A New Book Celebrates the Life of the Late, Great Edna Lewis
Get to know the woman who brought Southern cooking into the national spotlight.
She won the James Beard Living Legend Award. She's inspired a novel and a one-woman show. Her face even made its way onto a postage stamp. If you don't know who we're talking about, it's time you got to know the late, great Edna Lewis. Known as the Grande Dame of Southern Cooking, Lewis is responsible for shining a light on Southern cooking as the basis for American cuisine. Though food lovers may know her name, the chef deserves so much more attention than she is given.
Enter Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original, which comes out April 13. The collection of 21 essays by professional cooks, food writers, academics, and Lewis’ own friends and family paints the picture of the soft-spoken woman whose personal and political philosophies were so radical, the only way she could communicate was through food.
Lewis was born in 1916 in the community of Freetown, Virginia. As she chronicled in her 1976 cookbook/memoir, The Taste of Country Cooking, the town was established by emancipated slaves, including her own grandparents. Between lyrical passages about the changing seasons and the earth's bountiful harvest, Lewis slips in tragic details of her family's past, like the fact that her grandmother was sold into slavery and forced to work as a brickmason, when all she wanted to do was be in the kitchen with her kids.
When she was just 16 years old, Lewis left her home and moved to Washington, D.C.. Not long after, she relocated to New York City, where she worked in the garment industry — first as a laundress, then as a seamstress, reportedly making designer knockoffs to Marilyn Monroe. Eventually, she met Johnny Nicholson, with whom she would go on to open Café Nicholson in 1949.
At Cafe Nicholson, Lewis served up solid continental fare — roast chicken with herbs, or steak with bearnaise sauce — but her culinary roots weren’t lost on famous writers from the South who also gravitated there, including Harper Lee and Tennessee Williams. Truman Capote would beg her to make him biscuits. Her chocolate souffle became famous: she would remove it from the oven early so that it would continue rising while the server transported it to the table from the kitchen. Lewis left Cafe Nicholson in the early 1950s, but remained a partner in the business that continued to operate, on and off, until 1999/2000. In 1972, she published her first cookbook, The Edna Lewis Cookbook.
Despite becoming a cookbook author, Lewis didn't stop working in restaurants until much later in life; she even took a job at Brooklyn's Gage and Tollner when she was 72 years old. Eventually, she settled in Atlanta and met chef Scott Peacock, who became her companion and the co-author of her last cookbook, The Gift of Southern Cooking: Recipes and Revelations from Two Great American Cooks (2003). She passed away from cancer in 2006, a few months shy of her 90th birthday.
Some parts of Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original touch on things her readers already know, like the fact that she and her family celebrated Emancipation Day and Revival Week over Thanksgiving. But other, lesser-known facts about her life come to life, too, like the fact that she kept a garden wherever she lived, that she didn’t drive and that she loved a strong drink.
The essays are organized thematically into three sections: the first details different encounters with Lewis, the second is about her role in history, and the final portion delves into her legacy today. Since Lewis was so reticent about being overly outspoken during her lifetime, the book effectively assembles a larger picture from the bits and pieces of her life that were scattered throughout her writings and transmitted by others. Though they're all very different, collectively the essays form a complete portrait of a woman who was ahead of her time — and who left an important legacy.
In the essay "Edna Lewis: African American Cultural Historian," gastronomy professor Megan Elias explains that Lewis "commanded her readers to drop their preconceptions of what was and wasn't black [...] revealing a culinary world beyond the fried chicken, hoecakes, and gumbo that white American cookbook writers typically associated with black home cooking."
"Edna Lewis wrote against that version of history in which African American cuisine makes the best of master's rations," Elias continues. "She instead portrayed a culinary tradition that is distinctly chosen — hunted, foraged, and grown."
Lewis's niece writes in the last chapter of the book, “I have only recently come to grasp that my life has been profoundly affected by a woman who sat at the feet of former slaves, listening intently to their experiences, learning their foodways, and absorbing their wisdom. I don’t think Edna thought that she would launch a movement advocating freshly prepared, seasonal, and locally available foods; she just wanted to share what she knew to be so good and so true.”