Explore the historic Edna Lewis Menu Trail, a trip through Black culinary history

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  • Published on December 6, 2022
  • Last Updated December 22, 2022
  • In Culture

Discover Grand Dame of southern cooking, Chef Edna Lewis, through Virginia’s menu trail tribute of inspired dishes served through May 2023.

“I grew up in Freetown, Virginia, a community of farming people. It wasn’t really a town. The name was adopted because the first residents had all been freed from chattel slavery, and they wanted to be known as a town of Free People,” Edna Lewis, the Grand Dame of Southern Cooking, wrote in her guide “The Taste of Country Cooking.”

Lewis’ grandparents were among the Freetown folks who wasted no time planting an orchard in their new neighborhood, a corner plot on their former enslaver’s land. This planting was a beautiful testament — a seed of symbolism — of all that would bloom in Freetown: A deep-seated community, meals made only with the freshest of ingredients and a chef who meticulously blended both.

It has been 50 years since her debut cookbook “The Edna Lewis Cookbook” was published — one of the earliest cookbooks to not hide the author’s Black identity. In honor of this anniversary, Lewis’ hometown, Orange County, Virginia, is celebrating her legacy with the Edna Lewis Menu Trail, an experience where travelers can eat their way through Orange (the fried-chicken capital of the world), tasting dishes inspired by Lewis’ best recipes.

The people of Freetown cultivated their own space, piecing together a beautiful community in their newfound liberation. This community taught a young Lewis how to plant, harvest and prepare the food that made her cooking famous — cuisine that found major success in New York City restaurants. But Lewis’ secret to incredibly fresh-yet-timeless dishes wasn’t unique to Freetown. She was, in fact, following in the footsteps of our ancestral elders, Southern Black folks, but particularly land owners, who cooked in the farm-to-table style long before it was popular. They always prepared food with seasonality in mind because they were also growing, foraging for and cooking their food — a tradition that Lewis proudly continued.

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Chef Edna Lewis in Freetown. Courtesy of Phil Audibert

The proof is in the pudding

Edna Lewis didn’t simply share recipes, she told stories, too. Her most well-known cookbook, “The Taste Of Country Cooking,” is part cookbook, part memoir and transports readers to rural Virginia, where she forages wild greens by the roadside and spends mornings under crisp, dewy air during hog-hunting season.

The book uses recipes to chronicle a year-long life in Freetown based on foods curated based on the particular time of the year or events happening in the area. There are chapters for late-spring lunches and recipes curated for events like Emancipation Day, which is celebrated annually on September 22 in recognition of the town’s founders freedom from enslavement.

Her stories gently nudge readers toward more mindful living, where even the most minor details matter and are respected. Because of this, there was a season for all food in Freetown. Lewis shared that late spring to early summer was the perfect time for frying chickens, which she recommended always doing slowly, crisping it over time in a blend of lard and butter with accompanying country ham. Summer was for hot-buttered biscuits with freshly picked strawberries, and the cooler months meant enjoying fresh sweet potatoes and apple brown betty, one of Lewis’ most beloved desserts.

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Menu trail map. Courtesy of Virginia Tourism

Legacy-inspired local fare

Through Memorial Day of 2023, seven Orange County restaurants will feature Lewis-inspired dishes on their menus. At Vintage Restaurant at The Inn At Willow Grove, where Lewis used to host dinners and a chestnut festival, try the smothered braised rabbit.

Clearwater Grill & Catering serves Lewis’ apple brown betty unaltered, authentically sticking to the original recipe. Coopers Cooking and Catering is a family-run business known for its incredible fried chicken. To honor the famous culinary legend, they’re serving curry chicken or shrimp (in rotation), a deep-dish apple pie with nutmeg sauce and quiche lorraine. The Market at Grelen, a garden shop and a farm-to-table cafe, serves hot biscuits, buttered and sugared, with fresh strawberries topped with whipped cream.

Lewis’ cooking was always an ode to the flavors of her childhood in Freetown. She once wrote: “And when we share again in gathering wild strawberries, canning, rendering lard, finding walnuts, picking persimmons, making fruitcake, I realize how much the bond that held us together had to do with food.”

For the people of Freetown, farm-to-table and seasonal eating was simply a way of life. But for descendants of the Great Migration, like me, many of our families fled North to condensed cities, sometimes in food deserts, and had to make do with what ingredients were available, which weren’t always fresh or even in season.

No matter our beginnings, food has always been a balm for Black communities. We should remember that when we sit around a table with kinfolk to enjoy a homemade meal, we’re engaging in an age-old practice that our people have always cherished. Edna Lewis’ legacy is a tender call for us all to prepare meals fresh and as close to the land as possible. We owe it to ourselves.

This story was originally published December 06, 2022 2:10 PM.

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