The chef and cookbook author was a vital champion of Southern food.
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edna lewis portrait
Credit: John T. Hill

She's often called the Julia Child of the South, but Edna Lewis really needs no such qualifier. She is a culinary icon in her own right, and it's shocking that she is not more well known in and out of the food world. The granddaughter of emancipated slaves in Freetown, Virginia, Lewis was a celebrated chef in New York in the late 1940s and 1950s, a time when chefs who were black or female were a rarity, let alone both.

Lewis cooked the way she grew up eating, which meant focusing on seasonality and making everything from scratch, whether it was biscuits or souffles. Her restaurant Cafe Nicholson in Manhattan earned rave reviews and counted everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt and Marlon Brando to Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams as regulars. That Lewis was able to achieve this in the era of Jim Crow and de facto segregation in the North speaks volumes about her talent.

After blazing her own trail in the restaurant world, she turned her attentions to writing about, and thus preserving, the food culture that she held so dear, which was the antithesis of the fast food and convenience foods that were becoming the norm during that period. Lewis' cookbooks brought her national recognition, particularly her classic "The Taste of Country Cooking," which was published in 1976. In it, she debunked the notion that Southern food had to be heavy or greasy and demonstrated how refined it could be. Lewis was also an early proponent of eating farm-to-table -- way before it became the all-too-common buzzword it is today.

But what really made the book resonate were Lewis' evocative passages about growing up in Freetown and the food she and her family raised, harvested, foraged, and cooked. Her editor, Judith Jones, toldtheLos Angeles Times in 2003, "Edna was a very important voice for her knowledge of Virginia-style Southern food and cooking. More important, Edna exemplifies a way of writing about food as a part of who we are and where we come from. It is food writing as memoir." Lewis showed us the beauty and nuance of Southern cooking through her own stories, and to this day, we can think of no better ambassador for the cuisine.


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