Edna Lewis (1916-2006) was an African-American chef and author who defined and preserved Southern cooking in the U.S.
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Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.
Today’s Tastemaker was a renowned American chef, author and pioneer of Southern and African American cooking. She inspired a generation of chefs, introduced American home cooks to Southern favorites through her legendary cookbooks, and played a pivotal role in the preservation of traditional Southern foods. Let’s talk about Edna Lewis.
Edna was born in 1916 in Freetown, Virginia. She was the granddaughter of a freed slave who helped to start the community of freed slaves and their descendants. Edna grew up on a farm bequeathed to her grandfather for his work.
Edna and her seven siblings were deeply involved with the production of food in all its forms for their family. They farmed and harvested, hunted and foraged, and cooked without any modern kitchen appliances. Everything in the house was made over a wood fire. That’s where Edna first honed the skills that would make her famous.
After the death of her father in 1928, 16-year-old Edna joined the Great Migration and moved north to Washington, D.C. where she worked on Franklin Roosevelt’s second presidential campaign. She married a man who, like herself, was a communist.
In her early 30s, Edna moved to New York City. A friend got her a job ironing clothes at a Brooklyn laundry, but Edna only lasted three hours. She had no idea how to iron.
Luckily, Edna did know how to sew. She was soon a much sought after seamstress. She became well-known for creating copies of Christian Dior dresses for celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, and for her own designs which were generally African-inspired, highly colorful pieces.
Edna also started throwing regular dinner parties for her friends and acquaintances. They were a huge hit because of Edna’s incredible Southern cooking. Though never formally trained, Edna’s early experiences growing and cooking food on the family farm and her natural talent in the kitchen served her well.
One of her good friends and a regular attendee at these parties was an antiques dealer named John Nicholson. Nicholson was so enchanted by Edna’s cooking that he asked her to go into business with him. In 1948, Café Nicholson opened on East 58th Street in Manhattan, with Edna Lewis as head chef.
Café Nicholson was an instant success, and was heavily frequented by New York artists and celebrities. Among the many notables known to frequent the Café were Eleanor Roosevelt, William Faulkner, Greta Garbo, Salvador Dali, Marlon Brando, Marlene Dietrich, Howard Hughes, Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote. Clearly it was quite a scene.
The menu at Café Nicholson was fairly simple, featuring Southern classics done exceedingly well, and a famous chocolate souffle.
At the time, there were very few female chefs in New York City and even fewer Black female chefs. Somehow Edna pushed through all of the cultural and societal barriers to become a beloved and very successful member of the largely white, male culinary world.
After five years at Café Nicholson, Edna moved to New Jersey to become a pheasant farmer. That fell through when all of her pheasants died one night from an unknown illness. Edna continued cooking professionally and started catering and teaching cooking classes.
In the late 1960s, Edna broke her leg and was forced to take a break from the kitchen. She was then approached with an exciting new opportunity. Judith Jones, the cookbook editor who famously edited Julia Child’s cookbooks, convinced Edna to put her recipes down on paper. In 1972, The Edna Lewis Cookbook was published.
In 1976, Edna published a follow up cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking, to great acclaim. Unlike her first cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking contained more than just recipes. It also contained information and stories about Southern food and African American culinary traditions, capturing the spirit of Edna’s cooking and her love for her roots.
In the late 1980s, Edna founded the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food. She championed the use of fresh, seasonal ingredients and the continued use of lard in Southern cooking. She goes into great depth on that topic in her 1988 book In Pursuit of Flavor.
In the 1990s, Edna met Chef Scott Peacock at the Virginia Governor’s Mansion and the two began working together. Though from very different backgrounds- Peacock was a young, white, gay man- the two formed a deep friendship and became known as “The Odd Couple of Southern Cooking.”
In 2003, the two collaborated on a new book called The Gift of Southern Cooking.
Edna died on February 13, 2006. She was 89 years old. Scott Peacock served as her caretaker until the end.
Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Tastemaker. We’ll be talking about a woman who opened speakeasies and crossed paths with European royals, American Industrialists and world-renowned Mobsters.
Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.
Talk to you tomorrow!