1. Food

Discuss in my forum

Edna Lewis

By

Edna Lewis

Edna Lewis -- Photo by Christopher Hirsheimer

The Grande Dame of Southern Cooking:

A tall, commanding woman, Edna Lewis was also a giant in the culinary world as well as in life. The granddaughter of freed slaves, Edna would grow up to be a great chef, culinary ambassador, and caretaker of genuine Southern cooking. She would inspire a generation of young chefs and ensure that the traditional folkways of the South would not be forgotten. More than a skilled cook, Edna Lewis touched the lives of those around her with grace and the beauty of life. She will be deeply missed.

Childhood:

Edna Lewis was born on April 13, 1916, in Freetown, Virginia. She was one of eight children. Freetown is a tiny rural community founded in the late 19th century by three freed slaves, one who was Edna’s grandfather. Edna’s grandfather also started the first school in Freetown, classes were held in his living room.

Early Cooking Lessons:

Lewis acquired her cooking skills and love of freshness and seasonality growing up in Freetown, where such things were part of life. She learned most of her cooking from her Aunt Jenny. 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. Edna could tell when a cake was done just by listening.

From Small Town to New York City:

Lewis left Freetown at age 16, after her father died, and moved to Washington and eventually to New York City. Her first jobs in New York City included ironing in a laundry and as an employee of the Daily Worker (a communist newspaper). She was also involved in political demonstrations and campaigned for FDR.

Edna's Cooking Becomes Legend:

In New York Edna’s cooking was making her a local legend. Here was a person who really knew Southern cooking. In 1948, when female chefs were few and black female chefs were even fewer, Edna opened her own restaurant with John Nicholson, an antiques dealer and bohemian with a taste for high society. Café Nicholson on East 57th Street in Manhattan was a huge success.

Edna did all the cooking. Her dishes were simple, delicious Southern food but the café attracted numerous famous faces like Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Richard Avedon, Gloria Vanderbilt, Marlene Dietrich, and Diana Vreeland. Edna stayed with restaurant until 1954. Café Nicholson was sold in 1999 to Chef Patrick Woodside.

Culinary Career:

Edna also lived and worked in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; Decatur, Georgia (her last place of residence). She has taught cooking classes, both formally and otherwise. Her teaching and cookbooks have influenced and inspired countless young chefs. Lewis retired as a chef in 1992. Her last cooking job was at Brooklyn's Gage & Tollner where she was chef for 4 years.

In the mid-1990’s, Edna and a group of friends started the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food.

Cookbook Author:

In the late sixties, Edna broke her leg and was forced to stop cooking professionally for a time. During this period she decided to write down some of her recipes. The result was the Edna Lewis Cookbook. James Beard and M.K.F. Fisher praised the book. Her follow-up landmark book, The Taste of Country Cooking (1976), was one of the first cookbooks by an African-American woman to reach a nationwide audience and is credited for starting the interest in genuine Southern cooking.

Edna’s books are as much personal memoirs as collections of recipes. They contain wonderful histories of Southern food and reflections on rural life. Her books are full of tips acquired from a lifetime of cooking. Edna’s pioneering chapters on fresh foods and seasonality predate the American culinary revolution.

Additional Notes

Edna Lewis was married to Steve Kingston, who died in the 1970s. They had one adopted son (a native of Africa), Dr. Afeworki Paulos.

On February 13, 2006, Edna Lewis died at the age of 89 at her home in Decatur, Georgia.

Awards and Accolades

1986 – Named Who’s Who in American Cooking by Cook’s Magazine
1990 – Lifetime Achievement Award IACP (International Assoc. of Culinary Professionals)
1995 – James Beard Living Legend Award (Their first such award.)
1999 – Named Grande Dame by Les Dames d’Escoffier, an international organization of female culinary professionals.
1999 – Lifetime Achievement Award from Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) (Their first such award.)
2002 - Barbara Tropp President's Award (WCR – Women Chefs & Restaurateurs)
2003 – Inducted into the KitchenAid Cookbook Hall of Fame (James Beard)
2004 – The Gift of Southern Cooking nominated for James Beard Award and IACP Award

Cookbooks

The Edna Lewis Cookbook (Ecco 1989)(Out of Print)
The Taste of Country Cooking (Knopf 1976)(Compare Prices)
In Pursuit of Flavor (Knopf 1988)(Compare Prices)
The Gift of Southern Cooking (with Scott Peacock)(Knopf 2003)(Compare Prices)

  1. About.com
  2. Food
  3. Gourmet Food
  4. Chef Bios & Interviews
  5. Edna Lewis - The Grande Dame of Southern Cooking

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.