GALESBURG, Ill. — It was a mild July afternoon, and Ruth Lewis Smith was stuffing deviled eggs at the kitchen counter. She wore a red and white polka-dot apron, and her hair set in curlers under a scarf fashioned from pantyhose. A trio of women stood around her, assisting. “Tomorrow we’ll be dressed!” she remarked by way of greeting, giving me a once-over in my cutoff jean shorts.
At 94, Lewis Smith is the last living sibling of culinary icon Edna Lewis, arguably the most important figure in American regional cooking. In 1976, after nearly three decades of work as a chef and caterer in New York City, Lewis brought the traditions of refined, farm-to-table Southern cooking, and the black foundation of American food, to national attention with her second, best-known cookbook, “The Taste of Country Cooking.”
After editing a book examining Lewis’s life, work and legacy this year, I was invited by Lewis Smith to attend the family’s reunion in Galesburg, where Lewis Smith now lives with her daughter and son-in-law, Mattie and Jerry Scott.
When I arrived, the household was already in high gear.
As she bustled in from the garden, Mattie Scott brushed the dirt from her hands, tasking my travel companion, Mashama Bailey — chef/partner of the Grey in Savannah and the chairwoman of the Edna Lewis Foundation — and me with preparing the cobbler for the next day. Scott pulled a yellowed first edition of “Taste” from a shelf beside the stove, thumbing to Lewis’s cobbler recipe. I wanted to linger, but hurried to follow Scott as she beckoned me to the basement.
Row upon row of home-canned bounty awaited: Strawberry and pear preserves, cucumber pickles and peaches. Galesburg, with its Midwestern flatness, big-box stores and eye-high corn, feels worlds away from the rural Virginia of the 1920s depicted in Lewis’s writing, but in that cellar was a scene straight out of Lewis’s book.
In “The Taste of Country Cooking,” Lewis wrote of her childhood in Freetown, a rural settlement in Orange County, Va., founded by formerly enslaved people, Lewis’s grandparents Chester and Lucinda among them. The residents worked for self-sufficiency, growing or gathering most everything they ate. “Taste” stands out among the cookbooks of its time: It’s seasonal in its organization, lyrical in its prose, precise in its instructions and subversive in its politics. Lewis offers menus for Emancipation Day, Juneteenth and Revival, but not for Independence Day or Thanksgiving.
Lewis died in 2006, at 89, but in recent years, there’s been a marked uptick in interest in her work and legacy: She was one of five honored by the U.S. Postal Service on a celebrity chef stamp series in 2014, and she graced the cover of the New York Times Magazine in 2015. Although she is often compared to Julia Child in her importance, in 2017, a “Top Chef” episode revealed that many young chefs have no idea who she is — and sent “Taste” zooming up the Amazon charts.
Back in the kitchen, Lewis Smith moved from deviled eggs to chicken salad, which she mixed and tasted for what seemed like an hour. She paused occasionally to answer a call or text from arriving kin. It has been only a couple years since Lewis Smith left Virginia to live with Mattie. It was the second time she’d left her native Orange County, where Freetown once stood; the first time, a search for work drove her north; this time, it was cancer and the challenges of living alone in old age. The promise of more time with her daughter, grandchildren and great-granddaughter, Kendall, were balms.
Scott’s sister, Amelia Smith, who lives with her wife in Arizona, sat at the kitchen table, waxing nostalgic about her Aunt Jenn’s beans. “You know, Aunt Edna may have gotten famous, but Aunt Jenn was the real cook of the family.” Several seconded the claim, including Nina Williams-Mbengue, who had typed the manuscript of “Taste” when she and her mother, Lewis’s sister Naomi, lived with Lewis in the South Bronx in the ’70s. Bailey scooped lard from a tub to mix into flour for cobbler dough, while I drained peaches in colanders set over soup pots.
The afternoon wore on. Scott defrosted a sink full of fish her husband had caught. The cobbler still wasn’t done. “You know, when Aunt Edna cooked, she moved so slow I thought we’d never eat!” Scott said. “But all of a sudden, it’d all come together”
Out in the barn-size shed, Jerry Scott, who goes by “Scotty,” fired up two deep fryers for the fish, and prepared a cornmeal and flour breading mix whose secrets he refused to share. Fishing in the lakes of the Midwest is a particular pleasure of Scotty’s, one he took to after he and Mattie moved to the region, lured by work.
That evening, those in attendance made quick work of the freshly fried walleye, hot johnnycakes, and a bowl of coleslaw we’d pulled together from pre-shredded cabbage and raisins. Other than the bottle of brandy awaiting its addition to the cobbler’s nutmeg sauce, there was no booze in the house; the Scotts don’t drink.
The next day dawned cloudy and cool; perfect reunion weather, Mattie Scott called it. She was moving fast: dumping green beans from a sack into one crock pot, a freezer bag full of her own braised greens into another. She pulled the deviled eggs and huge trays of potato salad from the fridge, laid out snack-size bags of chips, sliced onions. Jerry Scott and Bailey worked the grill, cooking herbed chicken breasts, hamburgers and hot dogs, while a cousin mixed powdered lemonade and iced tea. Someone arrived with boxes of fried chicken from a local restaurant downtown.
“At Revival in Virginia, they would have done their own chicken, but we just have to bring it in,” Mattie Scott said. Like many admirers of Lewis, I’m tempted by the nostalgia-soaked vision of her life, frozen in time. But why shouldn’t Lewis’s family evolve with circumstances and passing time, and who’s to say Lewis herself wouldn’t have too, were she still alive?
When we’d finished arranging the food in the garage, Scott led Bailey and me into a small dining room, whose table was set with silver candlesticks and china. The room doubled as a sort of shrine to Edna Lewis, with all her books on display and portraits of her covering the walls. On a sideboard was a row of cakes and pies Scott had been baking, single-handedly, for weeks: sweet potato pies made from Lewis’s recipe, coconut layer cake, chocolate cake with white icing, bread pudding studded with raisins, and poundcakes. Our two enormous cobblers rounded out the spread.
Car after car pulled onto the lawn, and relatives made their way to the long tables Scott had laid with albums of family history, photographs and every article ever published about Lewis. Family members pored over photos, some reminiscing intimately, while others paused to make introductions. A number of attendees had never met one another, and others had connected only briefly at one of the previous reunions that Lewis Smith has been convening since 1989. Few seemed to have a deep knowledge of Edna, other than that she was one among the family’s celebrities. She was a well-known chef, sure, but they also counted among their people a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, Matt Lewis, and the coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, Marvin Lewis.
In early afternoon, the attention turned to the meal. Lewis Smith emerged from the house in a dress of palest pink and a wide-brimmed fuchsia hat. On her lapel was a pin bearing the likeness of her late sister. As everyone ate, Lewis Smith stood and called us all to order; it was time to get down to the real business of the gathering. She introduced herself and named her grandparents, parents and siblings. She spoke of her longtime involvement in the Bethel Baptist Church — which the Lewis siblings grew up attending — and her more recent role as president of the Orange branch of the NAACP.
For most of the family, Freetown and Orange County are more legend than memory; most of the younger generation grew up in the Northeast and Midwest, although a few have returned to the region, drawn to its slower lifestyle.
“Now we need to go around. Everyone should introduce themselves, the people they brought here today, and their connection to the Lewis-Turner family,” Lewis Smith instructed. Everyone abided, slowly sketching a verbal family tree that spanned generations and the country.
As the last of the speakers took their seats, the Rev. Willie Aubrey Lewis, who had also blessed the meal, rose and asked for our attention. “I’m humbled to be a part of this family,” he said. “What our forefathers did was impossible. But nothing is impossible in the eyes of God.” Everyone murmured in agreement.
Suddenly, Ronald Taylor stood. “I just want to say,” he called over the chatter, “that I now raise cattle on land that includes what used to be Freetown. And I just want to say that if you ever want to gather there, I’d be glad to welcome you.” A soft roar emerged, then a round of applause.
I looked over at Lewis Smith. She was beaming. Like the last words of the Passover Seder — “Next year in Jerusalem” — his words ushered the hope, if not the promise, of a return to this family’s sacred ground. It wouldn’t be the same as Lewis had remembered in her cooking and writing, but these people’s presence would be a testament to the family’s persistence, not only in history, but the here and now.
Franklin is editor of “Edna Lewis: At the Table With an American Original” (UNC Press, 2018).
12 to 16 servings
We found in testing that even with allotted time for draining, the hefty amount of canned and fresh fruit gave off a lot of liquid during baking. To help keep the bottom crust intact, you may want to par-bake it and cool it before adding the pie filling. Or just scoop out excess juices as you serve, with vanilla ice cream.
MAKE AHEAD: The canned and fresh peaches need to drain, separately, for at least 1 hour. The pie crust dough needs to rest for at least 15 minutes, and up to 1 hour. The pie needs to cool for at least 1 hour, and preferably overnight, before serving.
Adapted by Mashama Lewis and Sara Franklin, from Edna Lewis’s “The Taste of Country Cooking” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006).
For the filling
6 pounds, 10 ounces (one #10 can) canned sliced peaches in syrup
10 to 15 fresh peaches, peeled, pitted and sliced (see NOTE; may substitute 4 to 5 quarts home-canned peaches)
1¼ cups granulated sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
For the crust
6 cups flour, plus more as needed
¾ teaspoon salt
1 cup chilled lard
⅔ cup cold water
Coarse sanding sugar (optional)
For the filling: Divide the canned and fresh peaches among two or three colanders (set in the sink, or over bowls if you plan to use the resulting syrup and juices). Let drain for at least 1 hour.
Meanwhile, make the crust: Sift together 3 cups of flour and half the salt in a mixing bowl. Add half the lard; use a pastry cutter, two knives or your fingertips to blend it in until the mixture resembles chunky sand. Bit by bit, sprinkle half the water over top, mixing as you go, just until the dough comes together. There will be little bits of flour left.
Turn out the mixture onto a cool surface (a granite countertop or marble slab is ideal, but a cutting board that has been chilled in the refrigerator will work as well), and shape it into a ball. Cover with a clean dish towel, then repeat with the remaining flour, salt, lard and cold water to make a second ball of dough. Let them rest for at least 15 minutes, and up to 1 hour.
Combine the canned and fresh drained peaches in a large mixing bowl, stirring so they are evenly distributed.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Generously flour a work surface and each ball of dough. Roll out the first ball of dough there, to a rectangle that’s large enough to cover the bottom and sides of your deep 9-by-13-inch baking dish with an inch or two of overhang on all sides.
Transfer it to the baking dish; the dough will be fairly thin. Press it into the corners and along the base (if the dough breaks, simply press it back together, using a little cool water on your fingertips to prevent sticking).
Roll out the second ball of dough to about the same size, then cut that rectangle into lattice strips.
When you’re ready to bake, sprinkle ¼ cup of the granulated sugar over the dough base. Use your hands to pile the peaches into the crust, gently packing them down as you go. (It doesn’t seem like they will all fit, but they do.) Sprinkle the remaining cup of granulated sugar across the top, then dot the fruit evenly with small chunks of butter.
Finally, lay the lattice strips of dough across the top, weaving the strips in a basket-like fashion or as you like. Use your fingertips or a fork to seal the edges of the lattice to the edges of the base dough, trimming as needed. If desired, sprinkle the top with coarse sanding sugar.
Place the baking dish on a rimmed baking sheet (to catch bubbling juices) and transfer to the middle oven rack; immediately reduce the temperature to 425 degrees. Bake for 30 minutes, then rotate the pan from front to back. Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until the fruit is glistening and bubbling slightly, and the top is nicely browned.
Transfer to a wire rack to cool for at least 1 hour before serving.
NOTE: To peel peaches, score their bottoms with a shallow “X” and drop into boiling water for a few minutes. Drain; when cool enough to handle, discard the skins, which should slip off easily.