Famed Southern chef Scott Peacock first cooked with the legendary Edna Lewis as her assistant at a Southern food dinner in Atlanta. He was in his 20s; she was 74. Over the next 15 years - up until her passing in 2006 - they continued cooking together and became dear friends. Francis Lam talked with Peacock about what it was like to be in the kitchen with Edna Lewis, and how her sense of observation, wonder and patience still guide his work today.
Francis Lam: It’s so fun to get to speak with you because we’ve been talking about Miss Lewis, with all these different angles and all these different directions, but I can talk with you about cooking with her. What was it like cooking with Edna Lewis?
Scott Peacock: That’s a great question. It was absolutely wonderful. It was similar yet utterly unlike cooking with anyone else. It could be very chatty, and laughter filled, but for the most part it was very quiet. Which was as enjoyable as the chattiest of days, frankly. But it was quiet because we were both so focused on what we were doing and I think maybe some of our most present when we were cooking together. That’s what it was like.
The very first time I ever cooked with her, I was asked to be her assistant when she came for a Southern food dinner in Atlanta many years ago, I was in my 20s, and she was 74. I met her at the train station. She didn’t fly at the time – she didn’t like to fly – and she traveled down from New York. She came down to do the breads and desserts for one of those dinners where you have a bunch of chefs cooking a different course. The event was raising money for the American Institute of Wine and Food and raising awareness about Southern food, which was not taken very seriously at the time and was far from the popular cuisine that it is today.
I was asked to be her assistant, which I was thrilled. The year before, she had come and cooked at a similar dinner and I tried to assist her then. I had been utterly unsuccessful, but had met her, which was profound for me. The next year I didn’t realize she was coming, and I got a phone call at the Governor’s Mansion – where I was cooking then – and was asked if I would to be her assistant. I couldn’t believe it. I was literally almost jumping up and down. I went to meet her at the train station. I looked all up and down the track and the platform, and finally as everyone else had cleared down at the far end of the track, I saw her approaching. She was dragging this very large box; she had her suitcase in one hand, and she was leaning forwards and dragging this very large cardboard box. I went running down to her, and in the box she had pie dough. She knew there wouldn’t be time to make pie dough for 100 pies when she got there, so she had made the pie dough in New York and frozen it, and wrapped each individual batch in wax paper and aluminum foil. We got those into the car and into a refrigerator where they thawed perfectly by the next day when it was time to start working with them. We went to the market and shopped for peaches, rhubarb, blackberries, pecans and other things that were needed.
The next day we set about cooking, and she came to me and said, “Will you start rolling out the pie dough?” I was a little intimidated, to say the least, and asked her to show me what she wanted. Later, she said to someone, “I couldn’t believe it, they gave me this child to roll out all the pie dough.” I was scared to death. And so, I did, I rolled out pie dough. And she measured out ingredients for biscuits and cornbread. So, we baked; we made cobblers and pies for the next two days. It was quiet, but it was the most satisfying quiet. And so much was conveyed in the silence. I will say that, even before she really knew me, she never treated me like a student. She was interested in what I thought. She never said, “Stand back, I’m going to teach you how to do this now.” It didn’t have that tutorial quality. She was generous. She loved cooking so much, and she loved that someone else was interested in it so much. It was like an offering. It was extraordinary.
So, after that first time, it was a few months later once we started corresponding and talking and visiting. I’d been do New York to see her once a few months later, and she called me and proposed that she come to Atlanta for a week and that we just cook for the entire week – just for ourselves. So, we did. Again, I picked her up at the train station and we went shopping for that entire week. She was staying with friends of mine. I would go to pick her up, and I’d be ready to get right into the kitchen. She would always say, “Have you had your coffee?” I’d be like, “Yes, I had plenty of coffee.” But, she would want to go sit and have coffee. We would go to a cafe or somewhere and have coffee for a very long time – sometimes three hours. And then we’d make our way to the kitchen where we would cook late into the evening.
The first thing I ever did ask her about – because the very first thing I ever had that she made at that original dinner that I tried to get into the kitchen to help with unsuccessfully, but was lucky enough to attend – was how to make turtle soup. Frankly, I was a little squeamish when she mentioned the night before at a cocktail party that she was making turtle soup. It seemed kind of Granny Clampett to me, or a little Diamond Jim Brady. I really had no idea what to imagine, but I was also very excited because it was exotic. I was not at all prepared for what was delivered to the table. It was this clear amber consommé that had this cloud floating on the top, and the fragrance was unlike anything. It was so complex and yet so simple and so nuanced. This cloud, this little dumpling that was floating on the top, was the lightest thing you ever encountered. That had bits of turtle meat and tiny leaves of fresh thyme folded into it. It remains one of the most mysterious things – delicious, memorable and meaningful – I’ve ever tasted. So, that was absolutely the first thing I ever asked her: “Will you teach me how to make turtle soup?” And she was like, “Of course!”
That experience was so interesting. Because the dish was so complex, nuanced, mysterious and ethereal, I just assumed there must be a multitude of ingredients, secret steps and spells. Instead, I got the turtle meat and I was like, “What else do we need?” But, that was about it. I mean, we needed some sherry, turtle, and onion, I think. And we put in a pot with a vast amount of water and put it on very low heat. It cooked and cooked and cooked and cooked. I can remember tasting it after about three hours or so and being – I didn’t say this, of course – but I was disappointed. I thought it tasted like water. I thought, “This is not it. She’s not going to give me this recipe. She’s not going to really teach me how to do this.”
FL: It’s like this elaborate con.
SP: Exactly. But I didn’t say anything. I asked, “What do you think?” She said, “You know, let’s let it cook longer.” So, we did. It cooked for hours, and barely percolating really. She would add a little salt and put the lid back on after we tasted. This went on for a while, I could begin to taste a little something after a few hours, but I was still suspicious. And then, all of a sudden, it became, and it was. It was exactly what I had tasted that night; it was extraordinary. That was quite a lesson. Then we made the dumplings, and that really became that turtle soup. It reminds symbolic and emblematic for me. It’s very meaningful. Once I learned to make that, every time there was a special occasion or for her birthday or someone special was coming to visit, it would warrant turtle soup.
FL: That soup and the way you describe it, it’s such a cooking of patience and cooking of observation. That’s so much of what I think about when I think of Miss Lewis, not having eaten her food, only having read her writing. And so much of The Taste of Country Cooking is about observation, patience with the world, patience with the seasons.
SP: Patience and wonder, I would say. When I think of her, her sense of wonder about things was what really always stands out to me. There was a real sophistication there of someone who was extremely brilliant, sensitive, artistic and observant, someone who lived in New York for more than 50 years and had great savvy. And at the same time there was always about her a girlish innocence that was so attractive and so powerful. She would see the moon and let out a gasp like she had never seen the moon before. I feel so old and jaded – and have my entire life. I try to be like that and I want to be like that. I guess in some ways I am like that. In the last week of her life, one of the last things I can remember was giving her pound cake at our kitchen table; she gasped and said, “Beautiful.”
FL: What a gift. Thank you so much, Scott.
SP: Thank you, Francis.
Each week, The Splendid Table brings you stories that expand your world view, inspire you to try something new, and show how food brings us together. We rely on you to do this. You have the power to keep us cooking, sharing these stories, and helping you in the kitchen.
Donate today for as little as $5.00 a month. Your gift only takes a few minutes and has a lasting impact on The Splendid Table.
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.