Cookbook Club: The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis

Welcome to the first book of our spring cookbook club! Our first book of the series is: The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis.

But, before digging in, I want to thank Kitchen Arts & Letters bookstore and The 92nd Street Y in NYC. Their beloved live program, Talks & Tastes, had to go virtual and they made it happen in the best possible way. If you missed this season’s club registration, sign up for any or all of our newsletters to learn when the next round begins.

What is this cookbook club? You can catch up with my previous post HERE.

a real classic for those who like to read their cookbooks

I’m one of those people. I’m notoriously awful at following recipes (a bit of a rebel in that). But I love a good cookbook. Through them, I devour the history and culture of the kitchens of the world, past and present.

What better way to armchair travel than through descriptions of beloved regional ingredients and time-honored techniques, stories of markets, gardens, grandmothers, and fastidious chefs. 

The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis (1916-2006) is all that.

It’s also an open doorway with a lovingly worn welcome mat to discover the richness and bounty of the American South. Lewis shares vibrant memories of growing up in the African-American community of Freetown, a settlement near Charlottesville, Virginia that was founded by her grandfather (et al) after emancipation in 1865. 

that’s important, but that’s only the beginning of Edna Lewis’s story

The Taste of Country Cooking was Lewis’s second cookbook. It’s a story told decades after her years as a respected chef and restaurateur in New York City. And after founding The Society for the Preservation and Revitalization of Southern Food that became the Southern Foodways Alliance. Basically, after she’d already been there, done that, and inspired generations to do the same.

we had a guest

One of many southern African-American women inspired by Edna Lewis is my friend chef Cassandra Loftin. We met as America’s Test Kitchen hosts working on cruise ships. She’s on land now and would be at the kitchens in Boston if she weren’t doing the pandemic madness from her home in Georgia. 

Chef Cassandra Loftin
@ChefCassandra

Cassandra joined both sessions of the club live. Her knowledge of all cooking, especially southern cooking, and her personal stories of generations of home cooks, kitchen wisdom, and generous spirit enthralled everyone! Follow her on Instagram: @ChefCassandra and check her out HERE.

now, let’s talk food

The Taste of Country Cooking is organized by seasons. The recipes are further organized by menus that represent typical occasion of each season. In preparation for our discussion, club members and I all prepared at least a couple of the recipes from the last menu of the book:

A Winter Dinner
Chicken with Dumplings
Glazed Carrots
Crusty Yeast Bread
Warm Gingerbread w/
Sweetened Whipped Cream

These are traditional, deceptively simple dishes. The lists of ingredients were short and specific. The instructions, not quite as specific – assuming the reader had what would have been considered basic skills.

Chicken ‘n’ dumplings

Some had a hard time with the simplicity! The chicken and dumplings recipe had so few ingredients that some wanted to make it more complicated – add a little curry or spice. But now. And they were rewarded for that.

The dumplings themselves were a challenge for some. Those of us not born to make perfect biscuits risk having hockey pucks instead of fluffy clouds of goodness.

Personally, I took a little liberty with cooking technique. My electric stove doesn’t afford the precision needed for long simmering. So, I opted for the oven and relied on a few decades of professional cooking experience. I was beyond thrilled with the outcome. And, I lucked out on the dumplings.

Fat presented the final concern… there’s a lot of butter in here. There’s also lard. And if you don’t want to use lard, you can substitute more butter! Find the lard (or maybe some schmaltz?) and don’t skimp on the butter. It is worth having plain steamed veggies tomorrow night! 

Bread

Many of us made the bread. It’s a basic no-knead yeast dough. It’s so easy, even I could do it (not a baker!). I will make it again and again. 

Gingerbread

I did not think this would be the divisive recipe of this menu, but I was wrong. Turns out, molasses is a challenging ingredient. Sorghum molasses is not readily available in the north (unless you order ahead), and not all brands of regular molasses are created equal. 

I used Brer Rabbit brand. It worked great. Someone else used half blackstrap and half honey and was happy with the outcome (do not use straight blackstrap!). But those who used 365 brand organic molasses ALL hated the recipe. My takeaway from this? Either plan ahead and order real sorghum molasses or find Brer Rabbit. 

a little more about Edna Lewis

Women chefs were RARE in the 1940s – black women chefs, even more so. Still, she opened the beloved Café Nicholson on E. 57th in New York City in 1948. Edna Lewis was a force. With her commanding presence and dedication to the integrity of food she cut a path for African-American women (and all women) in the food world that we are all still fighting to clear today. 

Here’s a great article about her and her friend and co-author Scott Peacock.

Her other books:

  • The Edna Lewis Cookbook
  • In Pursuit of Flavor
  • The Gift of Southern Cooking

The list of awards and honors she earned: 

1986: Who’s Who in American Cooking by Cook’s Magazine
1990: IACP Lifetime Achievement Award 
1995: James Beard Living Legend Award (the first)
1999: Grande Dame by Les Dames d’Escoffier

1999: Lifetime Achievement Award from Southern Foodways Alliance
2002: Barbara Tropp President’s Award (WCR – Women Chefs & Restaurateurs)
2003: KitchenAid Cookbook Hall of Fame (James Beard)
2004: The Gift of Southern Cooking nominated for James Beard and IACP awards

Have you read this book? Have you cooked any of these recipes? Do you have an Edna Lewis story to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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