Shards of Sound: An Edna Lewis Oral History


Never throw away your old tapes," said Davia Nelson, who with Nikki Silva comprises NPR's Kitchen Sisters. Back in 1983, after moving to Chapel Hill to be with her boyfriend, she had taped an interview with Edna Lewis after reading about the southern chef—who was cooking at Fearrington House at the time—in the local paper. "We weren't doing stories about food," she added. "That would take another twenty years. It was a hesitating and gentle interview, with a deep philosophy behind it. I was very taken with the history Miss Lewis carried forward with her, by her soft power and her vision and elegance. Each recipe came with the ritual of her people and place, each dish marked a season and tradition. But I didn't have a clue as to how to make a radio story out of it."

Davia sat on that cassette for almost 25 years. "I always knew where it was," she said. "And anytime I heard anything about Miss Lewis, I felt this huge pang of guilt that I had taken her time and story and had never given a story back in return." Miss Lewis died in 2006, at the age of 89. Davia was driving across the Bay Bridge when she got a call from Scott Peacock, Miss Lewis's great friend and companion, who had heard a rumor that Davia had a recording of Miss Lewis. He wanted to play it at the memorial he was organizing, and so the interview became a part of that tribute. But it did not play in public until this past October, at the Southern Foodways Alliance 10th Anniversary symposium in Oxford, Mississippi.

And that's where I come in. Back in our New York offices, we'd been putting together this January's issue, which has as its heart a previously unpublished essay by Miss Lewis. I'd felt guilty about exchanging the mountain of work on my desk for the bbq-and-bourbon conviviality of Oxford, but not anymore; this was exactly where I needed to be, listening to Miss Lewis's quiet voice speaking across time from slavery until now, telling about growing up and eating with the seasons, eating with her community. That is what I carried back to New York, and that is what stayed with me as we closed the issue. Now, thanks to The Kitchen Sisters, our readers, our community, can listen, too.

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