Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie

Uploaded by LibraryofVa on 14.01.2009

She looked like an african queen--five-foot eight or nine inches. She was tall. She was handsome,
not beautiful, she was handsome.
There was no denying when you looked at her that this was not just anybody's
This was a personage,
and uh...
particularly the
gracious manner
that went with it.
I saw this picture, this photograph, of this woman,
whom I'd seen, you know I'd seen
plenty of black women in my life, but there was something
so exotic and
she didn't look
like anyone I've ever seen before.
Of course she was dressed in his way I'd never seen before too.
But I didn't get at that time that she was cooking southern food, I don't think that
came through to me at all. You paid attention when Miss Lewis, when she spoke.
She spoke in almost a whisper, um, and it was like
there was a sense that these were words to savor, words to...
you know, words for the ages when she spoke.
I'm am African-American. I grew up in Freetown, Virginia--
a community of farming people. It wasn't really a town.
The name was adopted because the first residents had all been freed from
slavery and they wanted to be known as the town of free people. My grandfather
was one of the first to settle there.
There were black town that did spring up, because then again there is there still
was the segregation--the races weren't mixing.
So African-Americans felt that this was an opportunity for us to build a town,
but we could be our own mayors and laws that benefit us.
[singing} "Fair ye well"

We lived in the country
so the first thing women would do,
they would go out in the early morning and cut the greens or the cabbages
and pick the beans
that had dew on them.
Then they would bring them into the house.
We had to practice in all the farm work:
feed the chickens,
pulled the roots from the garden,
when the corn was ripe we had to harvest it.
My first memory
of who I was,
it was food.
I didn't cook but
I lived among a group of women
were all good cooks.
Because a man was taught
if you didn't choose a woman who was a good cook,
he was embarassed.
No one taught me to cook.
I just saw it.
At Aunt Tinny's up the path,
and in my mother's kitchen.
Mama Daisy, I called her.
In summer, she made
perfect sweet potato pies in
an old wood stove
in our outdoor kitchen.
In winter,
she made ash cakes
ground corn meal baked in the ashes
on an open hearth.
Cooking was simply a part of my life.
[singing] "Ride on King Jesus
No man can hinder thee"
We had special events at Freetown,
like Revival Week, Race Day,
and Emancipation Day.
Emancipation Day, for us, was in September.
We would go to church.
It was a thanksgiving service.
The former slaves would tell stories one by one,
and afterwards
we'd have food outside.
We would cary food
like game,
and roast chicken,
pork in fall, greens--
it could be turnip
or mustard greens.
There was sweet potatoes, and pickles, and preserves,
and yeast bread.
And of course
desserts like
deep dish apple pie,
or Danson Plum pie.
[singing] "Will you be a witness, For my lord, Will you be a witness, For my lord"
When I was a girl,
they used to hang black men.
You couldn't do anything about it because they's kill you.
It scared the life out of us.
You know, the Klan was always prevalent. Even though you may have had a good
relationship with the person next to you, that doesn't mean that the person
five miles down the road
didn't hold some type of animosity. We were always living on the edge, you know,
it was a very perilous time for us because you just never knew when the
night riders would come through.
It was the depression.
My father died, and
my mother couldn't support all of us children on the farm.
There were two girls
who decided to go to New York,
and asked me to come along.
I left Virginia when I was fifteen.
I didn't have any feelings about leaving,
none at all.
That was the depression.
What kind of work was I going to do on the farm?

When I first came to New York,
just before World War II,
I joined the Communist Party
because they were the only ones
encouraging the blacks to be aggressive,
to participate.
They gave me a job typing.
It was a natural--
particularly for people who understood what it was like to be poor--who, who
had come from working-class families who understand that uh...
the division of spoils in this capitalist country was unfair and uh...
one wanted very much to change into some socialist kind of government, and the
nearest we had uh... that point was this Communist Party.
It was a nice group of young people.
We used to cook for each other on weekends.
I was the only one cooking Southern food.
It was at these parties
I started to get my reputation for my cooking.
Carl Bissinger and Johnny Nicholson were my friends.
They owned an antique shop.
In the course of one of these weekends,
Johnny announced that
he was going to open a restaurant.
Turning to me he said,
"You're going to be the cook
in my restaurant."
That's how it all started,
and soon
Cafe Nicholson was a big success.
Carl Bissinger was a photographer.
I had just given up my job at Lord and Taylor.
I did window displays.
So you see, I knew the
fashion world, the magazine world...
We were well-known.
I knew people were going to come.
With the looks of the restaurant, which was quite extraordinary in those days,
and being uptown in this area,
[and a] black cook--
and she certainly displayed herself because everybody
took to her right away.
It was one of the most
unique restaurants in New York.
Everybody who was
anybody came.
I guess it just clicked--
the people made it famous.
[Newspaper review] "No menu in this restaurant:
Edna cooks the same things day after day.
The price of the meal: three-fifty or five dollars. Main dishes on the three-fifty
dinner included roast chicken cooked with herbs, comes brown as
Autumn chestnuts. We saw Edna peering in from the kitchen just to see the effect
on the guests and hear the echoes of praise."
--Clementine Paddleford, New York Herald Tribune

Just simple: good roast chicken,
a fillet mignon, and a fish of some kind.
She made a wonderful Cape Cod carmel cake.
That was very delicious.
Very simple menu and very simply presented.
All of the famous Southerners would come.
We always had Tennessee Williams,
William Faulkner,
Truman Capote.
He was one of my favorites.
He'd come to the kitchen looking for biscuits.
"Oh, don't you have any biscuits?"
We didn't make biscuits.
He had real wide lapels and penny loafers.
He was cute.
Everybody was ga-ga when he came.
I asked Edna if she could come in and just talk to me,
and maybe we'd do it every week,
which we did for well over a year.
She was working at the Natural History Museum and I think she had Thursday
afternoons off.
I would get her to talk, ask questions, and she had a big yellow pad.
She's take a few notes. And I'd say, "Go home right away and
write down just what you told me." And she did.
And it was so beautiful because it was truly her voice.
[from book] "In Freetown,
fried chicken
was a very special dish."
Frying chickens
we're grown only once a year,
in late spring through early summer.
They were hand raised and
specially fed.
This made the most delicious
flavored chicken.
We fried them in sweet, home-rendered lard,
churned butter,
and a slice of smoked ham for added flavor.
Her cooking is not fussy,
but--it's one things that Scott said-- how she
eeks out the flavor, the
true flavor and intensifies it.
My friendship with Scott Peacock
came about
because I went to a Southern food festival in [place]
and I had all these pies to make.
And Scott said, "Well, I'll help you."
I said, "Oh my God, my
pies are going to be ruined!"
He didn't ask me anything.
He just made the dough and rolled it out.
And I said, "Oh my God, he can cook!"
So then we got on the same wavelength.
When I went home he would call me and ask me about this and tell me about that.
And I would call him, and then it became more and more.
Cooking was also system of expression of our friendship, and
because I do think cooking is very expressive, and for us it was a way that
we were learning
and learning about each other and growing.
I don't know that either of us were really thinking that much about it.
I didn't really have an interest in southern cooking at that point. I mean I
didn't see it
as something to aspire to. I didn't even really understand what it was.
I had a very narrow view
of what that meant based on my childhood in Alabama, which I thought was
very good but it wasn't
what I was really interested in. I had met Miss Lewis and it was after meeting her
that I really did have this epiphany of sorts,
and then really became very zealous about Southern cooking
and begin to realize,
you know, what it was. It was so much more than the narrow experience.
I think that there was a lot of stigma attached to being Southern, and a
big part of being Southern is the food.
[In backgroud] "Black-eyed peas and collard greens."
You look at
attitudes about Southern food over time
and I think both
black and white seem to have been
in some ways embarrassed about their own food--
finding it worthy of an oilcloth tablecloth but not a
damask-draped tablecloth. In some ways you can argue that African-Americans
recognized the worth and value and distinctiveness in their cuisine
before white Southerners did.
Part of that lightbulb going off was
realizing just how different Miss Lewis's experience and the cooking she'd
grown up with--although simple country cooking too--
was from what I've grown up with.
And yet some of the things were, you know, very very similar.
I first met him, I think it was her
seventieth birthday.
He brought the biscuits up,
and I liked him immediately. I knew Edna, she could...
Edna expresses so much through her face and her gestures.
And I knew that she was just
very very
taken with him. That he was a person she respected.
I did say to her, "That Scott could
work with you on this book,"
and kind of put the idea in her head.
And then she moved to Atlanta and they started working together.
For me, it's about trying to
simplify things more, and more, and more.
Through knowing her and through
cooking with her and just
her work and her life,
for that matter,
I came to understand that
creativity can be about stripping things away not adding things.
Southern food doesn't have all those herbs.
It has some,
but the food is so natural and flavorful
you didn't need all those herbs.
They were very intensly cooking and trying things,
studying things, sampling, comparing.
I mean, the work that went into that book took them almost eight years.
I think sometimes we all need a little help in seeing ourselves.
I know that for me, Miss Lewis did that.
I think that Judith
probably helped Miss Lewis in some ways.
Certainly to see
just how special and unique her experience was. I'm sure she had
some sense of that. By the time I met her,
one of the things that impressed me so much was that she had
such a clear sense of who she absolutely was,
and what that meant, and so much pride, and so proud to be Southern.
When I met her I was
quite lacking in self-awareness on just about any level and uh...
it's still a struggle for me.
I think inevitably
Scott was in awe
of Miss Lewis.
The way he calls her "Miss Lewis,"
that's a real sign of respect.
But I think as they worked together
it became
more balanced, more equal.
And of course
now than Edna
old and you know
we all get losing it a bit,
Scott of someone who is there for her,
to take care of her.
It's extraordinary.
So in a funny way it has switched, in that he was
the young man seeking the wisdom,
and it's sort of the other way around now.
[saxophone music]
When Miss Lewis
began slowing down more and more and needing more help
it was, you know, it was hurtful for me.
I'm sure it was hurtful for her.
"How are you?" "Pretty good."
"Good! Good for an old lady?"
There was some depression over that,
and probably and withdrawal to a degree that I'm sure I pulled away
when it became apparent that things weren't going to stay the same
and that we weren't going to be
this happy--almost--couple forever.
And uh...
You know, and I spent a lot of time wishing that things were different,
or that she would be able to, or we could turn the clock back together.
Finally one day, I guess there is just a tipping point.
I just realized that I could keep trying to run from
that or wish that things were different,
and wish that things would change in the other direction,
but that it wasn't going to happen.
And um...
it was huge.
As very much...
It was very much like coming out.
It was something I fought for such a long time, and and wrestled with, and tried not
to think about and not to deal with
and um...
finally accepting it
was the greatest thing.
Not the easiest thing, and it didn't fix everything
by any means
but it changed everything.
Suddenly, I found myself able to be there and to give myself,
and to myself too.
The more I was able to be there for her, then I, without realizing it,
was there for myself too.
I was living with what we had,
and not somewhere else.
What I didn't realize for the longest time was that Miss Lewis was teaching me
to accept
Southern food and and see
the uniqueness and
to celebrate the wonderful things about that. It's a way of
accepting yourself.
You know, when you accept those parts of yourself that are on the outside,
and you begin to see grits as something to be proud of,
and equal,
then you begin to see those things about yourself
and that's bigger than the cooking!
It's a lot bigger than any cooking.