In 1983 I moved to Chapel Hill with my boyfriend who had a job teaching at UNC.  He went off to the University every day and I sat at home by myself at Booker Creek Apartments editing Kitchen Sister stories.  I was alone a lot, trying to figure out the town and who I would talk to.  I read a little story in the town paper about Edna Lewis, who had also recently moved to Chapel Hill.  She was cooking at the Ferrington House.  Her story of growing up in Freetown, Virginia, a community of emancipated slaves, of cooking with the seasons and the traditions, of moving to New York and cooking for the toast of the town, struck me.

I called her at the Ferrington House and asked if I could record her story for NPR.  This was '83. Reluctantly, shyly, she said yes.   

I came one fall afternoon, between lunch and dinner. We sat in late light and in her quiet voice she recounted some of her journey. She seemed a bit alone.  Working hard in a pretty place, creating simple, elegant, powerful food.

She fed me a chocolate souffle I still can taste.

I left very taken by  by the history she carried forward with her, by her soft power and her vision and elegance.  Each recipe came with the ritual of her people and place, each dish marked a season and a tradition.    

I didn't have a clue of how to make a radio story out of it.  It was a hesitating and gentle interview, with a deep philosophy underneath it.  But I just didn't know how to craft the piece, and The Kitchen Sisters were working in Brazil and Cuba at the time doing stories about Latin American fiction, and the soldiers from Camp Lejune who had just been killed in Lebanon, about the Cherokee reunion in Ashville as they re-walked the Trail of Tears.  We weren't doing stories about food.  That would take another 20 years.   

I sat on that cassette for nearly 25 years.  I always knew where it was.  And anytime I heard anything about Ms. Lewis I felt this huge pang of guilt that I had taken her time and story and never given a story back in return.   

I watched her from afar, as she connected to Scott Peacock and the two began to cook together in Georgia, when they came together to the 30th anniversary of Chez Panisse and Edna was honored onstage with the great elders who have inspired me -- Marion Cunningham, Lulu Peyraud, and Cecilia Chiang.  She was an American African queen.   

Along the way, say around 2002, as Edna grew older and more frail, and my guilt over the unproduced story grew by leaps and bounds, I mentioned this oral history interview to Alice Waters.  I needed someone in Edna's world to know it existed.  I still didn't know how to make radio out of it.   

Edna died.  Honored, appreciated, beloved.  Books and articles captured her story.  The cassette gathered more dust.   

I was driving across the Bay Bridge when the call came.  It was Scott Peacock.  He was planning Ms. Lewis' memorial in Georgia.  He had heard a rumor that I had a recording of Edna. He wanted to play the sound of her voice at the ceremony.   

Ms. Lewis had stopped speaking in the final years of her life, as Scott helped tend her and he had no record.  Would I be willing to share this tape with him and her community?   

Some 20 years later our conversation became part of her memorial.  Edna Lewis, quiet visionary, inspiration to so many, telling of growing up, of eating with the seasons, of knowing how loved she was by a whole town, not just a family, and what the love of extended family can do.   

The immortal, legendary recording pioneer Sam Phillips told us, never, ever throw away your outakes.  Or your old tapes.  He was so right.  And never, ever let the guilt of what you haven't done when you said you would and you really always meant to if you could only figure out how, stop you.  One day the time will be right.   

I had never played the tape in public until this Fall in Oxford, Mississippi at the 10th anniversary of the Southern Foodways Alliance.  The Kitchen Sisters were interviewing Alice Waters and Scott Peacock onstage.  Nikki and I, finally, took the tape, and began to cut, and presented Edna's gentle and haunting voice, speaking across time from slavery to now, joined the conversation and was heard.  
Davia Nelson


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