The Life of Influential American Culinary Legend Edna Lewis
Her grave reads ‘‘Grande Dame of Southern Cooking.’’ As a chef and best-selling author, the late Edna Lewis spent her life celebrating and breathing life into Southern cuisine. She wrote a total of five books, including the American classic The Taste of Country Cooking in 1976. In the book’s foreward, chef Alice Waters described the book as an “indispensable classic [that introduced a new generation to] the glories of an American tradition worthy of comparison to the most evolved cuisines on earth.”
Often overlooked as the influential icon she was, Lewis has begun to garner more attention from the mainstream. In 2014, she was one of five chefs commemorated by the US Postal Service with a Limited Edition Celebrity Chefs Forever stamp, which also paid homage to James Beard and Julia Child. Most recently, her culinary classic became an Amazon bestseller after a January 2017 episode of Top Chef spotlighted the icon.
Lewis was born in 1916 in Freetown, Virginia, a settlement founded on the plot of land ceded to her grandfather. Her family lived close to the land. They farmed, fished, and foraged all their food.
‘‘I grew up in Freetown, Virginia, a community of farming people,” she wrote in the culinary classic The Taste of Country Cooking, published in 1976. “It wasn’t really a town. The name was adopted because the first residents had all been freed from chattel slavery and they wanted to be known as a town of Free People.’’
And while there lives a haunting cultural stigma among African-Americans that farming and cooking are positions relegated to a role synonymous with slavery and servitude, Lewis saw food and cooking as a way to bring community together.
"Over the years since I left home and lived in different cities, I have kept thinking about the people I grew up with and about our way of life,” she wrote. “Whenever I go back to visit my sisters and brothers, we relive the old times, remembering the past. 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 together had to do with food. ”
She learned to cook from her mother and aunt, along with other family members who would leave Freetown to work as cooks in Washington, sharing recipes and techniques when they returned. The farm kitchen was basic and improvisation was key, such as the family using coins instead of measuring spoons. Her mother taught her how to tell when a cake was ready by listening. “When it is still baking and not yet ready, the liquids make bubbling noises,” she wrote in her 1988 book The Pursuit of Flavor.
Lewis left her hometown at age 16 and headed East, first to Washington, then New York City in the 1940s when she was in her early 30’s. There, she worked an array of odd jobs before becoming a chef. Her first job was ironing at a laundromat, save she didn’t know how to iron and was fired after being discovered three hours later. She worked as a domestic to help support her younger sister through art school, where she entered employers’ building through the back, a reality that bristled Lewis. She was as creative outside as inside the kitchen. She dressed windows for high-end department store Bonwit Teller, and was a reputable seamstress, Marilyn Monroe and Dorcas Avedon, the wife of famed photographer Richard Avedon, among her customers.
Politics were important to Lewis. A self-defined radical, she worked as a typesetter at the Daily Worker, a Communist paper. Among her proudest, self-declared achievements was working for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s second presidential campaign. Although the timeline of when remains unclear, Lewis married retired merchant seaman and prominent Harlem Communist spokesman Steve Kingston sometime between the late 1930s and early 1940s.
“My husband, Steven, was always out marching, rallying for the Scottsboro Boys,” she said during a 2001 interview with Gourmet Magazine. “At night we'd gather in somebody's apartment and debate how best to go about helping them. I cooked a little for everybody sometimes. But Steven was out front. He did everything he could. He was a good man."
A socialite among bohemians, fashionistas, and artists, Lewis was known for hosting dinner parties for her friends, including antiques dealer John Nicholson, who planned to open up a cafe with coffee and pastries on the Upper East Side in 1948. As Nicholson used to tell it, Lewis was on her way to accept another job as a domestic when she peered into her friend’s space and convinced Nicholson it would better serve as a full restaurant.
A week later she was behind the stove of Café Nicholson as a 50-50 partner in the business. The menu offered a limited selection that included roasted chicken and soufflés. New York Herald Tribune restaurant critic Clementine Paddleford described her soufflé in a 1951 critique “light as a dandelion seed in a wind.” Lewis later told friends she cooked with a batch of family recipes on one hand and a French cookbook in the other. The restaurant became a regular hot spot for bohemians and artists, such as Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, and Salvador Dali.
Lewis left Café Nicholson in 1954 at the encouragement of her husband, who felt the scene had grown too bourgeois. "He used to always say, 'This restaurant should be for ordinary people on the street. You're catering to capitalists,' " Mr. Nicholson said in an interview with The New York Times in 2004. "It was such a bore."
The couple unsuccessfully attempted multiple business ventures. In the mid-1950s, they moved to New Jersey and started a pheasant farm, but a year later all the birds died overnight of a mysterious disease. In 1967, she opened a Southern foods restaurant in Harlem, but it filed for bankruptcy a year later. Then, in the mid-1970’s, Lewis slipped and broke her leg one snowy night. The result was her 1972 book debut, The Edna Lewis Cookbook. "I was bored of just lying there,” she later said. The book was largely based on the cult classic dishes she prepared at Café Nicholson.
In 1971, editor Judith Jones, who’d published Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking a decade earlier, visited Georgia and found a lack of “good Southern cooking” in Atlanta proper. Instead, her husband and her found authentic Southern food in rural boarding houses. This was postwar era, post-McDonald America. With the increase of women in the workplace and advancement of freezer technology, families were looking for convenience at dinnertime.
Since the 1940s, refrigerators and freezers had become a common part of the household, along with frozen food and frozen dinners. In 1959, Americans spent roughly $1.3 billion on ready-prepared frozen TV dinners. By 1971, Wendy’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and McDonald’s were all on their way to becoming the fast food giants they are today, with McDonald’s expanding into international markets in 1971.
"As a child in Virginia, I thought all food tasted delicious,” Lewis later said in a 1989 interview with The New York Times. “After growing up, I didn't think food tasted the same, so it has been my lifelong effort to try and recapture those good flavors of the past."
Jones recognized that American regional cooking was fast disappearing and sought to do for American food what she’d done for French food a decade earlier. It was 1972 when she met Lewis at the suggestion of Bob Bernstein, the head of Random House.
“I was immediately struck by Edna’s regal presence when she walked into my office,” Jones would later share in the preface of 1976’s The Taste of Country Cooking. Jones became entranced by how Lewis described her childhood, the way her face lit up when she spoke of gathering wild asparagus and or of cooking with her mother. “I knew this was a voice that could teach us,” Jones said of Lewis.
The two began collaborating on a cookbook. At first, the two worked with Evangeline Peterson, who’d worked with Lewis on her first book. However, Jones found the narrative stale and they eventually parted ways with Peterson. To get the authentic Lewis, Jones would ask her questions, scribble down notes, and then encouraged Lewis to go home and “write it just as you remember saying it.”
“It was when she started to talk. All I did was ask some questions!” Jones said of Lewis. “You knew how much she knew when she started telling the story about her mother, who used eggshells to put seeds in so they could go into the ground on the first warm day.”
The result was The Taste of Country Cooking, wherein Lewis brought attention to Southern cuisine and gave voice to African American communities and traditions lost in the shadows of slavery and segregation. More than just a cookbook, Lewis wove stories of growing in rural Virginia, sharing personal stories that paid homage to her roots.
“I loved walking barefoot behind my father in the newly ploughed furrow, carefully putting on foot down before the other and pressing it into the warm, ploughed earth, so comforting to the soles of my feet. As I listened to my father sing one of his favorite songs, the chickens from the hen house would flock behind me, picking up all kinds of worms and bugs that were turned up by the plough.”
On a larger scale, The Taste of Country Cooking was farm-to-table before said expression was part of our culinary lingo. As pre-packaged, commercial American food grew more popular, Lewis championed seasonal cooking and sustainability. It was that philosophy that she continued to apply in her next professional ventures, first as a guest chef at the Fearrington House Restaurant in Pittsboro, North Carolina, from 1983 to 1984; then Middleton Place in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1986.; and lastly Gage and Tollner in Brooklyn, New York, where she retired from the kitchen in 1992.
In 1989, Lewis traveled to the Atlanta Southern Food Festival by train, where she was picked up by Scott Peacock, her then assistant who would become a dear friend, business partner, and caretaker in later years. "She was dragging what must have been a hundred-pound box of pastry dough for pies and cobblers, twine tied all around,” Peacock said of Lewis during a 2001 interview with Gourmet. “The poor thing wasn't sure she could get the exact kind or quality of ingredients she wanted down here, so rather than take a chance she made it all in New York and brought it down."
In 1993, Lewis moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where the two cofounded the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food, now knows as Southern Foodways Alliance. “Because if we don’t,” Lewis said, “it’ll be lost completely.”
“I’m doing the same thing my parents did and everybody else did with Southern food. We may cut out on salt a bit,” Lewis said of the traditions she upheld in the kitchen. When talking about the development of American cuisine in a postwar era, she said: “The only reasonable cuisine in this country is a Southern cuisine; fully developed. A lot of people don’t know that. You can read about it, but there wasn’t much written about it at that time, but people didn’t think about putting it down.” She continued, “Blacks developed the menu, and whites wrote them down, because at that time blacks couldn’t read and write—as a matter of fact, they weren’t allowed to. So naturally the whites put it down, and they didn’t say blacks did it, but they put it down, and then the book was published by some white person.”
Lewis never slowed down. In her later days, she taught cooking classes, ran the organization with Peacock, and in 2003, at the age of 86, she published her fourth cookbook, The Gift of Southern Cooking, co-authored with Peacock. The two had a special friendship. He lived with Lewis for over six years, serving as her caretaker as she grew older. Peacock, a young, white, gay Southern chef, and Lewis, a widowed doyenne, earned them the nickname The Odd Couple of Southern Cooking.
When asked during an interview if she considered herself to be an artist, Lewis said: "Gee, I don't know." Then, after a while, she says, "I don't think I am an artist. I don't worry about that kind of thing, I guess. I never really have. I don't have regrets. I just think about doing things right. I do what I feel like I should do, and the way I should do it. Then I go on to something else. If that's art."
She died in her sleep in her home in Decatur, Georgia, in 2006 at the age of 89.