My head’s been in the South lately. Mardi Gras came and went and we’ve just finished off the last of the étouffée. The other week, I stood hunched over in the attic slave quarters of Teackle Mansion, noting the smoke-marked walls from candles 100+ years ago and the civil war era handwriting commemorating someone’s illness on a door jamb. I watched The Help and The Tree of Life, (set in Mississippi and Texas respectively) and then I came across an essay by Edna Lewis entitled What is Southern?.
It’s all led me to thoughts of Black History Month and southern cuisine and southern cooks and the meaning of soul food. Miss Lewis, of course, is way ahead of me. Her remarks on the subject are so well and so forthrightly written, I must quote her:
“How did southern food come into being? The early cooking of southern food was primarily done by blacks, men and women. In the home, in hotels, in boardinghouses, on boats, on trains, and at the White House. Cooking is hard and demanding. It was then, and it still is now. What began as hard work became creative work. There is something about the South that stimulates creativity in people, be they black or white writers, artists, cooks, builders, or primitives that pass away without knowing they were talented. It is also interesting to note that the South developed the only cuisine in this country. Living in a rural setting is inspiring: Birds, the quiet, flowers, trees, gardens, fields, music, love, sunshine, rain, and the smells of the earth all play a part in the world of creativity. It has nothing to do with reading or writing. Many of those cooks could not read or write.”
Miss Lewis cooked in much the same way she wrote and carried herself: sincerely, openly, without fuss, with understatement and with dignity. She revered her past, and because of it, her ingredients.
Miss Lewis was born in 1916 on a farm in Freetown, a small settlement of freed slaves in Orange County, Virginia. Gathering, growing, and preparing food – hard work required for sustenance – also provided entertainment and shared experiences. These rituals marked the coming and going of seasons and created connections – among family, community, the soil, the creatures.
At sixteen, in the advent of her father’s death, Edna left Freetown for New York city. After a stint as a dressmaker, a marriage to a retired merchant seaman, and an introduction to left-wing politics, she accepted a very attractive business offer from a friend. John Nicholson wanted to open a restaurant, he wanted her to cook, and he wanted to make her his business partner. Café Nicholson was an immediate success with the bohemian, artistic set and through it she met other southerners of note: Truman Capote, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, in addition to non-southerners of renown (Marlon Brando, Gloria Vanderbilt, Gore Vidal, Marlene Dietrich, et al).
In the late 1960’s, laid up with a broken leg, she embarked on a publishing career, first with The Edna Lewis Cookbook (1972), followed by The Taste of Country Cooking (1976), In Pursuit of Flavor (1988), and The Gift of Southern Cooking (2003). Her books were praised by food-world luminaries such as MFK Fisher, James Beard, Craig Claiborne and Alice Waters. Considered a classic, The Taste of Southern Cooking illustrates a southern style of cooking that rises above stereotypical notions of it as always-fried, always-drowned-in-lard-and-cooked-to-death, and always-of-the-meanest-poverty. Through her recipes and essays, Miss Lewis offers a glimpse of a life of pre-industrial food, where made-with-care dishes are inspired, restrained and refined, and where the ingredients, above all else, shine.
Miss Lewis died in 2006, at 89 years of age, still cooking nearly to the very end. In honor of Miss Lewis and her contribution to American cookery, her devotion to pure and authentic tastes, and her demonstration that southern cooking is in fact food for the soul, I suggest you make up a pot of her Simmered Greens with Cornmeal Dumplings.
Predating Miss Lewis by 84 years is Mrs. Abby Fisher, author of What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking (1881). Mrs. Fisher is one of those cooks Miss Lewis alludes to – the cook born into slavery, who could neither read nor write but who honed her skills and found a way to feed her talent in the confines of a plantation kitchen.
What little is known of Abby is that she married Alexander Fisher and gave him 11 children. With the end of the Civil War, she and her family gained freedom and in 1877 relocated to San Francisco. It is said that Abby “expertly blended African and American cultures by combining the food and spices from two continents. Her unique dishes with their distinctive flavor represented some of the best southern cooking of the day” (blackpast.org).
Especially popular were Mrs. Fisher’s jellies, pickles and preserves. She became known in San Francisco as “Mrs. Abby Fisher, Pickle Manufacturer”, and her cooking and canning won her many fans as well as many medals at the Sacramento State Fair. She is credited with introducing fried chicken and waffles to California, which from then on, became a very popular combination in the Golden State (remember Mildred Pierce?).
So in 1881, though she could not read or write, she was encouraged to record her recipes. The transcriptions became What Mrs. Fisher Knows…, and resulted not only in one of the very first cookbooks by an African-American, but also in some amusing misunderstandings. One recipe entitled “Circuit Hash” seems a misinterpretation by the transcriber. Surely, Mrs. Fisher said “succotash”.
What would be Abby Fisher’s thoughts and feelings had she known that her cookbook, the product of a former slave without the benefit of education, would one day be auctioned at Sotheby’s and bought by Harvard University? We will never know, but I think you should ponder it anyway while you prepare her Creole Chow Chow.
Rufus Estes, also a former slave, was not only a pioneer among African-American cooks, but also gets my vote for best cookbook title. This former Pullman Dining Car chef published Good Things to Eat as Suggested by Rufus in 1911. I first encountered Mr. Estes when I was looking into the origin of Peanut Soup (see Peanut Soup for Thanksgiving, November 2011).
Rufus was an enslaved child in Tennessee when Civil War broke out. You may read in his cookbook introduction – “Sketch of My Life” – about the many jobs he took as a young man to support his broken-hearted mother who lost her elder sons to the War. Eventually he migrated to Chicago and it is here that he became a celebrated and sought-after chef. His portrait opposite the title page shows a distinguished-looking man, who no doubt took pride in his craft, and in a life he probably did not anticipate as a black boy, property of the family Estes.
As an employee of the Pullman Railway Car Service, he cooked for presidents, royalty, opera singers and tycoons. He accompanied a wealthy couple via Vancouver, Canada to Tokyo, Japan to view the Cherry Blossom Festival. He became the private chef of railroad tycoon Mr. Arthur Stillwell. When he published his book, he was head chef for the United States Steel Corporation in Chicago – no small feat for a black man in a society still in the shadow of slavery.
Mr. Estes’ book compiles a total of 591 recipes, written in a straight-forward fashion in paragraphs rather than in the list-of-ingredients-followed-by-directions setup we see today. The modern cook may wonder where to procure “a knuckle of veal” to begin many of his soups, and may want to avoid his Wine Soup (“Put the yolks of 12 eggs and the whites of six into an enameled saucepan…”). Still, you may find satisfaction in following his recipe for Tomato Soup, where you begin with soup bones in lieu of pouring stock from a carton. Besides the Tomato Soup, I am particularly drawn to his Squash Flower Omelet, but I’ll need to wait for Summer to test it.
So, the next time you’re considering the drive-through or putting a frozen meal in your basket, think of these three people of history, these three African-American cooks, these southerners and contributors of culture who remind us that American food is really so much more than it’s processed/McDonald’s reputation.
AND, if your appetite for southern food is now well-whetted, but your kitchen is the size of a closet and contains only a sink and a microwave, or you have absolutely no time or energy between working out, walking the dog and Facebook, then I suggest you not tarry and seek out one of these Baltimore establishments that promise soul food:
- Chef Mac’s (Lauraville-Hamilton)
- Darker Than Blue Café (Waverly)
- King’s Fried Chicken (Waverly)
- Nick’s Rotisserie (Pigtown/Washington Village)
- Red Springs Café (Downtown)
- The Roost (Park Heights & Inner Harbor)
AND, remember, beans and cornbread go hand in hand……