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A terrific memoir of rural home cooking. Buy It!!!
on August 10, 2006
`The Taste of Country Cooking' by Edna Lewis, in its 30th anniversary edition, prefaced by editor extraordinare, Judith Jones, and introduced by Alice Waters, is one of our more important national culinary documents. The one thing one wants to be aware of is that contrary to its superficial similarities to important culinary reference works by Judith Jones collaborators, Julia Child and Diane Kennedy, this book is not a reference for `southern' cooking technique. Rather, it is much more a personal testament on how Ms. Lewis' family cooked in Freetown in the Virginia Piedmont, founded by her freed slave grandparents. It is much more similar to other personal works such as Elizabeth Coblentz' `The Amish Cook' or Sallie Ann Robinson's `Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way'. It is not the kind of anthropological work we see in the great `Honey from a Weed' by Patience Gray or `Lulu's Provincial Kitchen' by Richard Olney, since this is written from within this milieu.
I always find a great irony in the modern trend toward local, seasonal cuisines, since this approach is not new, but a rediscovery of the way people HAD to eat before modern preservation techniques and global food distribution systems. So, in this book, we see the Alice Waters approach, crafted 120 years before Chez Panisse in Virginia.
True to this spirit, the book is written by both season and by type of meal, starting with spring and working its way around the calendar through summer, autumn, and winter. Since all recipes are given within the context of a meal, we get a set of dishes which go together simply because they were based on the ingredients grown on their Freetown farms.
The fact which makes this book more of a culinary `source document' than a reference for ready-made recipes is the fact that all the recipes are written exactly as they were done fifty or more years ago with a coal stove and oven and few kitchen gadgets. Not only are the recipes done in the style of rural Virginia, many of the source materials are simply not available today or not readily suitable to a modern urban kitchen. The very first recipe, for example, calls for a forequarter of mutton, which I suspect you may have some trouble finding. I know I can find a lamb's shoulder at the local farmer's market, but true mutton, in 10 to 12 pound chunks, may be a bit hard to come by.
Even the bread making is done in a very countrified manner, using a sponge developed overnight, but without relying on wild yeasts, so it's a cross between the typical modern method and the European artisinal method, relying on a very large crock to develop the sponge.
Many of the ingredients are also literally gathered from the wild, with some literally being harvested but one step removed from road kill. One example is when a rabbit or quail falls victim to the plough, it is immediately dressed to hang and cure for dinner in a day or two.
Since this is a chronicle of an actual cuisine, it also has a lot more different types of preparations than you will find in a more conventional cookbook. It has recipes for all sorts of oatmeal, jams, coffee, iced tea, breads, and gravies. It even goes so far as to give an authentic recipe for separating hominy from field corn. Shades of `The Whole Earth Catalogue' and the hippie counterculture!
So, unlike Ms. Lewis' collaboration with Scott Peacock, `The Gift of Southern Cooking', this will not be in the running for the definitive work on `Southern Cooking'. Instead, it is much more important as a source for such a reference `for the rest of us'.
Overall, a very important cookbook for anyone interested in food in general.