Before Alice Waters, Mark Bittman, or Food Network star Ina Garten, there was Edna Lewis (1916–2006). The granddaughter of former slaves, she gained renown for her cooking and cookbooks that revived refined Southern cooking.
Knopf cookbook editor Judith Jones, who edited Julia Child, signed Lewis’s classic The Taste of Country Cooking (1976), which offered a view of Southern food that was refined and nuanced. The headline of a feature about Lewis in the New York Times Magazine went even further, saying that she “made the case for black Southern cooking as the foundation of our national cuisine.”
Born on a farm in Freetown, Va., a community founded by black families freed from slavery, Lewis cooked and wrote as a means to explore her memories of childhood and to commemorate the seasonal richness of Southern food. Her dedication to authentic flavors and pure ingredients continues to earn Lewis new fans.
Sara B. Franklin, a writer and food studies scholar at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, has collected essays and recipes in appreciation of Lewis’s work in Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original (Univ. of North Carolina), which came out last month. In it, Franklin brings together essays from 20 food-world stars, including Nathalie Dupree, Vivian Howard, and Caroline Randall Williams.
“I first learned of Edna Lewis while reading an issue of Gourmet magazine in 2008,” says Franklin. “I’d never been to the South, and I’d never heard of [her] before then. Lewis came from a culture in which history and literacy were systematically denied, and so there isn’t much by way of historical record that speaks to the specific history of Lewis, her family, and her culinary roots beyond her living family members’ memories. I thought it would be both really difficult and wholly inappropriate for me to try to write a biography of Lewis, so I began reaching out to friends and colleagues.”
Many of the contributors to the book find that her influence on them is as much culinary as it is literary, if not more so. This is especially true for the chefs in the book. It was only right, then, to include recipes, to invite contributors to speak to the ways that Lewis has inspired them in the kitchen. Here’s author and chef Nathalie Dupree on Lewis: “Edna was the first woman in the twentieth century, way before Julia, to jump the line between being a cook and a chef.”
Vivian Howard, chef, author, and star of PBS’s A Chef’s Life, credits Lewis with teaching her how to write about food: “Miss Lewis taught me to lead with the story... so with nearly every dish, I provide a story about the concept for the dish itself, about the person who grew the ingredient, or about something l learned while making it.”