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From garden to table is a family tradition

By Rob Hedelt

THE “farm-to-table” movement is trendy for some attracted to it these days.

But for Unionville’s Ruth Lewis Smith—who typically just goes by the Lewis she was born with—subsisting on what she’s grown and raised has been a way of life.

It’s a tradition passed down from her grandfather, one of the first freed slaves to be granted land in an Orange County community that came to be known as Freetown.

While many are drawn to planting gardens and raising their own chickens to get food free of chemicals and pesticides, Lewis and her late sister, Edna—whose cookbook on Southern cuisine is the culinary bible here for many chefs—grew up in a family that did it to survive.

“We went to the store occasionally to buy soda or baking powder or a few other things, but everything else we grew or raised ourselves,” said Lewis, who, at 88, still eats from the garden and chickens she tends. “It all tastes better. It’s all better for you and keeps you busy.”

That way of living is to be celebrated in a festival coming to the town of Orange this summer, an event with a focus on the region’s role in the sustainable foods movement.

On Aug. 11, a collection of chefs, farmers and other experts will hold the Edible Food Fest in Orange, hosted by the the  Orange Downtown Alliance and Edible Blue Ridge magazine.

Children’s activities, workshops for adults, tastings, cooking demonstrations and music will be part of the day.

At the heart of the festival will be educational programs on sustainable agriculture, organic gardening, soil and composting, seed saving, edible landscaping and other means of healthier living.

Lewis won’t have time to teach a class that day. More than 100 relatives are coming to town for a much-anticipated Lewis family reunion.

But the little girl who first learned about work at the foot of her mother, Daisy Lewis, packing turkeys in barrels to be shipped to a buyer in Philadelphia, certainly could.

For her entire life, she’s followed a schedule attuned to nature and the turning of seasons.

In spring, it’s the planting of a garden to provide everything from the squash that goes into her ratatouille to the sweet potatoes in her pies.

By summer, it’s watching chickens that were started in the brooder house but are now ready to become Sunday supper.

By fall, it’s time for late greens or putting up meat in a smokehouse.

Lewis said she knows in her bones that the products of all that labor—be it meat from animals on natural feed, plants from a garden, or farm eggs, cheese and butter—are better for her than what’s in a grocery aisle.

“And, my, does it taste better,” she said. “Once you’re used to it, nothing else is quite right.”

She said that was the crux of the message her sister, author and chef Edna Lewis,  conveyed to the world in her second cookbook, “The Taste of Country Cooking.” In it, Edna Lewis mixed recipes and ways of cooking simple, fresh country food with reminisces reminiscences from her country upbringing.

Edna and Ruth grew up in a family of eight. Everyone did his or her share, from planting to picking to feeding  chickens, hogs, quail, ducks and turkeys.

The work wasn’t always fun, but it happened in communities where families were close-knit and looked out for one another.

“When it came time to butcher hogs, families would gather for days in the cooler weather to get it done,” she said, noting that it was a social event as well as a functional one, a chance for people to connect.

She has fond memories of the communal effort, when hogs were slaughtered and turned into shoulders and hams for the smokehouse,  sausage, liver pudding, lard and much more, ensuring another year of sustenance for a neighborhood.

Lewis said that, in addition to eating healthier food on a farm, doing the work it takes to produce everything from turnips to canned green beans is also a plus.

“It gets you out and keeps you busy,” she said.

Lewis, who retired in the 1980s from a management job at the University of Pennsylvania to come back to Orange, hasn’t lost many steps for a woman closing in on 90.

In addition to raising much of her own food, she makes most of her own clothes and puts in countless hours of community work, for groups including the local NAACP chapter and her Bethel Baptist Church.

She is proud that the Edible Food Fest is honoring her sister and the Lewis family, presenting a newly made documentary on Edna and naming the festival’s food court for the internationally known chef. Edna Lewis died in 2006.

As people focus on the many messages to be delivered, Lewis hopes some will be inspired to try, in a small way, to provide some of their own food—either by planting small gardens or raising a few chickens, which can be done in minimal space.

“I helped a local pastor get started raising chickens,” she said. “And now he’s ordered his second year of chicks. You can do it almost anywhere.”


Rob Hedelt:  540/374-5415