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We were introduced to Edna Lewis wayyyy too late in life. Let her name ring from the rafters! She’s not “the Southern Julia Child” as some have said – she is THE Edna Lewis in her own right.
Edna Lewis is the legendary chef who introduced the world to authentic Southern cooking, characterizing it as genuine farm to table, with pan-fried chicken, pork and fresh vegetables at its roots. She was known for crafting meals that surrounded the seasons’ harvests, along with her signature and award-winning soufflés.
We’re so fortunate she’s left us a treasure-trove of recipes in her cookbooks that, as The New York Times wrote, “revived the nearly forgotten genre of refined Southern cooking… while offering a glimpse into African-American farm life in the early 20th century.” If you’re not familiar with her cookbooks, we highly recommend you check them out.
Lewis was born April 13, 1916 in the small, unincorporated town of Freetown, Virginia. The town was founded when a group of people who were formerly enslaved, one of them being her Grandfather, purchased the land and began building farms and homes.
The Freetown she grew up in was a close-knit, bountiful farming community. In her second cookbook The Taste of Country Cooking (1976), she wrote of how she and her neighbors all worked hard labor together to work the farms “and afterward we would all take part in the celebrations, sharing the rewards that follow hard labor.”
Her Aunt Jenny taught her how to cook. As The Spruce Eats tells it, “They used a wood-fired stove for all their cooking and didn’t have measuring spoons or scales, so instead, they used coins, piling baking powder on pennies, salt on dimes, and baking soda on nickels. Lewis is said to have been able to tell when a cake was done just by listening to the sound it was making.”
At 16 years old, tragedy struck. Her father died, leaving her mother to care for herself and her seven siblings. She soon left home to find work. She travelled north to Washington, D.C. and stayed with family, and eventually settled in New York where she found work ironing dresses and eventually becoming a seamstress, creating popular African-styled dresses.
Restaurant and Culinary Life
Her professional culinary life began by chance, as The New York Times reports, when a friend in the antiques business mentioned interest in opening a restaurant. Together, they opened the Manhattan restaurant Café Nicholson in 1949 when she was 33 years old. She was the sole chef at a time when, due to racism and sexism, it was extremely rare for a black woman to hold such a position.
Her food and seasonal menus were widely praised and included authentic Southern food and delicacies from lingonberry pancakes and bitter chocolate soufflés to filet mignon with béarnaise sauce and veal scaloppine. The upscale restaurant become very popular, serving wealthy patrons and celebrities like Tennessee Williams, Marlon Brando, Gloria Vanderbilt, Salvador Dali and Eleanor Roosevelt.
When she left Café Nicholson she went on to help many restaurants incorporate authentic Southern dishes (and many soufflés) into their menus, and teach cooking classes.
In the 1960s, Judith Jones, an editor who had also worked with Julia Child, encouraged her to take her handwritten recipes and create a cookbook. Over the next three decades Lewis would publish four cookbooks, which were also part memoir. She was a beautiful storyteller through her cooking as well as her writing. Her cooking books include:
- The Edna Lewis Cookbook (1972)
- The Taste of Country Cooking (1976)
- In Pursuit of Flavor (1988)
- The Gift of Southern Cooking (2003) co-authored with Scott Peacock
You can purchase her cookbooks online.
A Culinary Legend Who Should Be More Widely Known
Many believe she didn’t reach the fandom-level of Julia Child or James Beard because she was a black woman, and they would be right. Her story wasn’t often shared in history books or in culinary school lessons, but, fortunately, a larger effort has been made in recent years to bring her name into the light.
Lewis eventually won many awards for her cooking and books, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 1990, and the James Beard Living Legend Award in 1995.
The Edna Lewis Foundation: Empowering Black People in the Culinary World
Lewis died in 2006 at the age of 89. You can learn more about her and her legacy at The Edna Lewis Foundation, whose mission “is to honor and extend the legacy of Edna Lewis by creating opportunities for African Americans in the fields of cooking, agriculture, food studies, and storytelling.”
With their important work, more black chefs and culinary influencers will gain the respect and attention they deserve. Donations can be made here.
Photo credit: New York Post Archives/Getty Images