Bookshelf: The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis

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One of my favorite portraits of Edna Lewis, this photograph is often reproduced but seldom credited. The photograph is by John T. Hill, who is a fascinating figure in his own right. Read an interview with Hill about his work with Lewis. The two met in 1971 and collaborated on various photography projects through the 1980s.

This brief piece on Lewis’s classic was first published on the JHI Blog.


Edna Lewis published The Taste of Country Cooking in 1976. In the very first paragraph of the book, Lewis informs us: “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 The book, a hybrid between a memoir and a cookbook, is both a historical document and a commentary on a moment in history. Structured as a series of seasonal menus, the book takes us through the rhythms of life in Freetown, where the bonds (and pleasures) of family and community were not taken lightly, for slavery–and emancipation–were both still held in living memory.

Her memories of Freetown are beautiful and tender, but never saccharine. After all, it is a book that includes the menu and recipes for an Emancipation Day Dinner. “My grandmother,” Lewis wrote, “had been a brick mason as a slave–purchased for the sum of $950 by a rich landowner.” The Emancipation Day dinner included a Guinea fowl casserole, wild rice and wild grapes, and a simple plum tart. We learn what the residents of Freetown might have enjoyed for a midday dinner during the wheat harvest, what might have been served for dinner after a Sunday Revival, and what went into packing a picnic basket for a day at the horse races. Lewis gives us that other history, the one written by the body, on the land. In an interview with the New York Times, Judith Jones (who also worked with Julia Child on Mastering the Art of French Cooking) recounted that “when they were working on the book together, Jones noticed that there wasn’t a menu for Thanksgiving. She asked Lewis about it, who said, quietly: ‘‘We didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving. We celebrated Emancipation Day.’’ And so she wrote a menu for that, leaving it to the reader to figure out why.”

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