Her middle name was Regina.
Somehow, uncovering this tiny bit of information felt like spying on Edna Lewis, an award-winning chef who, in the same vein as Julia Child, brings an irresistible warmth and attention to beauty to the pages of her cookbooks. I typed Lewis’ name into Ancestry.com’s search engine, along with the other facts I knew off the top of my head. Her date of death, 2006. The search bar for a place she might’ve lived momentarily stumped me. Without thinking, I’d typed “Freetown, Virginia.” But then wondered if this community, established in 1865 by newly emancipated Africans, Lewis’ grandfather among them, had been formally recognized as a town. It hadn’t, but I still found her easily in a sea of records for other Ednas, which must have been a popular name for baby girls in the early 1900s when Lewis was born. The first result was a social security application. I skipped over it, because even though it’s public, it felt like an invasion of Lewis’ privacy. The third result populated from Find A Grave’s Index, and in this record, her middle name seemed to pull me into a curiously intimate embrace.
In his New York Times Magazine article, “Edna Lewis and the Black Roots of American Cooking,” Francis Lam notes that almost everyone who knew her described her as regal. “It’s almost as if her parents knew,” Lam writes, “when they gave her the middle name Regina.” I’m a home cook with no professional aspirations, but I crave being baked into Lewis’ lineage. Perhaps that’s why I turned to Ancestry as one source to find out more about her—not because I hoped to find an actual link by blood, but because I want to hold her as an ancestor nonetheless. She honors Southern cooking, black, rural Southern people and their deep connection to the land as something sacred.
Lewis’ The Taste of Country Cooking, originally published in 1976, describes a life growing up in rural Freetown that strikes me as idyllic, even as I take care not to romanticize the past. The cookbook is divided into seasonal recipes, and A Spring Breakfast includes instructions for the perfect time to gather honey from woodland bees. Through Lewis’ words, I can see her father under a canopy of green-gold light on an early June morning. He carefully searched the hollowed trunks of oak trees, ears alive for the hum of bees. Eugene Lewis almost certainly didn’t wear the protective white suit of a beekeeper, and I imagine he was stung a time or two on these ventures to secure a treat for his children. But despite the inherent pain of his hunt, it seems clear he knew what the true treasure was: the delight he brought home as they drizzled the sweet, amber liquid over a cloud-like biscuit, fresh from the oven.
I love peering through this small window into black, Southern life because it shows me (and the rest of the U.S.) the presence of black fathers, subverting the dominant narrative of absenteeism. Lewis also reminds me to include pleasure as an ingredient of activism. When Knopf published The Taste of Country Cooking, twelve years after the glowing birth of the Civil Rights Act, black Americans had witnessed the deaths of both Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr. True social and economic equality, in a nation pledging “liberty and justice for all,” was frustratingly, and at times, deathly slow to ripen. But Lewis chooses, in a deliberately meditative way, to extol the dignity of poor, black life, recalling the joys of living in rhythm with the earth and the arms of a village. It’s as if she wants to nurture not just through the recipes, but also her stories of the past. The Taste of Country Cooking is a kind of holy communion, where I’m asked to remember the toil and beauty of liberating work, alongside the sustenance of steamed whole hominy and wild strawberry preserves.
On a Sunday in late June, I walked several blocks downtown to attend the first protest I have in several years. The news highlighting conditions in our detention camps—children denied soap, or shackled to fetid, heavy diapers, or sleeping on concrete—along with a report that ICE planned to raid western North Carolina again, had left me tightly cradling my youngest daughter at bedtime, tears pooling at the corners of my eyes. I was grateful that I could hold her, but angry for the mothers denied the luxury of burying noses in their own babies’ hair, all because they’d hoped for asylum. Instead, they were torn from the very ones they’d hoped to keep safe. I’d donated money for legal aid, but it didn’t feel like enough. How can we claim freedom if we are not all free? On the steps of City Hall, brown, black, and white folks stood in a loose semi-circle as beads of sweat formed across our foreheads. Some people hoisted “Abolish ICE” and “No More Deaths at the Border” signs over their heads, framed by a cerulean sky. Local activist leaders shared a microphone, outlining the ways, both political and social, we could work to keep our communities safe. Cars passing by honked in solidarity, some people shouted slurs from open car windows. When the rally came to a close, some of what appeared to be the younger folks in the crowd, pulled metal barricades from the sidewalk and into the street’s intersection, creating a “wall” while chanting against the proposed U.S. border wall. The street light cycled through green, yellow, red, and green again. Cars lined the road and soon the traffic jam prompted a police car to show up on the scene. A young man, fair-skinned and gangly in his uniform, reluctantly swung himself out of the car and edged his way into the crowd, in attempt to reach the protesters blocking the street. He came face-to-face with a black man in a tomato red shirt and shoulder-length braids, and in a moment fear spilled from their bodies and crackled in the air between them. They wordlessly pushed passed one another, but the brushstrokes painted clearly: this is America. But the story - and certainly the way we tell it - must not end there. For the protest itself is also America, and the reason that immigrants come here is also America, and the sovereign Edna Lewis, and I myself.
I left wishing I could gather them all—organizers, protesters, and asylum-seekers—into a room dominated by a beautifully-set table and filled with the aromas of Lewis’ menu for Sunday Revival Dinner. She writes during Revival week, “memories of slavery lingered with us still, and Revival was in a way a kind of Thanksgiving. There was real rejoicing: The fruits of our hard labor were now our own, we were free to come and go, and to gather together for this…celebration.” And later I wondered, what if that gangly, uniformed young man was invited, too? How could things be different in our neighborhood if we all sat down to plates piled high with sweet, creamy corn pudding, delicately sliced tomatoes, tender green beans studded with pork, refreshingly tangy pickled cucumbers, pillowy yeast rolls, and ham lined and baked with freshly-grated crumbles of white bread? Freshly-squeezed lemonade, prepared as Lewis preferred, with water drawn from a deep well? Caramel layer cake, fluffy and oozing with promises of gratification? Eating together might as well be considered resiliency training, a healing balm for the wounds that plague us.
In my neighborhood, the fireworks popped and boomed several days before the Fourth of July. On the birthday of our nation, I decided to bake blackberry cobbler in honor of Edna Lewis, since it seemed like one of the best ways to celebrate what was good in our corner of the world. After I washed the berries, I spread them across a kitchen towel, some of them staining my fingers purple. I shaped the dough, a mixture of flour, butter, salt, sugar, and cream, and once everything was assembled, sprinkled sugar over the top. “Everyone looked forward to a cobbler during the season,” Lewis writes. Later, friends poured into our kitchen, and in that fleeting moment, helped by vanilla ice cream, we were satisfied with the bounty of the season.
Jasmin Pittman Morrell is a writer and editor living in Asheville, North Carolina with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys facilitating healing through creativity, imagination, and deep listening.