Photo: Nina Williams-Mbengue (left) and Edna Lewis (right)
There are many lenses through which to look at the life of Edna Lewis. You can talk about her career as a chef, an author, a farmer, or an activist. But, first and foremost, she was a woman with loving friends and family. We wanted to know more about what Miss Edna was like on a personal level. Francis Lam was able to talk with Lewis's niece Nina Williams-Mbengue, who runs the Child Welfare Project at the National Conference of State Legislatures, about her Aunt Edna.
Francis Lam: I'm so happy to talk to you about your aunt, Miss Edna Lewis. She's this legendary figure for so many of us in the food world, but how do you remember her as your aunt? What do you think of when you think of her?
NWM: Oh boy, I remember spending a lot of time with Aunt Edna. She was my mother’s older sister. She was very funny. She and my mom were always laughing and joking together about something – something that happened in Virginia when they were children on the farm, or something they saw on the news or on TV. I remember her first cookbook The Edna Lewis Cookbook, which she wrote with Evangeline Peterson, who was a woman that she cooked for. They were working on the book and I'd be tagging along with Aunt Edna. She always had me going somewhere because my mom was working two or three jobs and Aunt Edna was doing this catering, so I went to some of these things with her. I remember she and Evangeline would get together and drink. I don't remember if they were drinking wine or Jack Daniels, but they would just start giggling. Both of their voices would get higher and higher with each glass and they were just giggling. Of course, I was 11 or 12 and would go, “Oh my God, what are they talking about?” I never forgot the sound of their laughter just tinkling and their voices, it would just go on and on.
She was very shy, so when you would see her out at these events or around these other chefs or cooking, it was hard for her to get her voice going. But, certainly at home, we'd watch TV. She loved watching the Kentucky Derby; we'd watch all three of the races every time it came on. She was a newshound – Meet the Press and all the news programs. My family to this day stops everything when that stuff is on TV. She was interested in everything I was doing – she was interested in young people – and my schooling. I remember her laughter a lot. When the sisters would get together they would just carry on. One of my fondest memories is being in Virginia at Jen's house, who lived down in the country near Freetown. She, Aunt Edna and I would go picking blackberries. I'd trail along behind them and they were gossiping and talking about the town they grew up in. Talking about the old folks. I just love being with them.
FL: What was Freetown like when you went there?
NWM: By that time there were no longer any houses there. It was a cattle field really. My uncle – their brother – had his cattle there. I just remember Aunt Edna always talking about Freetown and the people in Freetown and how much that meant to her and how she always felt their presence. Aunt Edna's grandparents had been born in slavery and they lived until their nineties. She was, I think 10 or 12 years old before they passed away. One of those grandparents taught her to cook. So, she talked a lot about what life was like for them in the South, in a town of people who were formerly in slavery. That was amazing to me that I'm still alive and I was raised by someone who was raised by former slaves. Even though I never met most of those people, I always developed a love and respect for people that I'd never seen based on the stories they would tell, and how important they were to them, and how they formed their outlook on their lives.
FL: Miss Lewis grew up in Freetown, but it wasn't really a town. It was this little community founded by her grandparents and other friends and family, right?
NWM: Yes. I was just going to say that it is amazing to me that, in 2018, we're talking about Freetown. I just think those families there would just be amazed that Aunt Edna wrote about them in her book and people that cook and are into American cooking or Southern cooking are talking about Freetown too.
FL: When she wrote that book, The Taste of Country Cooking, she wrote it longhand, sort of famously, on these yellow legal pads.
NWM: Yeah, yeah. I remember those.
FL: You actually helped her with it, right? How did you get pressed into service?
NWM: I was about 12. I think I had a typing class in seventh grade or something and I had my first typewriter. She had me type the manuscript because her writing was kind of chicken scratch, so it was hard to read. I remember just days and days typing that up. I was always correcting her grammar and she had these long lists when she was describing everything. I was like, “Aunt Edna, you got too many words in this one sentence. The whole page is one sentence. You can’t do that.” I was trying to break it up for her. Some of those things I remember because I typed them over and over again. I tell you, I miss that. I'd give anything to see her chicken scratch again. Never knowing that she had such an influence on cooking and on the farm-to-table movement and all that.
FL: Do you get a sense of what she wanted to do with the book? What was she hoping for? I read it, I think a lot of people read it, as not just as a cookbook but as literature that tells a story of the community of Freetown and tells the way they live. It’s literature that stands the test of time. What motivated her when she was writing it?
NWM: She didn't necessarily talk about that to me, but I got the sense, from the way she talked about the people of Freetown, that the people of Freetown motivated her. I got the sense that she sensed the presence of all of her ancestors watching her, following her, and seeing what she was doing. I think that drove her. She never forgot that. She never forgot how food tasted when it grew up fresh out of the field and out of the farm. She never forgot walking along behind her father as he plowed the fields getting ready to plant, and behind her mother in all the celebrations they had. I think that’s why she wrote the book the way that she did. She wrote it according to the seasons and the things that people would do. One thing about her long list of things in her book, she painted a picture of what she remembered and what she saw as a child.
FL: I remember when I was researching a little bit about her life, it was so amazing to me that she wrote this incredible classic book that's almost a journal of life and what living was like in this community of Freetown. Then you realize she moved away when she was 15 or 16 years old. So, like you said, all that stuff was so implanted in her memory.
NWM: Yes. But I think that drove her. Edna was always very politically astute, she was involved in all kinds of movement. Definitely the civil rights movement. And I think, again, that drove her. I think the artistic side was her cooking and that drove her. I don't know that she was necessarily thinking, “I'm going to write this cookbook about our lifestyle and I'm going to make a statement.” I think that was just always in her. That cooking was such an important part of her life, but politics was too. I guess she ended up making a statement because she was talking about the lives of these people who had been through so much and really struggled to make a decent, normal life for themselves.
FL: But, that statement was not just that we scratched and clawed our way to survival.
NWM: No, no. They made it beautiful. That's true. I'm sure it was tough, and probably because she was so young as she listened to her grandparents ,they probably buried as much of that as they could and she probably saw some of it through the eyes of a child. She would have seen the end result of people coming out of slavery and surviving to build this little town. It's a testament to people putting things behind them and going forward and looking forward. I think it's so amazing and I think there are lessons there. There must be thousands of Freetowns. I think they have lessons for us today and will into the future, for how people can come through God knows what and still make a life, and survive, and reach out and touch people.
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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.