I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic when I read Edna Lewis’ magical book, The Taste of Country Cooking.
In it, the James Beard Living Legend Award winner richly describes the country year in her Virginia home of Freetown, founded by former slaves freed after the emancipation of 1865.
Can I call it nostalgia if I pine for something I’ve never had? Without cell phones and computer games, kids made significant contributions to the preparations for the holidays and agricultural events that engaged the entire community. Activities required planning and advance preparation and the results were a great source of collective entertainment, gratitude, pride and joy.
Edna’s memories aren’t ones of receiving a gazillion gifts on Christmas day, but rather, ones more personal and where the pleasures of making and doing was gift in and of itself. In Freetown, residents tackled large projects as a community, making hard work a festive occasion to be looked forward to.
And, the slower times in the agricultural year were savored and relaxed with much visiting and sharing back and forth between residents.
Life in Freetown was very much about understanding and appreciating the bounty of the place in which you live. Nearly everything was raised, nurtured, foraged and preserved just a few steps from the kitchen. Even Freetown children knew good food, where to find it, and how it was prepared.
The personal investment of labor and skill in the harvest, preservation and presentation of local treasures ensured the humble Freetown residents ate far richer than their urban counterparts. And that’s on a bad day.
Buying foods from afar, something we do daily, was in Freetown very rare. Because it was so rare, what was boughten was enjoyed, savored, treasured and looked forward to.
“There was a special excitement in the kitchens, as many of the things we prepared were foods we tasted only at Christmas. This was the only time in the year when we had oranges, almonds, Brazil nuts, and raisins that came in clusters.”
Christmas preparations began much earlier in the year, with special preserves and liquors made from summer fruit, the fall gathering of hickory nuts, and the special feeding of the Christmas fowl. Mincemeat and fruitcake was made at least a month or so in advance, and the kids helped prepare the popcorn garlands for the tree and gathered the greenery from the woods.
Today, the sensory overload of so much retail overrides the simpler, more interior joy taken from the rituals of a hand-made home. With less shopping and more doing, young Edna fondly remembers the rituals and rewards of making her home special:
“I loved the way the greens looked set off by the white hearth and walls and the stiff white curtains which they draped. In the evenings, the soft orange glow from the fire and from the candlelight and the fragrance of the cedar and juniper mingling with the smell of chestnuts roasting always made me wish that Christmas week would last until spring…”
And those oranges? They were appreciated fully, with all the senses. And every part of them was put to use so there was no waste. What would you say about me if I gave you an orange for Christmas?
“It is hard to describe the taste of those oranges; their sweetness had no equal as we ate them. Mother would gather up all the orange peels and dry them for flavoring sauces for summer puddings. She also used them to flavor tea.”
Simple, reverent and thrifty, The Taste Of Country Cooking is a book that snaps us out of our commercialized haze and reminds us of that treasure hiding in plain sight all this time, home.
Get it, gift it, borrow it from the library, but most of all read it. Then read it again. And again. You will be inspired. Or at least, warmed. First to recognize the absurdities of modernity, then to live its opposite – authenticity, simplicity and contentment.
What is your favorite hand-made holiday tradition?