Known as “the Grande Dame of Southern Cooking,” Edna Lewis found wisdom in the customs and patterns of her rural Virginia childhood.
By bringing such quintessential dishes as shrimp and grits or roast chicken to the plates of fine restaurants, Lewis convinced her fellow Americans to take a second look at Southern cooking while also serving as one of the first voices to reemphasize the importance of fresh, seasonal ingredients.
Lewis was born April 13, 1916, in Freetown, VA, a farming community founded by her grandfather and other freed slaves. For the rest of her life, Lewis fondly recalled the lifestyle and customs she grew up with and strove to share with the rest of the world. “The spirit of pride in community and of cooperation in the work of farming is what made Freetown a very wonderful place to grow up in,” she wrote in her 1976 book “The Taste of Country Cooking.”
In 1948, antiques dealer John Nicholson persuaded her to be the cook at his new Manhattan restaurant, Café Nicholson. The restaurant soon attracted a celebrity clientele, from comedians Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin to musician Hoagy Carmichael and filmmaker Jean Renoir, while also drawing such famous Southern writers as Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, and — one of Edna Lewis’s favorites — Truman Capote. An enthusiastic 1951 New York Herald Tribune article informed readers that Café Nicholson had no menu, but served the same delicious meals every day, such as roast chicken with herbs — what Nicholson himself later called “a very simple menu, and very simply presented.”
After Lewis left Café Nicholson in the 1950s, she raised pheasants, catered private parties and worked at the American Museum of Natural History, but her reputation as a cook never diminished. She published “The Edna Lewis Cookbook” in 1972, and at the encouragement of Judith Jones, Julia Child’s editor, she began to write books that combined recipes and cooking tips with her personal recollections. The New York Times proclaimed that her classic 1976 book “The Taste of Country Cooking” “may well be the most entertaining regional cookbook in America.”
During the 1980s and early 1990s, Lewis lived in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and New York where she worked as a chef at various restaurants and wrote “In Pursuit of Flavor,” a 1988 cookbook that included nearly 200 recipes and her own recollections and commentary.
In 2003, with her Alabama-born protégé Scott Peacock, Lewis co-wrote “The Gift of Southern Cooking,”a book praised by Publishers Weeklyfor its authors’ “heartfelt friendship and mutual respect.”