Photo of Edna Lewis
My mouth is beginning to water just thinking about all the great food that my mentor mom cooks when we get together at her house. Yes, pork chops and collard greens are probably my favorite thing that she dishes up. The conversation is rich and the food is divine; really, I feel swept away to a place of warmth and comfort every time I take a bite of what she serves. My mentor is a beautiful black woman who knows how to cook. She is a great light in my life and I always feel that eating at her table is a gift!
I have asked her for her secrets and she has always been happy to share them. She told me that sometimes she’ll get someone on the phone to bounce off recipe ideas. She might call one of her daughters to ask them what they think. Discussions are had over food and ingredients, and ideas are taken into consideration.
She marinated the chops by her child’s directive. I agreed to do the same when I went to cook them for myself. “Now the greens take one and a half hours to really cook well,” she told me. Oh, now this kind of time commitment is daunting for me but I have to admit that I could taste every minute that went into them.
The meals are always so special. Yes, these meals are cherished for the flavors, but they are also cherished for so much more. The guidance that I have gotten from my second mother has pivoted my ways in the right direction countless times. Her attentiveness has made me known. She is a wise woman with many years on me, so her experiences speak to me about things that I can only hope to understand in the future.
I love pork chops, and I love the impressions that get left on me every time she pours the tea. I have become increasingly interested in the cuisine of her people. I leave her house over and over again with a desire to know more. So I started to read about food, food prepared for hundreds of years with flavor, regional influence, personality, and the African American story.
One of my favorite books is the Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks. It includes more than 150 black cookbooks and highlights the contribution of African American influence in American cuisine, especially in the south. The Jemima Code includes a rare 1827 house servant’s manual, the first book published by an African American in the trade, and modern cookbook classics by authors such as Edna Lewis and Vertamae Grosvenor. You might also want to check out Edna Lewis’ book, A Taste of Country Cooking. Edna celebrates the uniquely American country cooking she grew up with some fifty years ago in a small Virginia Piedmont farming community that had been settled by freed slaves, Freetown Virginia.
There are so many aspects of African American cuisine that are worth exploring. Did you know that while gumbo, the flagship dish of New Orleans, is usually thickened with okra, the technique is actually an adaptation of soupikandia, a Senegalese soupy stew that slave cooks prepared in plantation kitchens?
And, the red pea that can be found growing in Sapelo Island, GA, originated in Africa. It is the original ingredient in the Sapelo region's quintessential rice-and-beans dish Hoppin' John, and is just one of the many heritage crops from the African continent.
My stomach is talking to me and I now have to go appease it. I’ll enjoy every bite. Delicious.