nature of slavery and servitude in general. This is part of the mythology at issue here, along with the yearning for lost flavors. I assert that those skilled cooks took the English (and other) recipes made available to them by the female relatives of British planters (and others) and learned to cook those recipes, recipes which underlie almost all of what is now termed so rapturously “Southern cuisine.”

In spite of the current disdain for anything English in the kitchen, English cooking at the time – colonial and Federal – was quite sophisticated. How could it not be? French chefs cooked for the British aristocracy, British sea captains and merchants imported all manner of foodstuffs from the exotic East, and immigrants surged in then as now, bringing their foodways with them. And African slaves and free servants – white and black – cooked in kitchens all up and down the eastern seaboard, not just in the Big House on Southern plantations.

One thing I like to remind myself of in regard to cooks and cooking is this: Not everyone who cooks turns out ambrosial meals. Even good, nay excellent, cooks, don't either, not every time. Julia Child made that clear in her now near-mythical television shows. For example, in 1939, writer Isabelle Post skewered the idea of the great “mammy” cook in her article, “Dyspepsia in Dixie: The Truth about Southern Cooking” in H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury. Implying that slave and black cooks were always superb cooks, and that cooking is in their DNA, is akin to saying that all blacks are great dancers and musicians.

And what about that English influence, the one that's glossed over, or ignored, by many food writers?

Miss Lewis’s English culinary heritage is glaringly apparent not only in her cookbooks, but also in the cookbooks written by Virginia aristocrats such as Mary Randolph, as well as in a multitude of other cookbooks, many imported from England to the American colonies in large numbers.  These books would have been crucial in providing the material passed on to slave cooks. Preserving, pastry, baking were not techniques nor traditions in African cuisines, so the chief place where slave cooks, and indentured servants for that matter, learned these methods came from the kitchens of women such as Martha Jefferson, who - in a well-documented and much-quoted anecdote - was remembered in the memoirs of a slave named Isaac Jefferson as reading out recipes to his mother, an enslaved cook of the Jefferson family. In many cases, the mistress of the house actually measured out all the ingredients used daily by the cooks, as did Sally Baxter Hampton at Woodlands Plantation close to Columbia, South Carolina. This speaks of very tight control.

In the matter of foodstuffs brought to the New World from Africa, those foods arrived via the slave ships, and not through the action of the slaves themselves. How could those people hold onto seeds or other such items, when they were treated like animals and often held for many weeks in horrifying “barracoons,” or holding pens, awaiting the arrival of the ships that would ferry them to their doom, plantations or other places across the vast choppy Atlantic?

Aside from a few dishes such as gumbo, most Southern food bears little overt resemblance to its so-called African roots. Margaret Field, in 1931, recorded and described 43 different recipes and types of culinary preparations then extant in the Gold Coast. It is possible to see some connection between Nkakra** (a fish and vegetable stew), Nkatie wonu (groundnut soup),Okrama fro (Okra Soup) and Gumbo, Okra Soup, Peanut Soup, Fufu and Corn Mush. Having lived in West Africa myself, in modern times, I try to recognize possible connections as well, but I would suggest, there are not as many as would cinch an argument for a large-scale culinary transfer from Africa to the America South as many food writers suggest.

Remember that lemon chess pie mentioned above?Just take a quick glance at a few English cookbooks. 

In 1732, Charles Carter printed "Lemon Pudding Pie" in his The Compleat City and Country Cook, which sounds very similar to Miss Lewis’s recipe in The Gift of Southern Cooking (2003),  except that Carter recommended grating two "Naples Biskets" for thickening instead of cornmeal and flour. Martha Bradley (1756) and Elizabeth Raffald (1769) also included similar recipes in their cookbooks, as did Hannah Glasse, whose book The Art of Cookery (1747) appears over and over in advertisements in the Williamsburg newspaper, The Virginia Gazette.  Great British Bakes turns up Fanchonettes, a recipe from Marie-Antonin Carême, which appeared in 1830 in Richard Dolby's Cook's Dictionary, confirming the obvious Anglo-French connection behind much British cooking of the day, which seeped into the American colonies as well.

Here’s Mrs. Glasse’s recipe, as published in the 1796 edition of The Art of Cookery:

Take the peel of two large lemons, boil it very tender; then pound it well in a mortar, with a quarter of a pound or more of loaf-sugar, the yolks of six eggs, and half a pound of fresh butter, and a little curd beat fine; pound and mix all together, lay a puff-paste in your patty-pans, fill them half full, and bake them. Orange cheesecakes are done the same way, only you boil the peel in two or three waters, to take out the bitterness.

Now compare that to the ingredients listed for Miss Lewis’s Chess Pie:

Eggs, sugar, fine white cornmeal, unbleached all-purpose flour, salt, butter, buttermilk, lemon juice, grated lemon zest, vanilla extract, pie shell.

Basically the same concept, no?

I believe it's possible – and imperative – to analyze antebellum and 19th-century recipes for signs of the influence of other cuisines on Southern cookbooks and cuisine, including English and African. There are quite a few surprises there!

Another observation: When discussing the American South and its culinary history, especially in regard to influences via African slave cooks, it’s crucial to remember that of the total number of slaves brought from Africa to the New World between 1608 and 1809, less than 5% or 500,000 ended up in the United States. That’s still half a million people – a terrible figure to contemplate – out of a total of 12 million African souls impressed into chattel slavery. And, according to James C. McCann, by 1810, over 90% of the slaves in the United States had been born there, not in Africa.  That means that 51 years prior to the start of the Civil War, the influence of African foodways began to be diluted, except perhaps on the barrier islands off South Carolina where the rice culture allowed slaves a bit more of a chance to develop a unique culinary culture of their own. 

An English friend once remarked, when I mentioned Miss Lewis’s cookbooks, that she'd felt a sense of déjà vu whilst reading The Taste of Country Cooking (1976). “It seemed as if I were reading an English cookbook,” she told me.

I know of no other region in the United States where the "Lost of Ark of Taste," that aura of nostalgia associated with the Italian Slow Food movement and European terroir come together so firmly as in the American South today.  Marcie Cohen Ferris, in her superb The Edible South (2014),  a savory alternative to the later work of food historian Karen Hess, picks up on the near-deification of Miss Lewis, remarks that, "Edna Lewis's poetic description of the foundational elements of southern food reads like a manifesto for both the new southern cuisine of the 1980s and its evolution into the painstakingly sourced cuisine of the contemporary South."

And so perhaps we should be a bit more skeptical about this mythology driving the current fascination with Southern food, ask a few more hard questions about what is – it seems – a search for a Promised Land of the fallibility of memory


*Miss Lewis’s cookbooks include The Edna Lewis Cookbook (1972), The Taste of Country Cooking (1976), In Pursuit of Flavor (1988), and The Gift of Southern Cooking (2003).
**Recipes names in Twi (Ghana) as recorded by Margaret Field, “General Survey of Gold Coast Food,” Petits Propos Culinaires 43: 7 – 21, 1993. Ms. Field carried out her work in 1930s.

All cooked by the Author.