When I was profiling Southern cookbooks back in March, Vanessa from Food in Books suggested The Taste of Country Cooking. When Vanessa recommends something, I pay attention, so I immediately requested we purchase the book and add it to the collection. In fact, I liked the book so much that I bought a personal copy for myself. Thanks so much to Vanessa for the wonderful suggestion and to Julie for adding Edna Lewis’s book to our holdings!
Edna Lewis was born in 1916 in Freetown, Virginia, a rural settlement founded by emancipated slaves. As is true of life in any farming community, the seasons dictated life and work in Freetown, especially regarding food. As an adult, Lewis ended up in New York, cooking Southern favorites for the renowned celebrity hotspot Café Nicholson in the 1940s and 1950s and owning her own restaurant and catering business. In the 1970s, she was asked to write The Taste of Country Cooking, and this 30th anniversary edition is a wonderful reprint with all the original recipes, plus a foreword by Alice Waters and elegant illustrations.
Most cookbooks follow a pretty standard setup, with a heavy emphasis on recipes, often organized by course. Not this book. Lewis’s cookbook instead is organized by season, just like how life was on the Freetown farms that Lewis knew so well. It starts with spring and then works its way through the year, chronicling the agricultural work that was so intimately tied to the recipes. The recipes are also all presented as part of menus, so there’s no wondering what dishes to pair with each other, though the recipes also function independently from the menus.
Lewis also writes a lot about her memories that are so integrally tied to the food, and the result is a fascinating, evocative, conversational sociological read that reminds me quite a bit of how my family in Western North Carolina was living and cooking at this time. Her informative reminiscences and vivid anecdotes cover everything from what you’d eat after the annual spring sheep shearing to why vegetable soup was a summer dish rather than a winter one in Freetown to what lengthy preparations Christmas celebrations involved each year. You don’t even have to be an avid cook to read this engrossing book cover to cover.
And if you are an avid cook, the recipes themselves are clear, direct, and easy to follow. They encompass everything from pan-fried chicken to biscuits to brandied peaches to jelly layer cake.
Recommended for fans of cookbooks, regional cuisine, food writing, foodways, and history.
Are you familiar with Edna Lewis? What’s your hands-down favorite cookbook? What have you been reading–and cooking–in July? Tell us in the comments! As always, please follow this link to our online library catalog for more information on this book or to place it on hold.