The Personal Touch
Credit: Christopher HirsheimerWhen I was working with Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock on their new book, The Gift of Southern Cooking, sometimes we would all get together in my kitchen—in either Manhattan or northern Vermont—so that I could observe how they cooked together. Edna would occupy one corner of the kitchen, and quietly, with almost Zen-like concentration, she would stir and taste and then perhaps add a little of this or that. Scott, while doing his own thing, had eyes in the back of his head, and he would inquire sharply, "What was that you just added, Miss Lewis? Did you write it down?" And Edna would laugh softly and admit that she had sneaked in a bit of sugar because the tomatoes were too acid. That light sweetening, a very Southern touch, found its way into several tomato recipes in the book.
Edna Lewis, the author of three cookbooks, had been the chef and coproprietor as a young woman in the late 1940s of the cozy little Manhattan restaurant Cafe Nicholson, where Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote were regulars; she went on to distinguish herself in several other notable restaurant kitchens in New York and the South. Scott Peacock, more than 40 years younger, made a name for himself as the founding chef of the Horseradish Grill, serving really good Southern food. Edna, the grandchild of freed slaves, had grown up in Virginia farm country, where the cooking still reflected a Jeffersonian heritage; Scott was a white boy raised on the lustier Deep South fare of Alabama. An unlikely couple, perhaps, but cooking brings people together in mysterious ways. And to a large extent it was their differences that inspired them as they borrowed from and goaded each other, cooking and tasting and analyzing what they had wrought. My job was simply to help them translate that alchemy into the written word.
I first met Edna in the spring of 1972. Bob Bernstein, the CEO of Random House at the time, had suggested that Edna and his friend Evangeline Peterson come and talk to me about the cookbook they were doing, thinking, perhaps, that I might want to take it over. I sensed right away that Edna must be a wonderful cook. There was something about the way her face lit up when she described a dish, how her long, beautiful fingers acted out a cooking technique, and the way she was dressed—in a colorful African-style long skirt and top she had fashioned herself—that reflected a distinctive creative spirit.
The book they were writing was based on the stylish café food she had cooked at Cafe Nicholson, and it was already in galleys, about to be launched by another publisher, so there was little I could do for them on that score. But as Edna talked, I found myself far more interested in the glimpses I was getting of the good Virginia country food that she grew up on, and before long I couldn't resist proposing that Edna and her collaborator do a book about Edna's childhood in Freetown, the farming community that her grandfather had helped found, about the crops her family raised and the foods they prepared together—all the things that nourished her and that she remembered so vividly.
They were excited at the thought and a few weeks later came back with some opening pages. But these were disappointing, and I could only say, "It's not you, Edna. It's not the voice I heard when you were telling me those stories." At that point, to her enormous credit, Ms. Peterson declared firmly: "Edna should be writing this book herself."
It was true, and it confirmed a conviction that had been growing in me ever since I edited Julia Child's first cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in 1961. A good cookbook is not just a collection of recipes set down in formulaic prose. What makes a cookbook unique is how the writer makes a procedure his or her own and then translates it into terms that the reader can understand. It is also the way the writer remembers certain tastes and textures and all that is associated with the savoring of a dish. That is precisely what Julia did, working with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle.
I had been at Knopf for only a couple of years, editing mainly translations of French writers like Camus and Sartre, when Julia's manuscript on French cooking landed on my desk. My husband, Evan, and I had spent three and a half years in Paris, where we fell in love with French cooking. When we returned to the States, I remember, the few books on French cuisine seemed distressingly perfunctory. So it was like an answered prayer as I read the step-by-step descriptions of French techniques that this American woman and her colleagues had written, and I persuaded the Knopfs to publish the book.
After Mastering was successfully launched, I looked for other writer-teachers who could do for different foreign cuisines what Julia had done for French. Italian-born Marcella Hazan, writing with her husband, Victor, had that gift because he was beside her as the nonexpert, asking why and describing what she might take for granted. Madhur Jaffrey, seeking to recover the tastes of her childhood after she left India, taught herself how to cook and was therefore a natural at explaining Indian cuisine to the West. I was convinced that, when you are trying to cook a totally foreign cuisine at home, you are flying blind and you need someone telling you what to expect every step of the way. In Irene Kuo, I found another natural teacher, one singularly gifted at creating expressive terms for Chinese techniques—such as "velveting" for immersing a food in an egg white– cornstarch marinade to make it fluffy once cooked. I sent The Key to Chinese Cooking to Michael Batterberry at Food and Wine magazine, and he enthusiastically took a portion of it. But to my horror, when I saw the recipes in proofs, they had all been reduced to a truncated magazine formula; they had lost what made them unique. So I complained to Michael, and he understood and restored the text.
That, in essence, is what happened to Edna Lewis's voice when it was filtered through someone else. The challenge was how to restore it, particularly as I sensed that Edna was uneasy about having to write the book by herself. So we decided that we would try to talk out the book and that after each session she would go home and immediately put down what she had told me. It worked miraculously. The first sample Edna brought me, after an afternoon of regaling me with stories about Freetown, was written on legal-size lined yellow paper, and the words flowed.
Edna published a third book, In Pursuit of Flavor, in 1988, which is also a treasure. But she never felt that it was truly her book. During the period when she put it together, she was cooking in both Carolinas and we couldn't have our weekly talks. We called in an excellent collaborator, Mary Goodbody, but Edna never really got to know her and, most important, they never cooked with each other.
I realize now what an essential factor that is if one is going to interpret the personal touch of any cook. That's why it helps me to watch cookbook writers at work. I will note their observations and off-the-cuff remarks, and when they see their own words, they begin to trust their distinctive voice. The Gift of Southern Cooking also evolved that way, but in this case there were two voices in one: Scott was the writer, and his experiences and personality shine through on every page. But so do Edna's; her shimmering memories of good Freetown cooks and her opinions on how foods should taste fill the book too.
I met Scott at Edna's 75th birthday party in 1991, at Gage & Tollner, in Brooklyn, where her American-style cooking was winning great acclaim. There were a lot of old friends and celebrities toasting her, but I noticed particularly the tall, dark-eyed young man with the warm, mischievous smile who had come up from Georgia for the dinner just to make the biscuits the way Edna liked them. He had met Edna three years earlier at a food festival in Atlanta, while working, at age 25, as chef to the governor of Georgia. They'd had a good talk—about quail and how it should be aged, about corn and how the flavor was not what it used to be. "I had never heard anyone speak about food that way, about the elemental nature of it," he recalled. Then she'd invited him to visit her in Brooklyn, where they continued their talks, and persuaded him to forget about going off to Italy to study la cucina and to stay in the South, where he was needed.
Eventually they realized they were fated to do a cookbook together, combining and refining their separate skills and disparate backgrounds. They started writing in the first person plural, but it seemed awkward to be saying "we" when in reality they came from such different places. So Scott took on the writing, and Edna, who was getting on, welcomed that. In Scott she found a true partner, one who not only completely understood her but could combine his own cooking instincts with hers. For example, one of the techniques that emerged from their sessions was a method that Edna had developed for cooking chicken slowly in only its own juices before adding any liquid to make a concentrated broth. It was an unconscious technique, but Scott with his keen eye deconstructed and described it, and his creative instinct prompted him to apply the method to other dishes—intensely flavored vegetables, slow-cooked oxtails, braised lamb chops, and the chicken and rice dish that he inherited from Grandmaw Peacock, made up of only five ingredients cooked gently until a magical alchemy is achieved. It's such a simple recipe, but in his hands becomes so satisfyingly pure. I've served all these dishes to many appreciative eaters, who invariably gasp when they savor the first bite.
The book was almost eight years in the making, and during that time they cooked steadily, testing recipes and poring over old cookbooks and plantation journals. Partly because I was impatient to get the book finished and partly, I'll admit, because I loved watching them work (and then sharing their food), we spent many hours together, putting the final touch on recipes. In the last months, I called in the writer David Nussbaum—a genius at quickly and accurately recording others' observations—to help us speed up the process.
I always liked watching Scott in the kitchen because there was such generosity in the way he cooked. He loves frostings, for example, and would complain that most cakes don't have enough. So he slathered scoops of rich pecan–bourbon frosting on his three-layered Lane cake, making sure there was enough left over that we all got to lick the bowl. He loves earthy flavors, too, and introduced Edna to varieties of peppers, field peas, and collard greens that weren't part of her Virginia heritage. All too aware of how most people know only the worst of Southern cooking, Scott wanted to do for the South what Alice Waters had done for California, using only the best local ingredients. So he'd season lard with smoky ham, for instance, to make delectable fried chicken. Lard, incidentally, was not part of his heritage in peanut-growing country, but once he'd been converted, he loved it with a vengeance and would often say happily, "Praise the lard and pass the biscuits."
Today it is more important than ever that we have mentors in the cookbooks we use because hardly any of us grew up learning to cook at someone's knee. We need the voice right there in the kitchen with us, telling us which ingredients to choose, carefully describing a technique, and pointing out the little details that make all the difference. That's the only way we'll learn how to attain the balance of flavors that every dish requires. It doesn't have to be fancy, as Scott and Edna often say. It just has to taste good.