By Scott Anderson
We spent a few days down south recently and I finally picked up a copy of Edna Lewis’ book The Taste of Country Cooking. This is the 30th anniversary edition of the 1976 “Great Southern Classic” with a forward by Alice Waters. I have now had some quiet time to go through it and I wish I had bought it much earlier.
Edna Lewis, the descendent of slaves, spent her childhood in a Virginia Piedmont community of similar families called Freetown. Although this is very much a cookbook, there are long narratives in which Lewis, who died in 2006 at 89, describes an idyllic childhood in a warm and loving community where neighbours helped neighbours and virtually everything they ate came from the countryside and was provided either by the labour of their own hands or, the free bounty of Mother Nature.
It’s hard to imagine that life could be as wonderful as that, but it’s nice to have happy memories, even if they are an amalgam of events real and imagined.
Waters, the locavore godess, gushes in her introduction, calling Lewis’ Freetown a “lost paradise.” She points out that when the book was written in 1976, people found it hard to imagine this simple life was real.
“Thanks to this book a new generation was introduced to the glories of an American tradition…of simplicity and purity and sheer deliciousness that is only possible when food tastes like what it is, from a particular place, at a particular point in time.
“Back then , the possibility that many Americans might once again strive to eat only local, seasonal foods raised or gathered or hooked by people they knew seemed distant.”
The emphasis in that quote is mine. It’s a bit of a stretch to think that people in America once ate only local food. There’s evidence that even aboriginals traded for food and, while their carbon footprint from transportation was just that – a footprint, they still had a hankering for the exotic.
Lewis does focus on the local and the fresh, but she also remembers that taste has a big part to play as well. As much as Waters tries to make her part of the 100-mile diet club, Lewis resists.
And the proof is in her recipes. You don’t have to go far into the book (Page 8, in fact) to find the first departure from an entirely local diet. The “early spring dinner” menu calls for braised forequarter of mutton made with a half cup of “peeled, seeded and chopped fresh tomatoes.”
Now, I just got back from Virginia – it’s already mid-spring I didn’t see any fresh local tomatoes. It’s far too early for that.
Edna Lewis isn’t around to confirm it, but I strongly suspect that those tomatoes were added to that recipe much later in her life and that they were added because they simply taste better.
But that’s ok. Edna had the right idea; eating locally produced is great. Shaking the blood-stained hand of the man who butchered the pig you’re about to eat a part of – or at least who met the farmer whose hens laid your eggs – is a wonderful way to feel closer to your food. And, if that makes you feel better about the food you eat, you’ll likely feel better about yourself. And that, as one of our famous food felons says, is a good thing.
But, we have to remember that the 100-mile diet is just that, a diet. All diets are fads as far as I can tell and many can be harmful if followed too closely. And, while there’s a lot of sense in eating locally, we can take it too far.
Let’s not forget that we’ve always improved our meals with things from elsewhere – things that you can’t grow or gather or hook at home. Taste is important too
Edna Lewis knew that.
Steamed Chicken in Casserole (From The taste of Country Cooking)
This recipe can be quickly made and cooked without too much watching. Serves 4 to 5.
1 2 1/2 pound chicken with a few extra wings
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
2 medium-sized onions, chopped fine
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup sliced carrots
1/2 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
Salt and pepper
Have the chicken cut into 8 pieces. Wash off and dry with a clean cloth. Into a heavy pot or saucepan put the butter and heat to the foaming stage. Add the onions. When the onions are quite heated through, add in the chicken. Raise the flame and brown the chicken and onions well, without burning. When the chicken is well browned, turn the burner as low as possible, add the thyme, bay leaf and carrots, cover with a closely fitting lid, and simmer for 1 1/2 hours. Stir by shaking the pot around. The pot can be set into a preheated 250 degree oven. Be sure it’s quite hot when set into the oven. Cook for 45 minutes. If you have fresh tarragon add 1/2 tablespoon about 15 minutes before removing from the oven, then salt and pepper to taste, and swish pot around to blend in the herb. Adding the tarragon at the last gives a better flavor than if it is cooked in from the beginning. Don’t use dried tarragon; it’s too strong. The chicken wings can be removed if you like; they are added really to give thickness to the sauce, which comes from the two last wing joints.