Utopia is necessarily a place that is no-place, a place that only exists in the imagination. As soon as a utopian vision is attempted in the actual world, it is doomed; the ideas do not translate when the realities of bodies and personality and weather are involved.
But Freetown, Virginia, in Edna Lewis's remembering, comes as close as anything I can imagine as an actual utopia. Freetown was founded by Miss Lewis's grandfather, who was a freed slave, and the community he and his wife and neighbors created was a community of free former slaves raising and educating their children and farming the land and building their world as they wished it would be—and doing so with an ethos of generosity and cooperation and celebration.
I have always felt that the people of Freetown were very special. They showed such love and affection for us as children, at the same time asking something of us, and they knew how to help each other so the land would thrive for all....And when we share again in gathering wild strawberries, canning, rendering lard, finding walnuts, picking persimmons, making fruitcake, I realize how much the bond that held us had to do with food.
This book is Miss Lewis's remembering of Freetown through the farming and cooking and eating she did there. The book is organized by season, and within the season by specific meals, occasions, and celebrations: A Spring Breakfast When the Shad Were Running, An Early Summer Lunch of the Season's Delicacies, Emancipation Day Dinner, Morning-After-Hog-Butchering Breakfast, Christmas Eve Supper, A Dinner Celebrating the Last of the Barnyard Fowl. Celebration is the true theme of this book. Even the most simple dishes—green salads, coffee, corn pone, pound cake—are remembered gloriously and vividly, as ideals within themselves.
There is an nostalgic impulse to romanticize the past, to remember things as we would have liked them to be. But it feels almost petty to read this book with that thought in mind. The Taste of Country Cooking is like memory on the page. The feeling is immediate, whether in prose or recipes, and I'm transported to a peaceful, loving place where good people cook and eat and share with integrity and compassion and pleasure, not only for themselves but for the future.