At 15, Miss Lewis, as she was reverently and affectionately known in later life, left home during the Depression, and ultimately ended up in New York. After becoming a successful seamstress and creating dresses for celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, she wrote for a newspaper, and began making a name for herself cooking for others. In 1948 Miss Lewis became the chef at Café Nicholson where she served simple delicious Southern food — broiled oysters, roast chicken, and chocolate soufflé — to appreciative audiences which often included Southern literary icons Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and William Faulkner, artists, and movie stars, as well as the kings and queens of the fashion world. After she left Café Nicholson, and a stint at raising pheasants with her husband, Miss Lewis worked in other restaurants and taught cooking classes, formally and informally.
Tall, soft-spoken, and elegant in her handmade vivid dresses, Miss Lewis brought dignity to the food of her childhood. She earned the title as the “First Lady of Southern Food” while she strived to focus back on the genuinely flavorful food of her region which she feared was losing its identity after the Depression and World War II.
In the late 60s, sidelined by a broken leg, Miss Lewis wrote her first cookbook, The Edna Lewis Cookbook. It was followed by The Taste of Country Cooking, which brought her extensive recognition in her quest for pure ingredients, authenticity in preparation, and awareness of the value of seasonal locally grown and gathered ingredients.
After serving as the chef in several other restaurants, Miss Lewis provided the impetus for the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food, which laid part of the foundation for the present day Southern Foodways Alliance, which carries on her quest today. During this time she met Scott Peacock, an Alabama born and raised, up and coming chef, who was cooking for the Governor of Georgia. Their devotion to the art of Southern cooking provided the basis for their remarkable friendship as they taught cooking classes together and co-authored The Gift of Southern Cooking. This cookbook, written almost as a conversation with the chefs, is rich with stories of food, family, and the wonderful traditions of life in the South.
EDNA LEWIS DEFINES “SOUTHERN”
Before her death in 2006, at the request of Mobile’s Eugene Walter, fellow food writer and chef, Miss Lewis wrote an essay titled, “What is Southern?”
Friends discovered this essay after her death and it was published in Gourmet magazine in January 2008.
In her essay Miss Lewis defines Southern through a variety of categories.
Food: Southern is “…A great yeast roll, the dough put down overnight to rise and the next morning shaped into rolls and baked. Served hot from the oven, they are light as a dandelion in a high wind.” “… A country steak smothered with onions on a Sunday morning, with gravy and spoon bread to spoon the gravy over.” “…A pot of boiling coffee sending its aroma out to greet you on your way in from the barn. Coffee was always served piping hot, so much so that if someone talked too much, they were told ‘Save your breath to cool your coffee.’”
Weather: “Southern is a hot summer day that brings on a violent thunderstorm, cooling the air and bringing up smells of the earth that tempt us to eat the soil.”
Places: “Southern is Bourbon Street and Louis Armstrong.”
Outdoor traditions: “Southern is hunting season, a time that men take off to hunt rabbits, squirrel, opossum, deer, quail, partridge, plover, and dove.”
She also included writers who define Southern: Richard Wright, Thomas Wolfe, Carson McCullers, William Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams.
Any Southerner, born and raised in the South, living here as an adult, or even living here for a few years, could easily create a list of definitions as long and as varied as Miss Lewis.’ Some will surface with no effort and others may require serious contemplation. Southern is blackberry cobbler made from the handful of warm berries you picked from the roadside on the way home from the lake, the aromatic mint growing prolifically around the dripping faucet at the back door, lighthearted daffodils which insist on blooming in February, lighting a fire in the wood-burning fireplace on Christmas morning even when you have to open all the windows or turn on the air conditioning because the temperature is 65 degrees, living and breathing college football for at least ten months out of the year, and scheduling Thanksgiving dinner around the hunters in the family.
The South also defines itself by its own distinct form of hospitality as we open our homes and our hearts to guests. We thoughtfully add one more place setting to the table when an unexpected dinner guest arrives, invite a friend who drops by unannounced to stay for awhile, send dinner guests home with leftovers, and make our signature casseroles for our friends’ Thanksgiving dinner because we know they will not have time.
A NEW FRIEND DEFINES “SOUTHERN”
My definition of Southern acquired a new dimension a few weeks ago after I asked Dexter Moss Buccilli, whom I had just met, to help me with an article I was writing about resolving to eat healthy in the new year with recipes from Black Belt cooks. After she was introduced to me as a native of Selma, I immediately inquired if she or her mother or her grandmothers were good cooks.
When Dexter told me they all met this description, I asked her to share some of their recipes and Black Belt cooking practices. A few days later, we set up a time for an interview. Shortly thereafter, I had an unanticipated invitation for lunch as well since Dexter planned to prepare several of her mother’s recipes in order to help me with my writing assignment. In addition to offering a meal of meat loaf, collard greens, oven roasted sweet potato fries, biscuits, and Apple Dapple Cake, she graciously and enthusiastically shared pieces of her story and Black Belt lore with me.
Dexter grew up in Selma with two sisters and her parents, Dr. Philip and the late Nell Moss, and she was the tomboy in the family. Heartbroken when her mother told her she could not wear cowboy boots and jeans when she started kindergarten, she had her first horse at six and her first hunting gun by the time she was ten. While Dexter reveled in hunting and fishing with her dad, she also enjoyed the evenings when he called home, asked if she had finished her homework, and if she had, invited her to join him at the hospital to see a particularly interesting patient.
Fondly remembering that her mother was an excellent traditional Southern cook who “read cookbooks like I read mysteries,” Dexter also noted her mother limited their “sweets” and worked on many of her recipes, making adjustments that did not disturb the flavor, but resulted in a healthier end product. When she and her sisters came home from school in the afternoons, they were often greeted by a “vat of turnip greens” which would serve as their snack.
Unsweetened applesauce was substituted for oil in her dad’s favorite apple cake recipe, collard greens were simmered in chicken broth, and in the following meat loaf recipe, oatmeal, rather than bread, was added to bind the ingredients, and low fat evaporated milk was included in place of an egg.
2 pounds ground chuck or venison
1 package dry onion soup mix
1 and 1/2 cups uncooked instant oatmeal
6 ounces low fat evaporated milk
1/2 cup ketchup
1/4 cup pancake syrup
3 Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1. Mix the meat, dry soup mix, instant oatmeal, and evaporated milk and form a loaf.
2. Stir the ketchup, syrup, and Worcestershire sauce together. Make a trough on top of the loaf and pour the sauce into it.
3. Bake at 350 for about one hour.
As she prepared lunch, Dexter described food-related truisms which were a part of her Black Belt background. These bits of passed down wisdom included the following:
1. The three drinks of the Black Belt are tea, which is never referred to as iced tea because it is always iced, beer, and bourbon;
2. True Southern cornbread has no sugar since sugar was not readily available in the South after the Civil War. If you add sugar, you have made Yankee cornbread;
3. Cornbread is best appreciated with buttermilk or tomato gravy poured over it;
4. Hushpuppies are only eaten with ketchup, never butter, syrup, or anything else; and
5. If you are eating deviled eggs and fried chicken, you are one of two places, a church picnic or a funeral gathering.
Edna Lewis, a highly regarded chef, spent most of her life defining what is Southern through her food and her careful lessons as she preserved and shared what she remembered and discovered. With the grace of her Black Belt upbringing, Dexter Moss Buccilli defined Southern by inviting a stranger to lunch and delightfully sharing her customs and stories. In the routine of our daily lives, Southerners endlessly find meaningful definitions which make us more aware of who we are and why we have reasons to be proud of where and how we live.
Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 387-2890