Edna Lewis, 89; Chef Drew on Family’s History in Reviving Southern Cuisine
Edna Lewis, who helped launch a revival of Southern regional cooking with her four books, particularly “The Taste of Country Cooking,” died Monday. She was 89.
Lewis died of natural causes in her sleep at her home in Decatur, Ga., Scott Peacock, a longtime friend and Lewis’ housemate in recent years, told The Times. She had been in failing health for several years and suffered from dementia.
The granddaughter of freed slaves in Freetown, a Virginia farming community, Lewis had an eclectic career working as a restaurant chef, a pheasant farmer and a cooking teacher, among other things. But her cookbooks brought her national recognition. Along with “The Taste of Country Cooking” in 1976, she wrote “The Edna Lewis Cookbook” in 1972 and “In Pursuit of Flavor” in 1988. She and Peacock wrote “The Gift of Southern Cooking” in 2003.
“Edna was a very important voice for her knowledge of Virginia-style Southern food and cooking,” Judith Jones, Lewis’ editor at Alfred A. Knopf publishers, told The Times in 2003. “More important,” Jones said, “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.”
Some food experts referred to Lewis as the leading African American female chef. Others placed her as the dean of all Southern cooking.
Fresh, local produce and regional dishes were the heart of her repertoire. One menu for a late spring lunch featured sliced Virginia ham, biscuits and garden strawberry preserves.
“Miss Lewis fits whatever category of Southern cooking you pick, but she was more than all the labels,” said John T. Edge, director of Southern Foodways Alliance, based at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.
In several of her books, she wrote about her early years in Freetown. Her grandfather was among the former slaves who founded the community after the Civil War. Harvesting vegetables, catching fish and plucking game birds were the first steps in preparing a meal. “We never bought anything from stores except sugar and kerosene,” Lewis told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper in 1996.
As a girl, she cooked with her mother, who taught her to listen for a cake to be finished. “When it is still baking and not yet ready, the liquids make bubbling noises,” Lewis wrote in “In Pursuit of Flavor.”
Lewis’ father died when she was 9. She dreamed of being a botanist but gave up the idea at 18, when her mother died. She moved to New York City looking for work in the early 1940s.
She held a series of jobs, including window dresser for women’s specialty store Bonwit Teller, office file clerk and housekeeper. She often cooked for her friends. One of them, John Nicholson, owned an antique shop. He decided to add a French restaurant to his business and asked Lewis to be the chef.
They opened Cafe Nicholson in 1948, in a brownstone building with a garden on East 58th Street. Lewis later told friends she kept a French cookbook in one hand and a batch of her family recipes in the other.
“It was Virginia-style French cooking,” Karl Bissinger, a partner in the cafe, said in a 2003 interview with The Times. “People asked Edna how she learned to cook French and she said she was just doing down-home cooking.”
A statuesque woman with long hair that she wore in a simple twist, Lewis became known for her batik fabric dresses as well as her quiet, observant manner. She rarely spoke of her personal life. She was proud of her heritage but showed it in subtle ways, Jones said. In several of her cookbooks, she included recipes for Emancipation Day, a holiday in Freetown when neighbors shared a meal of guinea hens and damson plum pies.
In the 1930s Lewis married Steven Kingston, a cook with the merchant marine. They were political activists who joined the Communist Party. “I was a radical,” Lewis told Bon Appetit magazine in November 2001. She worked in the office of the Daily Worker, the Communist newspaper.
But she also worked vigorously for Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his second presidential campaign in 1936 and did volunteer work as a poll watcher during elections in the South. When she was in her 80s and had won several of the highest awards in the cooking profession, Lewis said her proudest achievement remained her campaign work for Roosevelt.
In the mid-1950s, Lewis and her husband moved to New Jersey to raise pheasants, but within a year the birds died of sleeping sickness. Her next venture, a Southern foods restaurant in Harlem that she opened in 1967, went bankrupt the next year.
“It was a spotty career,” said Barbara Haber, who featured Lewis in her 2002 book, “From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals.” “If an opportunity came, Edna went with it,” Haber said. “She didn’t have a career plan.”
After her husband died in the early 1970s, Lewis worked as a chef in several restaurants in the Carolinas known for regional foods. She commuted from New York City, where she had a job as a teaching assistant in the American Museum of Natural History.
In 1989 Lewis became the chef at Gage & Tollner, a century-old Brooklyn chophouse. She expanded the menu to include some of her own recipes -- pan-fried quail, corn pudding and country ham. James Beard, by then the unofficial father of American cooking, often visited the dining room, which helped attract customers.
“Edna was greatly admired in the loftiest food circles,” said Nathalie Dupree who featured Lewis on one of her cooking programs on the Food Network. “I once took her to the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. People fell all over her. Edna was renowned.”
Dupree described Lewis as shy, regal, beautiful and something of a bohemian. After decades of hard work and measurable success, she retired from Gage & Tollner in 1992 without any definite plans. She was 76.
She moved to Atlanta and taught cooking classes. Several years earlier, she had been introduced to Peacock, an up and coming restaurant chef in his early 20s. They met at a food festival in Atlanta.
Peacock had worked as the chef at the Georgia governor’s mansion during two administrations and rose to celebrity chef status at the Watershed restaurant in Decatur.
From the beginning of their friendship, Peacock told The Times in 2003, “The least of what I learned from Miss Lewis was about cooking, although I’ve learned a lot about that from her, too. She had a clear sense of who she was; a country girl, the grandchild of former slaves, raised in a Southern farm community. She always knew that her personal experience was something special. She had great confidence in that way.”
In her advancing years, Lewis was often honored for her contributions to the field.
At 83, she was named Grande Dame of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, an award for women chefs. Three years later, she was inducted into the James Beard Foundation KitchenAid Cookbook Hall of Fame.
“There are a few cooks whose books are classics. They will always be there, always be read,” said Nach Waxman, a committee member and owner of Kitchen Arts and Letters bookstore who helped select Lewis for the Beard award. “Edna Lewis is in that constellation.”
Services are pending.