Edna Lewis and the Flourishing of African Americans

“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 chattel slavery and they wanted to be known as a town of Free People.”

From the opening paragraph of The Taste of Country Cooking, I was hooked. In the pages that follow, chef Edna Lewis (1916-2006) ushers us into her past, a place that seems at the same time impossible and enchanted. Impossible because the Freetown Lewis describes is a thriving village of African Americans in the post-Civil War South. Enchanted because the life she describes sounds like something from the Garden of Eden.

Published in 1976, the cookbook was revolutionary as Lewis chose to categorize her recipes seasonally. The author invites us into the yearly rhythms of the family, to pull up a chair at the dinner table.

Each chapter is a typical menu for particular holidays or special occasions in the calendar: An Early Spring Dinner After Sheep-Shearing, Midsummer Sunday Breakfast, Emancipation Day Dinner, Christmas Eve Supper. Farm-to-table was a way of life in Freetown 150 years before it was a movement in high-end restaurants of gentrified urban neighborhoods. 

In and amongst her recipes are delicious introductions, comments, and descriptions of truly free living. She recalls plucking wild greens by the river, discovering strawberries, roaming the orchard, scavenging for nuts, raising and slaughtering all manner of farm animals, aging wine, making hams, and a host of other fascinating activities. Here is a taste:

“Our whole county was serviced by one threshing machine that moved with carefully calculated timing from one farm to another. On the day the thresher was scheduled to come to Freetown, all the men were expected to be standing by and ready to begin work as soon as it arrived….

When the machine started up, the men had to work fast and furiously. The two who worked at the end of the pipe would sometimes be covered with the straw that flew at them wildly as they struggled to make neat stacks…It was hot, sweaty work, and the waterboys were kept busy running around with pails of water. By noon the wheat was usually all threshed and the huge threshers would move off to set up at another farm.

Early that morning Mother and some of the neighbors would have gone over to the farmhouse to help with the dinner and the kitchen would be turned upside down. Fortunately, this was the time when the garden was at its peak, yielding forth all of its fruits, so there would be many, many dishes to prepare. The women would set up tables under the shade trees and when dinner was ready one of the cooks would go out and ring a giant dinner bell so that it could be heard all over the countryside. And the men would gather hungrily around the tables that were laden with so many good things: boiled pork shoulder, braised beef, fried chicken with gravy, baked tenderloin, new cabbage, pork-flavored beans, hot spiced beets, baked tomatoes, potato salad, corn pudding, an assortment of pickles, hot corn batter bread, biscuits, and sliced loaf bread; and for dessert, blackberry cobbler, jelly layer cake, canned peaches, iced tea, lemonade, and buttermilk. After such a dinner, they would stay around and relax a while before moving on to the next farm, where they would continue working until all the wheat in the area had been threshed.” (101-102)

As I read Lewis’s description of farm living, I was struck by two things: (1) the astounding amount of work there was to do and (2) the rich, delicious enjoyment they experienced. Often, we think of subsistence farming as barely scraping by on beans and corn. Not in Freetown. Recipe after recipe reveals tables of rich foods fit for a king: pan-braised spareribs, hand-packed Virginia hams, smothered rabbit, rich and creamy cakes, yeasty breads, crisp wild greens, homemade jellies and pickles, dandelion and blackberry wines, and always–always–a pot of freshly brewed coffee.

On the pages of The Taste of Country Cooking, human flourishing unfolds before our eyes. Lewis explains the natural rhythm of their little village: “Whenever there were major tasks on the farm, work that had to be accomplished quickly…then everyone pitched in, not just family but neighbors as well. And afterward we would all take part in the celebrations, sharing the rewards that follow hard labor” (xx).

Lewis’s grandparents, who lived with her in the family home growing up, were both former slaves. She writes about her grandmother who was purchased for $950 to be a brickmason.

As I relished the delight of this little community tucked in the Virginia woods, it dawned on me just how American slavery pierced through the core of humanity. You see, man was created by God to work. But chattel slavery turns work into a perpetual hell where slaves toil from the cradle to the grave barred from ever tasting the fruits of their own labor.

Herein lies the inestimable work ethic in Freetown. Imagine the motivation for first-time freed men to put all of their skill, knowledge, and effort into a plot of land that was theirs alone to work–and to profit from.

Unfortunately, Freetown was a surprising anomaly in a South more often characterized by the virtual slavery that followed Lincoln’s famous proclamation. W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903) describes a vast Southern landscape populated by blacks trapped by sharecropping in destitute poverty. The difference between the families of Freetown and most black families of the Reconstruction Era boils down to this: land ownership. Lewis explains that her grandfather, along with two others, “were granted land by a plantation owner, Claiborn R. Mason, Jr., for whom one of them had served as a coachman” (xix). Human flourishing required not merely personal emancipation but the ability to enjoy the fruit of their labors.

Christians should be able to recognize this truth in the story of the Israelites of the Old Testament. Emancipation from slavery in Egypt was only step one. The Lord didn’t free them only to abandon them in the wilderness. He carried them through the wilderness for step two: taking possession of the land he promised to give them.

Land ownership has always been an uphill battle for African Americans. A friend of mine recounted the difficulty his own black father had in trying to secure a mortgage loan here in South Carolina in the 1980s. The eighties! While his white friends and peers were buying houses left and right, he was told by the loan officer: “You’re well-qualified, but your daddy’s got the wrong skin color.” If Christians are to take human flourishing seriously, Lewis’s accounts shows us that property/home ownership is one of the most important issues poor African Americans still face today.

Finally, this is a cookbook. As I thumbed through the pages and pictured the table spreads and imagined the smells, I was reminded that hospitality is at the center of true kingdom living. We were made to share tables in the presence of the Lord. The King has come, died and been raised, and is now exalted on the throne so that one day he can gather us into a new Jerusalem where we will flourish and feast with him forever. Edna Lewis’s The Taste of Country Cooking is a delicious foretaste of that kingdom life.