Southern Cooking by Feel with Virginia Chef Edna Lewis


Chef Edna Lewis is having a bit of a moment - finally. And we can still learn a lot about Southern cooking from her. Top Chef recently paid homage to the Virginia-born chef when contestants had to cook a dish inspired by her Southern recipes. Growing up in the South, I knew of the great Edna Lewis. We were a foodie family. My grandmother was a Julia Child devotee, and my father had all the trendy Southern cookbooks. Edna Lewis defined the Southern cooking food movement in the 1970s, inspiring chefs like Nathalie Dupree and Lee Bailey to spread the Southern cuisine gospel (one of the first baking recipes I ever made was Lee Bailey's beaten biscuits).

Edna Lewis’s book, The Taste of Country Cooking: 30th Anniversary Edition was recently re-released on its 30th anniversary. When I cracked it open, I rediscovered a wonderful thing about an Edna Lewis recipe: She cooks by feel.

The Julia Child Effect

Chef Edna Lewis isn't really from the Julia Child school of cooking. Julia made it her life's work to completely codify all those lovely French recipes. She wanted exact measurements and times. When her writing partner, Simone Beck, would say something like, "Blanch the green beans in boiling water," Julia would roll her eyes and start taking notes. What sized pot? How much water? How many minutes?

She recognized and respected that generations of French chefs were pretty much cooking by osmosis. French cooks grew up feeling the pastry dough, not measuring it. They cooked from the senses - feeling, tasting, smelling and looking. They baked the cookies until they smelled done, cooked the fish until it felt firm, simmered the sauce until it tasted rich and browned the chicken until it had just the right caramelized color.

Julia changed all that.

Julia Child put numbers on everything. This helped American cooks like herself, who hadn't grown up in kitchens redolent with thyme and butter. With numbers like hers, anyone could cook like an experienced French chef.

I say this as someone who adores Julia Child. I grew up watching her television show with my grandmother. It was a sacrosanct hour, during a time without recording technology. No matter what we were doing or who was visiting, everything in the household stopped and we had a snack in the den with Julia. She taught my grandmother, who taught my father, who taught me. Julia showed Americans that we could actually make and enjoy good, fresh food.

But, back to Edna.

The Edna Lewis Groove

A southern food plate from chef Edna Lewis recipes.

A southern food plate from chef Edna Lewis recipes.

Last summer, our annual food festival in Richmond, Virginia, held a luncheon to honor Edna Lewis in the 100th year of her birth. Several chefs came together to prepare some of her key recipes, and we watched a moving documentary about Miss Lewis's background. The food was stunning. I filled my plate with buttermilk biscuits, lima beans with cream, brisket, chicken and dumplings, slow-cooked green beans, braised cabbage with kale and sweet potato pie. After I put down my fork, I picked up my phone and ordered the 30th anniversary edition of The Taste of Country Cooking.

When it arrived a few days later, I recognized the cover from my childhood. But I had forgotten about the recipes. Inside, Edna Lewis cooks just the way that all great chefs do: By feel. Rediscovering this, after Julia, was a revelation.

Lewis's recipes usually include precise measurements for ingredients, but when it comes to directions, she serves up a paragraph or two of some storytelling. For example, she describes in detail how biscuit dough should feel, "the dough will be very soft in the beginning but will stiffen in 2 or 3 minutes." Chef Lewis emphasizes feel, giving us times just as a guideline, not a rule. Our senses define the rules.

The book also includes a sense of place and history. Lewis links each dish to a part of her childhood, spent gardening, fishing, raising animals and putting food by. Her respect and love for ingredients seeps into every recipe. You find yourself making friends with your collard greens, understanding where they came from, how they like to be cooked, how they should smell and look.

Cooking by Feel

Lewis isn't the only chef to cook by feel. In fact, all great chefs do. And home cooks who aspire to be great need to learn the technique. Anyone who cooks by feel can take a loosely defined list of ingredients and cook from it. Someone who cooks by feel can recreate Grandmother's corn pudding just by knowing what's in it - proportions optional.

I have seen this, repeatedly, from the chefs I've interviewed for stories. Skilled chefs speak "food" the way others speak English. And we home cooks can learn from that.

The recipes that Chef Iggy puts on Kitchen Plot have an element of cooking by feel. Times and temperatures are secondary once you understand an ingredient and where you are going with it. Try it yourself. Read the instructions, lay out your mise en place, and then have at it. Smell the sizzle, look at the browning, feel the smoothness or roughness. Put these senses in your physical memory, and you'll never need to write a step-by-step recipe again.

Miss Lewis would be so proud.

Visit Amazon to order your copy of The Taste of Country Cooking: 30th Anniversary Edition

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