This week we’re up to #36 on Gourmet’s list of the 50 Women Game Changers in the world of food: Edna Lewis—granddaughter of a freed slave who dedicated her life to reviving and recording the heritage of old fashioned Southern cooking. Thanks to Mary from One Perfect Bite for organizing a group of us cooking and blogging our way through this list, one dish at a time. Check back every Friday for another story and recipe from the list.
Ms. Lewis was the antithesis of a trendy chef. She believed that great cooking took place in the family kitchen, not in fine restaurants, and her one mission in life was to keep the down-home Southern cooking she grew up with from slipping into obscurity. She was born in Freetown, Virginia, a small farming community settled by freed slaves, among them her own grandfather. She learned to cook over a wood fire, without special tools or equipment. Biscuit dough would be assembled using various sized coins to mete out small amounts of salt and baking powder, and ‘fistfuls’ to measure the flour. Ingredients were limited to what they could grow, raise, or hunt, and she carried this passion for the simple tastes and techniques she grew up with into her early career as a chef in New York. She and her husband opened the successful Cafe Nicholson in Manhattan in 1948 at a time when women and blacks rarely rose out of the dish washing ranks. She went on to write four seminal cookbooks on Southern cuisine, the second of which is the classic The Taste of Country Cooking, which is part cookbook, part memoir. Her writings evoke an intense nostalgia for the way food was—
“So many great souls have passed off the scene. The world has changed. We are now faced with picking up the pieces and trying to put them into shape, document them so the present-day young generation can see what southern food was like. The foundation on which it rested was pure ingredients, open-pollinated seed—planted and replanted for generations—natural fertilizers. We grew the seeds of what we ate, we worked with love and care.”
~~~ 1989 NYT interview
I chose Edna’s Grits because they are a good example of her purist traditional style. When asked about the iconic Southern dish, she would only say “People should leave grits alone”, meaning cook them in a little milk and water, mix in some cream and fresh butter, that’s it. I topped them with fresh caught Maine native shrimp sauteed in butter and a splash of sherry. I hope she’d approve.
- 2 cups water, or more
- 2 cups milk, or more
- 1 cup stone-ground or regular grits
- kosher salt
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
- approximately 1/4 lb shrimp per serving
- salt and pepper
- Heat the 2 cups water and milk in a heavy-bottomed saucepan until just simmering.
- While the milk is heating, put the stone-ground grits into a large mixing bowl and cover with cool water. Stir the grits assertively so that the chaff floats to the top. Skim the surface carefully and remove the chaff. Drain the grits in a fine strainer. (If you are using regular grits, skip this step.) Stir grits into the simmering water and milk. Cook, stirring often, until the grits are tender to the bite and have thickened to the consistency of thick oatmeal. As the grits thicken, stir them more often to keep them from sticking and scorching. Regular grits are done in about 20 minutes, but stone-ground require an hour or a little more to cook, and you will have to add additional milk and water as needed.
- Season the grits generously with salt and stir in the cream and butter. Remove from heat and let rest, covered, until serving. Serve hot.
- For Shrimp and Grits, saute fresh peeled shrimp in good butter, add a splash of sherry and reduce the sauce. Season with salt and pepper and serve over grits.