The legendary Edna Lewis and her culinary co-conspirator, Scott Peacock, create a sumptuous meal for an extended family
IF AMERICA WERE TO ELECT TWO FIGURES TO REPRESENT THE changing nature of family, then Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock might win by a landslide.
"People think grandmother-grandson, but I don't think it's that way at all," says the 35-year-old Peacock, an ebullient man who was the founding chef of Atlanta's Horseradish Grill and who bears more than a passing resemblance to his famous fellow Southerner Elvis Presley. He beams at the distinguished octogenarian chef in the next chair, whom he always addresses respectfully as Miz Lewis. "We're just the best of friends." Lewis gives one of her trademark giggles, which erases about seven decades from her demeanor. "She's a little shy," Peacock says. "We both are. Sometimes I think we're like two children, she and I. We laugh and cut up and have fun together. Even though I revere her, it's much more like we're equals. There's a level of understanding I've never had with another person."
That much is obvious, if unlikely. The Odd Couple of Southern Cooking was what food writers dubbed Lewis and Peacock in the early Nineties, when they first began appearing as co-chefs. But as they sit together around a Thanksgiving table in New York City, surrounded by their motley family of mentors, sisters and friends, discrepancies in age, race and gender melt like lard in a hot skillet. There is nothing odd here, nor are they a couple. In fact they act more like a pair of high school conspirators, cooking up grand schemes--which is, in fact, exactly what these two Atlanta neighbors are doing. Alfred A. Knopf will publish their first collaboration, tentatively titled Coming Together to Cook (from which the recipes in this article are drawn) next fall. It's the latest volume in the Edna Lewis canon, which includes The Taste of Country Cooking (now in print for 22 years and counting), the book that created a national interest in the formerly ignored and even vilified Southern country style of cooking. Further down the line is a book about Lewis's eventful life, which Peacock is currently recording as an oral history.
That life began in 1916 in Freetown, Virginia, a farming community founded by freed slaves. The very young Lewis was no cook, but her aunt Jenny Hailstalk was. "She made the best liver pudding," Lewis recalls. "She made great hominy. She would bring snow-white dishes of corn to the table." Lewis's plain words are quietly evocative, as if she could conjure up corn steam at will. It wasn't until she arrived in New York City at the age of 16 that she started producing the dishes (from roasted chicken and broiled oysters to chocolate soufflé) that she has continued to refine ever since. "We were young people all together, and we cooked at different apartments every weekend," she says simply.
In 1948 one of those young people, an antiques dealer named John Nicholson, opened Cafe Nicholson on 58th Street next to the ramp onto the Queensboro Bridge, and the Lewis brand of deceptively simple home cooking began making its way to an American audience hungry for culinary identity. Cafe Nicholson was a hot spot, something like the Elaine's of its day. William Faulkner would stop in when he visited his New York publisher, and Tennessee Williams lived across the street.
"Williams used to come in the morning when I made my coffee," Lewis remembers. "He and Marlon Brando came in. They'd take me home at night, stopping at bars along the way."
By 1952 Lewis was worn out, so she did the obvious thing: opened a pheasant ranch in New Jersey. She returned to New York City after four years and became the most sought-after of private cooks. In the late Sixties she became a docent in the African Hall of the American Museum of Natural History; there, in 1974, she met Judith Jones, an editor at Knopf, who remains a close friend to this day. It was Jones who helped Lewis find her voice in The Taste of Country Cooking.
"Edna is a very distinctive, sensual and physical cook," Jones says. "That visceral relationship with food is so much of what we're moving to today, and she just feels it in her bones. She'll walk 40 blocks to find the right peach. She helped awaken people to the goodness of American cooking. It is very refined cooking."
Scott Peacock didn't think so 10 years ago. Although Gertrude Moore, his family's cook and his childhood culinary mentor (who is a guest today), had enchanted him with her sorcery in turning "piles of dust and liquid into cakes," and although he was by then chef to the governor of Georgia, he was cooking Southern "more from appropriateness than conviction," he recalls. Then he met Lewis, who at that time was the chef at Brooklyn's venerable Gage & Tollner. "I was deeply im-pressed. We talked about quail and aging them right. She drank bourbon. She doesn't remember it to this day."
The following year, Peacock assisted Lewis at an Atlanta food festival, and they bonded quietly over the range. "We baked damson plum pie and blackberry pie and rhubarb cobbler, pecan pies, corn bread, biscuits and yeast rolls. I could tell she liked me, but mostly from what other people said. I was going to Italy, but she told me I should stay in the South and learn about my own food."
By the time they met again, a few months later, the advice had sunk in, and Peacock had had an epiphany. "I realized lots of people were doing 'New Southern'--chargrilled lobster on grits with lemongrass sauce--but nobody was using regional produce and cooking seasonally." Eventually he put these ideas to work at the Horseradish Grill.
Soon the pair began to pool their ideas, traveling and researching old plantation journals together. "There's such great diversity in Southern cooking," Peacock says enthusiastically. "There are even micro-regions. Six miles down the road from where I grew up in Alabama, they'd boil peas and dress them with butter; where I'm from they extended them with dumplings. As a child, I thought a normal cake had 20 or 30 layers, like a Dobos torte, because that's how the ladies from this one church community baked. Now we refine, find the focal point in the dish. No squirt sauces."
Both chefs are friends and fans of Alice Waters, who convinced them that Coming Together should be a menu cookbook, "because the way things go together is everything," Peacock explains, citing fried chicken fixings (biscuits with country ham, potato salad, tomato salad, pickles and pimiento-and-cheese sandwiches) as an example. Today's Thanksgiving menu could, of course, stand as another, with its courses within courses: juicy beans cooked in smoky pork stock, collards with the punch of red pepper, slow-roasted beets spiked with ginger and a spiced and pecan-topped sweet potato confection that forms a rich bridge to the desserts--moist Lane Cake and fresh orange-coconut Ambrosia, butter cookies and nutmeg Egg Custards. Like the best Southern menus, here is a meal in which each of the dishes fully complements each of the others. You could say the same about Lewis and Peacock.
Recipes by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock; text by Kate Sekules, who is currently at work on a book about women's boxing.