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
, 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
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.
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
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