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Orange newsman mixes ingredients for chef’s bio
ORANGE County’s Phil Audibert didn’t set out to become the unofficial biographer of chef Edna Lewis, whose cookbook on Southern cuisine redefined it.
But stints as a journalist at the Orange County Review and WJMA radio often caused the Gordonsville resident’s path to crisscross with that of the Unionville chef.
First, it was a feature on Lewis’ fame from the publication of her second cookbook, “The Taste of Country Cooking.” It replaced the silly “corn pone-and-fried-everything” approach to Southern cooking with simple recipes and a philosophy of using only the freshest of vegetables, fruits and farm-raised meats—without being afraid to use lard when it added just the right touch.
Other interactions came later when Audibert put together a special radio program on “Freetown,” one of the first spots in Orange where slaves were given land after the Civil War.
Because Lewis’ grandfather, Chester Lewis, was the first of those former slaves to have land granted to him, Audibert interviewed her about the experience of growing up in Freetown.
Through the years, Audibert, who is also a photographer, accumulated quite a collection of interviews and photographs, including a piece he did when Lewis passed away in Atlanta in February 2006.
In addition, there were also video clips of Lewis and other family members shot by Audibert and his wife, Susie, a partner with him in a business that offers writing and photography services.
So when Audibert found himself in a planning session for the Aug. 11 Edible Food Fest in Orange, which celebrates the “farm to table” movement, it only made sense to volunteer for one specific project.
Namely, producing a special audio/video biography of Edna Lewis’ life.
Serendipity took care of the fact that the Edible Food Fest was scheduled on the very day when the Lewis family reunion had long been scheduled in Orange.
Audibert says it is only fitting that those family members get the first look at the Aug. 11 screening of his profile. It is about 30 minutes long and includes dozens of photos, as well as both audio and video clips. Lewis family members narrate some of the passages in it.
Audibert noted that while Edna Lewis was known by many of the top chefs for stints she did at restaurants in New York City, Atlanta and elsewhere, it was her cookbook that made her a culinary household name.
“It stressed the sort of cooking she’d grown up with in Orange,” said Audibert. “Ingredients, fresh because they’d just been picked, prepared simply and authentically.”
It helped that instead of being a list of recipes, Lewis’ book included her recollections of memories including hog-killing time and other yearly events.
Audibert said an Edna Lewis Foundation was created earlier this year by those in the cooking community, dedicated to “honoring, preserving and nurturing African–Americans’ culinary heritage and culture,” possibly including a special school at the foundation’s home in Atlanta.
But beyond all the official activities, Audibert said what he remembers most was the fascinating woman he profiled and interviewed over the years.
“She was elegant, 6 feet tall, with a special presence about her,” he recalled. She had high cheekbones, typically wore her hair up in a tight bun and favored African print dresses.
“She was shy and didn’t like to talk about herself, her accomplishments or material possessions,” he said. In fact, she lived in a small house for much of her life.
More interesting to her, he said, was her heritage including American Indian ancestry, the rural farm life that had shaped her cooking career, and nature itself.
Audibert said that was evident one evening when he and his wife invited Edna to their farm for dinner.
“There was considerable pressure for my wife, considering we had a world-renowned chef coming over,” said Audibert, who said he turned the event into a newspaper sidebar.
He remembers picking up the chef at the home of her sister, Ruth, in Unionville. It was the same spot where he photographed her another time, with a small flock of turkeys gathered around her feet.
He said Lewis was exceedingly gracious, enjoying a tour of the farm and the venison prepared in a marinade of juniper berries, in a meal finished with wild blackberry cobbler.
“I feel very lucky to have had the chance over the years to get to know Edna, a unique and remarkable woman,” he said.
That feeling for his subject comes through in the profile that Audibert would like to expand into a full-fledged documentary. He believes it could easily run on PBS or some other outlet, if funding or sponsorship could be secured.
It would be a show about a woman who said the best approach to modern Southern cuisine might best be found in its past.
Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415
EDNA LEWIS FACTS
PHILOSOPHY ON COOKING: A dedication to purity of ingredients, taste and authenticity. In a 1989 interview with The New York Times, she said, “As a child in Virginia, I thought all food tasted delicious. After growing up, I didn’t think food tasted the same, so it has been my lifelong effort to try and recapture those good flavors of the past.”
CHEF TURNS: After sewing to makes ends meet in New York City, she drew critical attention cooking cheese soufflés and roast chicken at Café Nicolson in Manhattan and a range of fresh favorites at Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn.
SPECIAL HONOR: Southern Foodways Alliance, noting Lewis’ devotion to spreading the nuances of Southern cooking, made her the recipient of the group’s first lifetime achievement award in 1999.
BITS AND PIECES: Once ran her own pheasant farm. Discovered by the same Knopf editor who handled Julia Child. Delighted in recalling early family’s method of measuring things, such as putting baking powder atop coins, and cooking on wood fires.