SOUTH, a restaurant and jazz venue on Philadelphia’s North Broad Street, specializes in Southern food. The menu features artisanal variations of buttermilk fried chicken, catfish, and gumbo. The kitchen is halal — no pork — and so has devised creative work-arounds: green beans are made with turkey butt instead of ham hock, for example.
Sous chef Kurt Evans was not yet born when Edna Lewis’ landmark book, “The Taste of Country Cooking,” was published in 1976. Nevertheless, it is his touchstone.
“I didn’t want to go to culinary school and do all this French cuisine,” he said while stirring a vat of grits over a low flame. “A lot of my peers – African-American chefs — don’t want to be classified as fried chicken chefs or, you know, the ham hock guy. They don’t want to be in that box. When you look at Edna Lewis’ cookbooks, Southern food is so much more than that.”
Evans keeps first-edition copies of Lewis’ books on hand at SOUTH, to consult when menu planning and to share with newbies. Last year, Evans teamed up with chef Tim Thomas to stage a multicourse dinner, “Unspoken Titans,” in homage to Lewis.
Unlike many of America’s best-known chefs, Lewis did not appear on television, perhaps because of her race or her reserved personality. The new generation of emerging chefs will not find clips of her on YouTube. She became famous – even appearing on a 2014 U.S. postage stamp – entirely through her writing.
“What got me was, I saw “Top Chef” season 14, and they did a tribute to Edna Lewis. I was into it. I couldn’t wait to see it,” said Evans. “It hurt my heart to see that all the minority chefs didn’t know who she was. You should know who Edna Lewis is.”
The TV exposure helped: Sales of “The Taste of Country Cooking” spiked after that “Top Chef” episode.
Born in 1916 in Freetown, Virginia – a small farming community established by newly emancipated former slaves after the Civil War — Lewis used food to describe a rural America in terms of natural wonder and the black community of her youth. “Country Cooking” lifted Southern cuisine out of the fryer and made it haute. Meals were dictated by seasonal availability.
“Breakfast was about the best part of the day. There was an almost mysterious feeling about passing through the night and awakening to a new day,” she wrote in “The Taste of Country Cooking,” in the spring section.
“If it was a particularly beautiful morning, it was expressed in the grace. Spring would bring our first and just about only fish – shad. It would always be served for breakfast, soaked in salt water for an hour or so, rolled in seasoned cornmeal, and fried carefully in home-rendered lard with a slice of smoked shoulder for added flavor.”
When she wrote that, Lewis had already left Freetown decades earlier for New York. There, she passed through a series of careers, from cooking for literati at Café Nicholson, to writing, to raising pheasants, to designing dresses, to opening and closing her own restaurant, and, briefly, working as a docent in the American Museum of Natural History.
For all her rhapsodies on country living, Lewis loved New York City.
“She fit perfectly and was very comfortable in the city,” said John T. Hill, who photographed Lewis for four decades. “She liked people, and she liked the energy.”
A few dozen of Hill’s photographs are on display at Haverford College, comprising an exhibition “Edna Lewis: Chef and Humanitarian.” Most of the pictures were taken in Freetown, where Lewis visited frequently, particularly for an annual reunion on Emancipation Day or Juneteenth. That day became a communal feast day for the residents of Freetown.
There are also pictures of the house built by Lewis’ grandmother, a stonemason and bricklayer who was the property of a plantation owner. Lewis never tried to hide the slavery in her family’s past.
“It’s a cultural history. She talks about her family, the environment, and how that influenced the food,” said William Williams, a humanities professor and photography curator at Haverford.
Williams, a former student of Hill at Yale, installed the exhibition in part because he finds “The Taste of Country Cooking” to be a subversive book.
“It’s subversive in that it’s not all about fancy New York or California. It’s about rural Virginia,” he said. “If you look in the magazines and books, that locale is featured, not New York.”
In writing from the perspective of her childhood growing up in Freetown, Lewis was only steps away from the plantation where her grandparents were enslaved.
Lewis’ editor, Judith Jones, once asked her why she has no Thanksgiving recipes.
“Edna Lewis’ reply was, ‘We didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving. We celebrated Emancipation Day,’” said Williams. “That’s a very subtle notion about black pride.”
In the photos, Lewis looks as fresh and bright as the tomatoes she is harvesting, and the sunflowers towering over her, and the ripe apples picked from the orchard. An accomplished seamstress, she made her own clothes: sometimes with colorful, African-inspired textiles, sometimes a plain, crisp white dress.
“The dress that she’s wearing in that field of sunflowers is a white dress – it’s a very elegant dress,” said Hill. “Curious thing is, somebody – the art director or somebody – they decided she could not be seen wearing a white dress because that signals ‘maid.’ So they changed the color of the dress to pink. Which I thought was just so beside the point, I couldn’t believe it.”
The photo exhibition is an expanded version of a show that hung last spring in “Crook’s Corner,” a restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. That was created to mark the release of a book of new essays by dozens of authors, “Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original,” published by the University of North Carolina Press.