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Spoon Bread, Edna Lewis, and the French–Soul Food Connection
Imagine the flavors of sweet cornbread in an airy soufflé.
02-25-2021
Kevin Pang

Edna Lewis’s In Pursuit of Flavor (1988) is a time-traveling cookbook. It sweeps you to Lewis’s Virginian childhood, regaling readers with stories about black-eyed peas and Smithfield hams and foraging wild grapes for jelly. It is “a quiet book. A gentle book,” writes the author John T. Edge, from a woman who was to Southern food what Alice Waters was to Californian gastronomy: a culinary icon who relied on nature’s abundance and the seasons to inform her cooking.

As I was reading through Miss Lewis’s (as she was known) book, the names of certain dishes nudged me into curiosity: Creamed Scallions. Pan-Fried Virginia Spots. Damson Plum Pie. And then there was Orange County Spoon Bread on page 225. Orange County, a place that I knew nothing about but that was important enough to earn a place in the recipe’s title. Spoon bread, two words that seemed incongruent but intriguing.

And thus began two weeks of my life down the spoon bread rabbit hole, a journey more fascinating and interesting than I imagined.

Edna Lewis

Edna Lewis in 1980

Take cornbread, made from peak-season sweet corn, and marry those flavors into something as airy and delicate as a soufflé. This is spoon bread, meant to be scooped from ramekins and served alongside something saucy such as beans or collard greens in pot liquor. Though many recipes I found employed flour, Lewis’s rendition omitted it in favor of grated fresh corn blended with milk. “As good as [corn] is for a binding agent,” she wrote, "it is even better as a flavoring agent."

Bucking tradition isn’t out of character for Lewis, an iconoclast in life and profession. Born in 1916, Lewis was the granddaughter of a formerly enslaved man who founded the place where she grew up: Freetown, Virginia. By the 1940s, Lewis was living in New York City and had earned a reputation for the dinner parties she threw for friends. The Southern dishes Lewis served must have seemed unfamiliar and novel in postwar New York, but apparently they were delicious enough that an antiques dealer named John Nicholson convinced Lewis to become the chef at his new restaurant on the Upper East Side. Café Nicholson would become a hit with neighborhood residents and celebrities alike. 

Think of the moment: Lewis, a Black female head chef of a beloved restaurant in 1950s Manhattan. Then came her string of successful cookbooks, including The Taste of Country Cooking (1976) and the aforementioned In Pursuit of Flavor. Said the James Beard Award-winning chef Mashama Bailey: “There has been a reemergence of traditional ways and cooking good old-fashioned food in this country, and it started with Miss Lewis many years ago.”

Lewis wrote of loving spoon bread as a child, and her recipe intrigued me. It was the idea of a cornbread-soufflé marriage and the fact that one of Lewis’s most enduring dishes was her chocolate soufflé. Spoon bread almost felt . . . French in origin. Deeper I fell into that rabbit hole.

Debra Freeman, a culinary historian and food writer based in Richmond, told me spoon bread always had a Virginian connection. It can be found in Mary Randolph’s 1824 cookbook The Virginia House-Wife under “Batter Bread.” (The recipe in its entirety: “Take six spoonsful of flour and three of cornmeal, with a little salt—sift them, and make a thin batter with four eggs, and a sufficient quantity of rich milk; bake it in little tin moulds in a quick oven.”) Randolph’s book is considered one of the most influential books on cookery and domestic life of the 19th century.

Here, Freeman makes a provocative argument: That many of Randolph’s recipes could have originated from an enslaved man named James Hemings. Hemings was Thomas Jefferson’s chef at Monticello. The last name may ring a bell: Hemings’s younger sister Sally, herself enslaved, was thought to have been the mother of at least six children with Jefferson. 

“Many recipes and ingredients, such as okra and gumbo, which are traditionally prepared by African-Americans at the time, are listed throughout the [The Virginia House-Wife],” Freeman wrote in Southern Grit. “Several secondary sources support the assertion that Randolph used many of Hemings’ recipes, and it is not a leap in logic to connect the historical dots and arrive at that conclusion.”

Among those connections: Randolph is related by marriage to Thomas Jefferson, and much of Randolph’s kitchen labor was performed by enslaved women. The thumbprint of African American influence on Randolph’s Virginian cooking cannot be dismissed. 

That said, the true provenance of the recipes in The Virginia House-Wife isn’t as relevant here as the story of James Hemings and how spoon bread may fit into the narrative.

In the book The President’s Kitchen Cabinet (2017), author Adrian Miller proposes a strong connection between French cooking and soul food. When Thomas Jefferson was appointed U.S. Minister to France, James Hemings accompanied Jefferson to Paris, and from 1784 to 1787 Hemings became trained in classic French gastronomy. When Jefferson returned stateside, Hemings brought back standards of French cooking to Monticello: macarons, boeuf à la mode (a French version of pot roast), crème brûlée, waffles. The reason why macaroni and cheese would become a staple in African American cooking can be traced to Hemings, who adopted nouilles a maccaroni—macaroni noodles—from France.

When Hemings asked Jefferson for his freedom, Jefferson agreed on the condition Hemings teach the Monticello kitchen staff how to cook. 

“One can see the French influence in several soul food dishes like spoon bread,” Miller writes. “Most likely we owe such dishes to the French chefs who taught recipes and techniques to enslaved cooks.”

Tracing spoon bread’s lineage from James Hemings to Edna Lewis is not a stretch.

“To create a dish in little ramekins, remarkably similar to soufflé, the whole half-Virginia half-French food—it’s not a leap to say that sounds like Hemings,” Freeman said. “Edna Lewis calls it Orange County Spoon Bread, and Orange County is 20 miles from Charlottesville—it’s all in the same region near Monticello.”

Monticello

Monticello

The wind chill read -10 the first time I attempted spoon bread—definitely not fresh corn season. But even frozen corn, harvested at the height of the growing season, provides the sweetness of summer.  

I’ve never attempted a soufflé. Even after following Lewis’s recipe to the note, I was skeptical given the thinness of the liquid batter. But as I stared mesmerized into the oven, the top of the batter grew higher and higher, until it crested ½ inch above the ramekin and turned golden. Beneath the surface, the corn batter bubbled and heaved. 

The soufflé dome held even as it cooled. Scooping into the bread, it was remarkably fluffy, even custardy. I couldn’t tell if it was more sweet than savory or the other way around, but it was a sweetness and savoriness—like Lewis’s books—that was gentle. The best part was adding a slab of butter on top and watching it slowly drain into the spoon bread. It felt like alchemy.

Note: Cook's Country developed a recipe for Sweet Corn Spoonbread. To access this recipe and thousands more, consider starting a free trial.

Photos: New York Post Archives, Virginia Scenics, Getty Images

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