The Daily Meal Hall of Fame: Edna Lewis

Staff Writer
The granddaughter of slaves, she cooked for café society and made people pay attention to Southern food
Edna Lewis

Left: from © John T. Hill / Knopf Double Day Publishing Group ; Right: Courtesy of Knopf Double Day Publishing Group

Lewis' fried chicken is considered the best in the Southern canon. 

The Daily Meal is announcing the inductees into its Hall of Fame for 2017. The Hall of Fame honors key figures, both living and dead, from the world of food. We are introducing the honorees, one per weekday. Our second inductee this year is Edna Lewis. For all Daily Meal Hall of Fame inductees, please click here.

In the southeastern corner of the United States, the name “Dame Edna” refers not to the alter-ego of the Australian comic Barry Humphries — whose character Dame Edna Everage is a caricature of a larger-than-life Melbourne housewife — but to one enterprising, game-changing cook, a grande dame of Southern food, Edna Lewis (1916-2006).

A chef at restaurants of renown in both New York City and various parts of the South and the author of indispensable books on Southern cooking, Lewis had (and still has) an eminence in the culinary world that is perhaps doubly noteworthy in part because the chances of it happening were so unlikely. She was born and raised in Freetown, Virginia, the granddaughter of emancipated slaves; her grandfather helped found the farming community in which she was raised, and as a child young Lewis took part in all aspects of farm life including the growing and harvesting of vegetables, hunting, and of course cooking.

Lewis has written that food was an extremely important part of farm life, and cooking and eating meals together day in and day out with her large family — she was one of eight children — was the humble yet solid foundation of her life in the world of cooking. She would build a career out of remembering those times, and teaching other home cooks how to have reverence for the deceptively simple ingredients and preparations with which she was so intimately familiar — for instance, her fried chicken, that staple Southern dish, widely considered the very best version in the Southern canon. She was much more than her fried chicken, though, and reducing her legacy to one totemic recipe is a mistake.

Like many Southerners, Lewis had to leave the South in order to learn to fully appreciate its mark on her. As a young woman during the Great Depression, after her father died, she headed to New York to find fortune. She held whichever jobs she could find, working as a window dresser, a maid, a seamstress (copying dresses for the wife of the photographer Richard Avedon), and a staffer for the Communist Party newspaper The Daily Worker.

At the same time, she often cooked for her roommates and friends, and in 1948, two of them — interior designer Johnny Nicholson and his romantic partner, photographer Karl Bissinger — invited her to be the chef-partner at Café Nicholson, the Midtown Manhattan restaurant they were opening. It had no menu, only a daily roster of dishes based on whatever was fresh that Lewis felt like cooking. Offerings were seldom Southern; they tended toward bistro fare — roast chicken, cheese soufflés, chocolate mousse. Diners came for the food and the vibe, and for the chance to spy Lewis, tall and stately and usually garbed in colorful African prints. The bonhomie of the place created a vibe that proved irresistible to café society, and the place attracted writers and artists in droves; it was reportedly a favorite eating place of Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, and Truman Capote, among many others.

But Lewis was a peripatetic artistic personality herself. She left Café Nicholson in 1952 and spent years on the road, consulting for restaurateurs and chefs and helping to open a number of important restaurants in the South, including Fearrington House in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Middleton Place in Charleston, South Carolina. In the early 1970s, she met Judith Jones, the cookbook editor at Knopf responsible for introducing Julia Child’s recipes to the American cookbook-buying consumer, who encouraged her to write down her memories and recipe. The two collaborated on several important Southern cookbooks, notably The Taste of Country Cooking (1976).

In 1992 at the age of 75, Lewis became chef at Gage & Tollner, the Brooklyn steakhouse that was one of New York’s oldest landmark restaurants. She brought to that old establishment dishes that had by then become some of her staples, including her luxuriant she-crab soup and her signature cornbread. While she retired from that job after five years, Lewis continued to cook at events and to write.

In an interview with The New York Times in 1989, Lewis gave what is perhaps the best articulation of her philosophy on food: “As a child in Virginia, I thought all food tasted delicious. After growing up, I didn't think food tasted the same, so it has been my lifelong effort to try and recapture those good flavors of the past.”

At a food festival in Atlanta, Lewis ran into her most unlikely collaborator — Scott Peacock, a chef from Alabama more than 40 years her junior who was then cooking for the governor of Georgia, and who wanted to work with and learn from Lewis. The two wound up living and working together as collaborators and friends, Peacock taking care of Lewis in her old age, and Lewis teaching Peacock the ins and outs of the Freetown way of appreciating food. Jones published their coauthored 2003 cookbook, The Gift of Southern Cooking, with Peacock producing the text and the two collaborating on the recipes. Peacock lived with Lewis until she died at 89, in 2006, in the home they shared in Decatur, Georgia.

Lewis was important to American food in general because, as an African-American woman from the South, she brought to the North and beyond a perspective that had been so long ignored — and made people pay attention, through her style and charisma and good cooking, to Southern food as a viable art form. It is entirely possibly that there would be no Southern food boom today if it hadn’t been for her.

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