July 2021 Book Review: The Taste of Country Cooking, by Edna Lewis

The Taste of Country Cooking
Edna Lewis

“Over the years since I left home, I have kept thinking about the people I grew up with and about our way of life. I realize how much the bond that held us had to do with food.”

Edna Lewis, in The Taste of Country Cooking


Summary

The Taste of Country Cooking weaves the biography of a community into a cookbook. More than an autobiography, Ms. Lewis documents her childhood in Freetown, a community of Black farmers in the middle of Virginia. Formerly enslaved people, among them her grandparents, founded and named the village. She was born there in 1916 and lived there till her teens, when she made her way northward in the Great Migration. In 1948, she became a chef at a restaurant in New York and she grew to became a foundational figure in American cuisine even after she retired from professional cooking in 1992. She wrote this cookbook, her second, in 1972.

The book progresses with the seasons – Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter – and particular events during those seasons, such as: “A Late Spring Lunch After Wild Mushroom Picking”; “Emancipation Day Dinner”; and “Morning-After-Hog-Butchering Breakfast”.  

“Since we are the last of the original families, with no children to remember and carry on, I decided that I wanted to write down just exactly how we did things when I was growing up in Freetown that seemed to make life so rewarding. Although the founders of Freetown have passed away, I am convinced that their ideas do live on for us to learn from, to enlarge upon, and pass on to the following generations. But above all, I want to share with everyone who may read this a time and a place that is so very dear to my heart.”

Edna Lewis, in The Taste of Country Cooking

Will I recommend it to friends?

Already have. The writing and recipes are approachable, and I’m inspired to try some new-to-me dishes and her versions of familiar recipes like biscuits and corn muffins. The stories remind of memories I might hear from my own family in East Texas, and I learned even more how our Southern food culture ties directly to African foods.

Who should read this?

Anyone who likes stories that revolve around seasonal food and about growing up in a small community will enjoy this pleasant read. Yes, the book is organized around seasonal recipes, but just reading through them is delightful and comforting.

For example, in her fall breakfast chapter, she starts with a discussion of oatmeal with cream [page 167]:
“Hot oatmeal was our standard cereal beginning in the fall through the late spring. … My uncle always ate buttered bread with his oatmeal. It was a great dish for a cold morning when we had to face the winds blowing off the Blue Ridge Mountains on our way to school. “

It’s like reading a letter from your grandma, if she was a gifted storyteller; an award-winning cook; had  a passion for food + community; and a heart filled with the old ways of life. So yes, I would recommend this to anyone looking for a cookbook of Southern food, a relaxing read of an idyllic community, or something that combines both. History and culture are served up alongside these to make a fulfilling read.

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