2000s Archive

Staying on Alone

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What wrenched him free of his demons was the sudden awareness that Miss Lewis had begun to grow frail. Her memory was wavering; more and more, she needed his help to get through the day. “I knew if I didn’t get up out of that bed, she was going to suffer,” he says. “If I screwed up and stopped working, what was going to happen? It was an amazing thing she gave me. I started showing up for her, and without realizing it I started showing up for me.” He says he hasn’t taken any medications in five years.

We reach the building where she lived before moving in with him. “There it is, 830 Greenwood Avenue,” he says, and shows me her first-floor window in the modest brick apartment house. Nearby, there’s a Thai restaurant where they often went, and we stop in for lunch. She always liked the coconut soup, so he orders that and takes a taste. “It’s not as good as it used to be,” he decides, but finishes it contentedly.

Sometimes Peacock sounds elegiac; often he expresses gratitude for all Lewis gave him. But whatever his mood, his sense of humor has a way of slipping to the forefront. (I won’t go into detail about the theme dinner he created for playwright Eve Ensler before a local performance of The Vagina Monologues, but he thoroughly enjoys describing the menu.)

That afternoon, we walk through the grounds and gardens of the Atlanta History Center, where years ago Peacock learned to cook in an open-hearth kitchen—flames and coals, cast-iron pots and pans, traditional recipes and local ingredients. It’s a kind of cooking he finds immensely satisfying, with no shortcuts allowed or even possible. When Miss Lewis turned 80, in 1996, he threw her a huge party and made everything in an open fireplace. He’s still proud that he was able to honor her so abundantly from his heart and hands.

We ended the day at Watershed, a sleek, airy restaurant in a former auto-repair shop, and he beams when the kitchen sends out the BLT salad—cool, immaculate iceberg lettuce, heirloom tomatoes, hefty slivers of a flavorful bacon, and square, toasty croutons, all tossed gently in a homemade mayonnaise.

Peacock is right: This could be the best salad in the world. His mother used to make it in a big Tupperware bowl, and he remembers eating the soggy, delicious leftovers from the refrigerator.

As he hunts down the last bits of lettuce on his plate, he says he’s ready now to move ahead. He wants to see Paris this year, he’s harboring a “semi-dream” of cooking in New York someday, and most of all he wants to finish writing the memoir he’s sweating over, about his relationship with Miss Lewis.

He has found that he writes best in a situation of controlled chaos—with the TV blaring, for instance, or in a busy café. Big chunks of his first book, The Gift of Southern Cooking, a virtual hymn to tranquil meals with friends that he co-wrote with Edna Lewis, were composed in Manhattan at a rackety Sbarro restaurant in Times Square.

More food comes out: Pimento cheese, grits with shrimp paste, fried okra, plum buckle—everything bursting with personality and clear, rich flavors. He had eaten these things all his life, but not until he met Miss Lewis did he start to take them seriously. “She is part of everything,” he says. “It is marvelous in a weird way, the dynamic relationship you have with someone who is dead. It continues to grow. I have a breathing, living relationship with her at this point.” He gazes affectionately at the food on the table, seeing beyond it. “I miss her incredibly. What helps is making biscuits.”

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