Some days you just want to read a cookbook.
Most, however, are not meant to be savored as reading material; they are instruction manuals for cooking, as the term implies.
But once and again, a cookbook comes along that demands a slow read. This year's finest is Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock's The Gift of Southern Cooking, a gorgeous book that has provided many pleasurable weekends over the past six months -- one day for reading, the next day for cooking.
From the introduction on, it is clear that the gift these two fine cooks offer is their unique friendship -- born of a love for food, sustained over decades and cross-country, preserved now in Peacock's Decatur, Ga., home.
Lewis is legendary for her earlier books on Southern cooking, especially The Taste of Southern Cooking, a season-by-season catalog of the fresh foods she ate as a child in the 1920s, an African-American in Freetown, Va. Her parents were the children of slaves, subsistence farmers in this unusual community she describes as nearly self-sufficient. She went on to become a famed chef in New York City, and the world's acknowledged expert on Southern American cooking.
Peacock was born and raised in Alabama and is 40 years younger than Lewis. He first met her when he was the governor's chef and invited her down for a celebration of great Southern chefs. At 25, he fell in love with her turtle soup and her reflections on food, and followed her to New York where, he says, she told him, "Some good cooks have to stay in the South."
He returned home to Atlanta and she visited many times over the years, eventually moving into his home in Decatur where they have cooked and lived together since 1996.
Peacock actually wrote the book, but much of it is written in reverential quotes from Lewis, who he always refers to as "Miss Lewis." Both cooks share stories and descriptions of their native foods and the families who taught them to cook. The recipes are carefully and articulately written with subtle instructions in technique and helpful comments on ingredients.
Those who think they would enjoy Southern cooking but are afraid they won't understand it might start with this book. Peacock and Lewis offer some very basic recipes, like an intensely flavored Thyme-Smothered Chicken, that serve as good introductions but are not fussy. Grits, collard greens, fried chicken, country ham and butter beans are all nicely de-mystified with cogent explanations and an exquisite touch of lore.
Cooks with an affection for Southern food will be equally pleased. For years, I have searched for a recipe for Turnip Greens with Cornmeal Dumplings, a dish my mother has remembered for 50 years but didn't know how to prepare, and The Gift of Southern Cooking gave me the gift of that recipe -- a pot of simply prepared greens with scallion flavored, soft dumplings cooked in the pot likker.
Any Thanksgiving table would be enhanced by the straightforward Roasted Turkey with Giblet Gravy, Cornbread and Pecan Dressing, and Lemon-Glazed Sweet Potato recipes in the book. For dessert, try the utterly simple Lemon Chess Pie, made with buttermilk, or the sinfully rich Bourbon-Pecan Pie.
Miss Lewis and Mr. Peacock would approve.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
The Gift of Southern Cooking
By Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock
(Alfred A. Knopf: New York)