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Chef Spotlight: Edna Lewis

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Photos: John T. Hill / The Edna Lewis Foundation

Edna Lewis
A.K.A. The Grande Dame of Southern Cooking

“When I was growing up, we ate only what was ripe and fresh at the moment,” Edna Lewis, a.k.a. The Grande Dame of Southern Cooking, writes in her book, In Pursuit of Flavor. The late Edna Lewis was born in Freetown, Virginia, a farming community established by emancipated slaves--including her grandfather Chester Lewis who opened up part of his home for the children of their community to use as a school. Here, Lewis grew up foraging, farming, and harvesting local, seasonal ingredients. For Lewis and the Freetown community, cooking was a form of art and history. A craft honed through the teachings of techniques and traditions to preserve cultural heritage.

At 16, Lewis left Freetown eventually making her way to New York where she landed a gig as a seamstress; attracting big names like Marilyn Monroe. Cut to Lewis meeting entrepreneur Johnny Nicholson. The two became close friends and in 1949 opened up the restaurant Café Nicholson together with Lewis as the Head Chef. Lewis, a black woman during the Jim Crow era, had suddenly become not only the head chef of a restaurant but co-owner of a business frequented by the likes of Tennessee Williams and Eleanor Roosevelt. Lewis’s menu featured dishes like roast chicken with herbs and a chocolate soufflé that was described as "light as a dandelion seed in a wind" by restaurant critic Clementine Paddleford in his review of the restaurant in 1951 for The New York Herald Tribune. The real crowd-drawer wasn’t technically on the menu though. Southerns with the inside scoop like Truman Capote would make their way back to the kitchen to request (possibly beg) Lewis to whip up a helping of her iconic biscuits.

Lewis left the Café Nicholson kitchen in the early ’50s but continued to work in restaurants for most of her life. While working at the Hall of African Peoples in the American Museum of Natural History, Lewis broke her ankle. This lead to a marathon of boredom that freed Lewis up to write her first cookbook, The Edna Lewis Cookbook followed by The Taste of Country Cooking, a revolutionary book honoring farm-to-table cooking intertwined with Lewis’s experiences and memories with food, nature, and community growing up in Freetown; shining a deserving light on the black communities influence on Southern food as the foundation for American cuisine.

"[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." -Gastronomy Professor Megan Elias, Edna Lewis: African American Cultural Historian

 Edna Lewis changed the way America viewed southern food. Elevating Southern cuisine to more than fried chicken and your average biscuit, she inspired countless young chefs to preserve southern cooking traditions and explore its intimate relationship with nature.

Here are a few of Edna's recipes the Southerner in us (yep, Spicewalla was born and raised in the South) felt inspired to try: Biscuits, Strawberry Preserves, and Mint Julep!

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