An American Classic

In the sunny kitchen of the apartment shared by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock in Decatur, Ga., lunch has been cleared away. While Peacock prepares banana pudding, a guest has a chance to examine the decor. A collection of rolling pins lines one wall. An old-fashioned scale sits on top of a pie safe. But the most surprising element is what's not there. No food processor, no La Cornue stove or Sub-Zero refrigerator. When Peacock makes meringue for the pudding, he whips it with a whisk. "Southern food is essentially very simple," he says. "There are no drizzled leeks or tortilla strips to hide under. It's either well done or it's not." Judging by the catfish stew, cornbread and fig preserves served at lunch, these two have nothing to hide.

Peacock and Lewis make an odd couple--an 87-year-old African-American woman in failing health and a 40-year-old white man. She's quiet, he's voluble. She's one of the most celebrated cooks alive, winner of the Grande Dame Award of Les Dames d'Escoffier International and--just two weeks ago--she was made a member of the James Beard Hall of Fame. Her three cookbooks, especially "The Taste of Country Cooking," are classics of American cooking. He's a rising star, currently chef at Watershed, one of the hottest restaurants in Greater Atlanta and hailed by chef and author Alice Waters as "one of the great cooks I know." But their differences are nothing in the face of their shared passion for the food of their native South, and they've poured it all into their just-released collaboration, "The Gift of Southern Cooking."

The granddaughter of freed Virginia slaves, Lewis has been a legendary chef since she ran the kitchen of Cafe Nicholson in New York City in the '40s, feeding everyone from William Faulkner to Eleanor Roosevelt. When they first met in the early '90s, Peacock was the chef at the Georgia governor's mansion and dreaming of going to Italy to master European cooking: "I was trying to transcend my roots." She talked him out of it. "Miss Lewis said some good cooks need to stay home," Peacock recalls. Lewis was the first cook Peacock had met who showed him that you could be both Southern and sophisticated. Before long, all he wanted to do was cook with her. In the mid-'90s they moved in together to work more closely on their book. Two years ago, when her mind and memory began to fray rapidly, he took over all responsibility for her care. Their devotion to each other is obvious. When the cornbread is complimented, she breaks her silence: "Of course it is. Scott made it."

You can't help getting hungry reading this cookbook. Nor can you help being impressed by its culinary shrewdness. Most of the recipes are easy to follow--the one for Edna Lewis's Famous Chocolate Sauce, which she concocted decades ago, back during her tenure at Cafe Nicholson, is breathtakingly succinct: "Grate or finely chop the [1-1/2 ounces unsweetened] chocolate, and put in a saucepan with [1 cup cold] water and [2 tablespoons granulated] sugar. Cook at a gentle simmer, stirring often, for 15-20 minutes. Remove from the stove, and stir in the [1/2 teaspoon] vanilla extract. Serve warm."

Spooning up banana pudding, her guest asks "Miss Lewis," as Peacock calls her, for her ideas of Southern cooking. "It's not fancy," she says, and pauses. "It can be complicated." Then a devilish grin splits her face. "It's not home cookin'," she says, putting a nasty spin on the last phrase. Simple, in other words, is not simple-minded. And being able to follow an Edna Lewis recipe doesn't mean being able to cook like Edna Lewis. Her intuitions and instincts cannot be copied. When asked if it's true, as legend has it, that she judges the doneness of cakes by listening to them--when they stop bubbling, they're done--she merely nods. Peacock erupts with laughter. "There's the genius," he says. Having enjoyed the hospitality of their table, you wouldn't think of disagreeing.