Cookbook Love Letter: Edna Lewis's The Taste of Country Cooking

Zac Overman

In honor of Valentine's Day, we've asked a few of our favorite food writers and chefs to tell us about the cookbooks they've really fallen hard for—the culinary tomes that have rocked their worlds and changed their lives, and still make their hearts, and their palates, go pitter-patter.

Like any chef worth his weight in salt, I've amassed quite the cookbook collection over the years. Some books were inherited from family members, while others were purchased on recommendation from my peers. I have all the "musts" from chefs like Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse, as well as a shelf of modern masterworks, such as Alinea, Noma, and Fäviken. And I love all of them. They stir my emotions and allow me to marvel at the passions and unique talents of my fellow chefs and culinarians.

People say choosing their favorite child is impossible, and I would say the same for cookbooks. But I do remember the book I first fell in love with. I read it in one night, cover to cover, with an all-consuming hunger, and then I demanded that my friends and coworkers do the same (they did not follow suit). To them, my first love seemed too plain, too simple, too easy. But the moment I cracked open Edna Lewis's The Taste of Country Cooking, my life changed.

I found Ms. Lewis's book in 2003, tucked on a small shelf just inside the front door of a restaurant called Watershed, in Decatur, Georgia. The chef of Watershed, Scott Peacock, had just co-authored another wonderful book with Ms. Lewis, called The Gift of Southern Cooking: Recipes and Revelations From Two Great American Cooks. The whole city of Atlanta was in love with him, and his food. People nearly trampled one another to get into Watershed to taste a cuisine rooted in their own southern tradition and history. I was one of those people who could not wait to see for myself what all the buzz was about.

The meal, I'm sure, was great. I honestly don't remember. All I recall about that day was being so curious as to who this woman on the front of Peacock's book could be. I had never heard of Edna Lewis before, and to me she just looked like an old lady. I realize how terrible that sounds now, but my image of a chef still involved a young man or woman in a starched white jacket and a tall hat. Yet Peacock, a James Beard Award winner, credited his success to her. I wanted to understand how this could be, so I did the only reasonable thing I could think to do: Instead of spending my money on Peacock's new release, I grabbed a copy of Ms. Lewis's book.

I had just started working for a man named Michael Tuohy. He owned a restaurant called Woodfire Grill, and, as a line cook for Michael, it was my first time in the world of farm-to-table cuisine: Fresh vegetables from just down the road arrived at the back door daily. Woodfire Grill was all about embracing the region in which we lived; Michael believed that great food started with great ingredients. Those ideas had never occurred to me before.

The first night I spent with Ms. Lewis's book, I pored over each page, each story showing me more and more that this "old lady" and I had a lot in common. While she was born African American in rural Virginia, her memories echoed some of my own from growing up white in rural Georgia. Like my mentor, Michael, Ms. Lewis believed the best food could be had only from the best ingredients. Her thinking toward cooking seemed so current, I kept flipping back to the front of the book so I could be reminded that it was published in 1976. How could a book that was older than I was be so in line with a movement that was only starting to gain footing in the South? Back then, most Atlantans would probably shrug their shoulders if you asked them what it meant to eat seasonally. Many had forgotten what fresh—really fresh—meats and vegetables actually tasted like. Reading Ms. Lewis, I knew she'd been on to this trend for decades. That, to her, it wasn't a trend at all.

I also learned, for the first time really, that being a cook meant being a storyteller as well. Reading The Taste of Country Cooking, I was transported to another time and place. I walked alongside Ms. Lewis, barefoot down a dirt road, picking wild greens that grew in the ditches and by the roadsides. I could see the crisp, cold Virginia mornings when they slaughtered hogs for the season. I felt like her world was my world and her words were my own. How could stories from someone else feel so familiar?

As I kept reading, I felt more and more proud to be a southern-born chef. I'd spent the first years of my career feeling like I had to make apologies for it, especially to the European chefs I'd worked with—the ones who were trying to teach me about "real cooking." I'd listened to their endless tirades about how Americans—specifically southerners—could not lay claim to a cuisine of their own. How we had no real food identity; how it would be a miracle if I, a native Georgian, could ever wrap my head around the sophistication of la cuisine française. And yet Ms. Lewis, in 300 pages or so, completely convinced me that the food I loved with my heart and soul was just as important as any of the so-called world's greatest. I wanted nothing more than to go back to work, tell Michael that I finally understood where he was coming from, and start letting my own history pour onto the plate, just as Ms. Lewis had.

Ms. Lewis passed away in 2006, and I never got to meet her in person—to tell her how much she inspired me, how she made me feel empowered to believe in southern food again. I consider that missed opportunity to be one of my biggest regrets in life. And I'm not alone. Edna Lewis was a beacon to many a wayward southern chef. Her principles and values have informed a generation of great cooks and left a permanent mark on our cherished foodways. I wish I'd had the chance to say a simple "Thank you" to her in person. Instead, I'll have to let my food do the talking. I think she would have preferred it that way, anyhow.