Just as I was getting ready to write my dissertation, and a few days before the death of Lady Diana, I went to Chicago for a three-day-weekend with my girlfriends, Amy and Valerie. One of the best events we attended as a Black Heritage fair in a park near the DuSable museum. We wandered around a bit when, what a surprise -- there was Edna Lewis, about to do a cooking demonstration. Delicious fried green tomatoes in olive oil and ham biscuits. I wasn't a vegetarian yet, so I sampled it all. It exemplified the spirit of her cooking: simple, cooked just enough, and with the best fresh ingredients.
I was star-struck and couldn't wait to meet her. About four years before, I had cooked at Crooks' Corner in Chapel Hill, which had been owned by a Lewis disciple, Bill Neal - who by the time I worked there had died of AIDS. I was really introduced to Southern cooking through Neal's restaurant, as my own house was one of Yankee ex-pats, and through working there, I became a fan of Lewis', whose traditionalism was of the best, most radical sort. At the festival, the man who introduced her referred to her as preserving the history of the "black hand that stirred the pot" in Southern cooking. I went up and introduced myself to her and we talked a bit about Chapel Hill, about Bill Neal and his passing, and his son, whom I'd gone to high school with, and about Mama Dips at Dips' Kitchen. We laughed and she was sweet and gracious. I got my friends to take some pictures of me with her. I said, " I bet this happens to you all the time," and she said with a smile, "Oh, pretty much."
Now that I read her NY Times obituary, I'm not that surprised to see that she had a connection to the Communist Party in New York in the late forties, but oh how sorry I am that I didn't know this when I met her. At the time I wanted to connect with her through the one thing I really did know we had in common - Chapel Hill and its Southern restaurants, where she'd been the trailblazer. It just reminds me of how hard stereotypes are to shake, because with her Southern accent and Southern focus, I never thought of her as a sophisticated city woman, but she knew that world well and chose to leave it to return South in the 1960s.
I still wonder what it was like for her, running the kitchen at Fearrington House, the old plantation outside Chapel Hill, whose name was shared by a good number of the African-American kids I'd gone to school with. But now I wonder who she spent time with in those days at Cafe Nicholson in NY, the stories she could have told me about cooking for Claudia Jones' defense committee /or hanging out with Queen Mother Moore? Well, now I'll never know, but maybe I'll know to look for her name in their letters the next time I'm in the archive.