Edna Lewis and a Tradition Preserved

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As a child in Virginia, I thought all food tasted delicious. After growing up, I didn’t think food tasted the same, so it has been my lifelong effort to try and recapture those good flavors of the past.” — Edna Lewis

Edna Lewis (1916-2006) had a remarkable career as a chef and writer of several best-selling cookbooks. Perhaps her most lasting contribution was her lifelong celebration of traditional southern cooking. She kept the tradition alive, and along the way inspired the next generation of cooks to make fresh magic from the local foods of the south.

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As many of you know, the Land Library has a 3,000 volume Kids Nature Library in Waterton Canyon, southwest of metro-Denver. One of our most treasured books at the Kids Library is Robbin Gourley’s beautifully illustrated picture book, Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie: A Story About Edna Lewis.

Edna was born on a small farm in Freetown, Virginia — a farm that had been granted to Edna’s grandfather, a freed slave. Robbin Gourley’s lyrical tale (and her lush and vibrant watercolors) follows Edna and her family throughout the growing season. Gathered fruits, vegetables, and nuts quickly make their way to the family’s table, with the surplus canned for the winter ahead. Every family member is involved, but it’s Edna who shows an early genius for making fun recipes from the simple foods at hand. The New York Times had this to say about Edna Lewis’ upbringing: Growing, gathering and preparing food was more than just sustenance for the family; it was a form of entertainment. Without fancy cooking equipment, the family improvised — measuring baking powder on coins and cooking everything over wood.

It was Robbin Gourley’s wonderful kids book that inspired us to learn more about Edna Lewis, and to slowly gather her cookbooks for the Land Library. After all, if she could give so much to preserving a precious regional tradition, we wanted to reciprocate a tiny bit by keeping her work alive on our shelves!

Somewhere along the way, we came across this inspiring documentary, Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie: Keeping Traditions Alive, written, produced, and directed by Bailey Barash. There’s much more to Edna Lewis’ life than you might imagine. What a wonderful film!

In 1995, Edna Lewis was awarded the first ever James Beard Living Legend Award, for her creative years in the kitchen, and for books such as this classic:

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Food traditions have long been a happy obsession at the Land Library. There is such a rich intersection between people, land, and food!

Recently, the two co-founders of the Rocky Mountain Land Library were interviewed by Colorado Matters‘ Ryan Warner. We discussed this summer’s renovation of Buffalo Peaks Ranch’s Cooks House. By the end of that project, we will have room for the ranch’s first library. For a few years it will feature a broad sampling of the Land Library’s collection, but eventually the Cooks House Library will feature a particular theme. Ryan Warner casually remarked, wouldn’t it be fitting for the Cooks House Library to be dedicated to food and the land?

We think Ryan is definitely on to something!  We can’t wait to start organizing that special collection. Until that time we’ll have many more posts on some of our favorite food books. Classics such as these:

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John Edge writes glowingly about Edna Lewis in his new book, but we especially loved this simple sentence: “Her words were deeply grounded in place.” (John Edge is also featured in the 20 minute documentary film above).

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And of course what would a Cooks House Library be without Ramon Adams’ wonderful history!

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