Edna Lewis: the Grande Dame of Southern Cooking

Edna Lewis -- Photo by Christopher Hirsheimer.

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 Lewis’ grandfather. Her 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 to measure 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.

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 laundromat and as an employee of the Daily Worker. She was also involved in political demonstrations and campaigned for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Edna Lewis' Cooking Becomes Legend

In New York, Lewis’ cooking made her a local legend. In 1948, when female chefs were few and black female chefs were even fewer, Lewis opened her own restaurant with John Nicholson, an antique dealer and bohemian with a taste for high society.

Café Nicholson, on East 57th Street in Manhattan, was a huge success.

Lewis 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. Lewis stayed with the restaurant until 1954. Café Nicholson was sold in 1999 to chef Patrick Woodside.

Culinary Career

Lewis 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 professionally. 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 a chef for four years.

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

Cookbook Author

In the late sixties, Lewis broke her leg and was forced to stop cooking professionally for a while. During this period, she decided to write down some of her recipes. The result was the Edna Lewis Cookbook. Iconic culinary figures 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 rekindling interest in genuine Southern cooking.

Edna Lewis’ books are as many personal memoirs as they are collections of recipes. They contain wonderful histories of Southern food and reflections on rural life from her childhood. 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)
In Pursuit of Flavor (Knopf 1988)
The Gift of Southern Cooking (with Scott Peacock) (Knopf 2003)