Before Iron Chef, Edna Lewis introduced a generation to the joys of cooking and corn pudding
Here’s the thing about cooking shows. They make cooking look like an Olympic sport, giving the impression that frying an egg is akin to competing in the X-Games. This probably isn’t good for the kids who watch them. Why? Because if kids think cooking is only for pros, they won’t learn to do it themselves. And if they don’t learn to cook, then they may never move out of your house.
Long before the era of whiz-bang food TV, one of the first “celebrity” chefs was Edna Lewis, an African American who ran a wonderful restaurant in Manhattan called Café Nicholson. During the 1950s, she and her staff prepared Southern-American classics inspired by her childhood in Freetown, Virginia, a farming community founded by former slaves. However, she achieved fame not as much for her restaurant work as for her cookbooks. Masterpieces of storytelling, they celebrate the rhythms of life on a traditional Southern farm. And the recipes aren’t intimidating. In fact, many are for dishes Lewis cooked with her parents and grandparents when she was a child.
Sharing Lewis’s story with kids is a great alternative to the message they might get from Iron Chef. In the children’s book Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie, author Robbin Gourley takes readers through the seasons in a year of young Edna’s life. For her family, early spring means beating rabbits to the strawberries and gathering wild greens for salad. Summer, brought to life in lush watercolors, bursts with the flavor of cherries, blackberries, peaches, and tomatoes. Late summer and fall bring rattlesnake beans, muscadine grapes, apples, and nuts.
Right in the middle of summer is corn. Edna and her siblings dispute the best way to enjoy the golden ears they’ll pull from the stalks. On the cob? In pudding? Sister prefers skillet cornbread:
Wake up, Jacon. Day’s a-breakin’.
Fryin’ pan’s on and cornbread’s bakin’.
Bacon in the pan. Coffee in the pot.
Git up now and get it while it’s hot.
She has a point. Crackly on the outside, tender within, cornbread cooked in a sizzling pan has no equal. But savory-sweet corn pudding makes a lovely side dish to go with anything you can throw on a grill. It can also anchor a light supper when paired with a salad or some green beans. Like most of Edna Lewis’s recipes, it’s a grown-up dish that kids can make. Younger ones will need help cutting kernels from the cob and pouring boiling water for a bain-marie. But watching a parent prepare this hot-water bath might satisfy their craving for impressive culinary feats. And you won’t even need to turn on the tube.
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus more for greasing the casserole dish
4 fresh, uncooked ears of corn
¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
2 cups whole milk
pinch of cayenne pepper or paprika
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons cornmeal
Preheat oven to 350. Butter a 1½-quart casserole dish.
Have kids shuck the corn, removing all the silk and rinsing under cold water. Holding the ears vertically, slice the kernels from the corn onto a cutting board. Kids can use a table knife to scrape any remaining milky pulp off. You should have about 2 cups of kernels. Scrape it all into a large bowl and stir in sugar and salt. In a smaller bowl, whisk the eggs, then whisk in milk. Add butter and spices, stir, then pour into the corn mixture.
Set a kettle on to boil. Dust the casserole dish with cornmeal (as you would a cake pan with flour.) Pour the batter into the dish, and place it in a sturdy roasting pan, then fill the roasting pan with boiling water until it reaches halfway up the side of the casserole dish (this is the bain-marie). Place the pan on the middle rack of the oven and bake for an hour or until the pudding is firm but still wobbly, and lightly browned on top. It can rest for about a half an hour while the rest of supper gets ready.