Edna of Freetown

Culinary icon Edna Lewis redefined sophisticated Southern cooking during her long career. 

Award-winning chef Edna Lewis had four cookbooks and two New York restaurants to her credit: remarkable achievements for anyone, but even more so for a Black woman from the rural South. Every August still brings Revival at Bethel Baptist Church in her native Unionville, Virginia. That tradition may be the wellspring from which those achievements of hers arose. This August also marks the reissue of her classic Southern cookbook, Taste of Country Cooking, a 20th anniversary edition with an introduction by fellow acclaimed cook Alice Waters.

Edna Lewis brought discipline and taste to the kitchen—her books debunk fast food notions of Southern food as limp, greasy, or fried to within an inch of its life. A soft-spoken lady with a regal bearing and an incredible face, Edna Lewis cut a swath through New York many decades long. “You couldn’t walk down the street without people stopping [her]: ‘You’re so beautiful I want to paint you, photograph you,’” says Scott Peacock, executive chef of Watershed Restaurant in Decatur, Georgia, and her last co-author. She suffered no fools but was exceedingly generous. “She looked after people,” says Ruth Lewis Smith, Lewis’ sister, “like our grandfather.”

Lewis grew up one of eight children on an Orange County farm near Freetown, a village of former slaves where her grandfather and two other men built homes on land granted to them. “My grandfather had the first school for blacks,” says Smith, who lives near the old family home in Unionville. “When he built his house, he put an extra room on.” Her equally industrious grandmother was a slave who worked as a brick mason; a landowner bought her for $950 to build two houses.

The family’s lives revolved around food and farming. “Everyone came here to eat,” says Smith. “Whoever you were, you came here if you were hungry.” Around Unionville, all the families had hogs, dairy cows, chickens and turkeys, and crops. “Basically, we provided our own food,” she says, “and nobody had a chance to be lazy.” Their mother sold chickens to a man in D.C., raised and sold eggs, and kept the house, farm, and kitchen humming. “There wasn’t anything she couldn’t do,” says Smith. Or cook, it seems. “Whatever they got their hands-on,” she says, “whether it was rabbit or squash from the garden—how did they learn to do everything so well?”

Both parents had died by 1941, and the two youngest weren’t old enough to be on their own. Smith went with sister Virginia to D.C., and sister Naomi went with Lewis to New York.

Lewis put her sister through school and made everything they wore. “She inherited that from my mother,” says Smith. “Edna made all her own clothes, and she always looked wonderful.” An ironing job at a Brooklyn laundry lasted only three hours, so she went back to sewing, copying Dior dresses for Dorcas Avedon, then the wife of Richard Avedon. Mr. Peacock says she once made a dress for Marilyn Monroe. In 1947 she made costumes for Bonwit Teller’s Christmas windows, and about that time Upper East Side antique dealer John Nicholson asked her to cook in a restaurant he was starting. Café Nicholson opened in 1949 on the ground floor and garden of a brownstone on 58th Street, and it was, in its owner’s words, “a place where truck drivers eat and the food is really great,” but the clientele was always more chic bohemian than man-on-the-street.

On opening day she manned her three-burner stove and portable oven; they started serving at 5:30 and were out of food an hour later. Word got out that if you wanted to eat at Café Nicholson, you had to get there early. Ruth Smith came to New York and helped out. “She loved soufflés,” says Smith, “and she loved Roosevelt”—the First Lady who dined there. Lewis’ chocolate soufflé made its mark, and the recipe appears in The Edna Lewis Cookbook and In Pursuit of Flavor along with its signature warm bitter chocolate sauce.

In 1953, Lewis gave up the restaurant and moved to New Jersey with her husband, where they tried, among other things, raising pheasants. She began catering dinner parties in New York and gave cooking lessons to an industrious young socialite named Evangeline Peterson. Peterson encouraged her to write down her recipes, and years later, after opening and closing another restaurant in Harlem, a broken leg kept Lewis marooned long enough to get a book down.

The Edna Lewis Cookbook was published in 1972. It’s a quirky cocktail of sophisticated fare and comfort food with some wholesome notes like spoon bread alongside profiteroles and baba au rhum. “It’s what was in vogue, like lobster a la Americain, and very much about New York in the ’70s,” says Scott Peacock. Today, out-of-print book dealers carry first editions in the $300 range.

Just before the book was published, Peterson and Lewis showed it to Judith Jones of Alfred A. Knopf, the editor responsible for getting Julia Child into print. “In talking to them, I encouraged Edna to tell me about who she was and where she came from,” says Jones. “I encouraged her to write in her own voice. And, sitting down with yellow legal pads, that’s exactly what she did.”

Knopf published Taste of Country Cooking in 1976. “It was her love letter to Virginia cooking,” says Peacock. “It’s a masterpiece. Before Taste, people weren’t looking to her for Southern food. Then she became the voice of American food.”

In Pursuit of Flavor followed 12 years later. “She was always pursuing, say, the perfect peach,” says Jones. “Once she walked all over New York for a white peach.” The pursuit begot the book’s name. “It was a tremendous job to work the way we did on the first book,” says Jones as to why a co-author was put in place for Pursuit, “but because Edna didn’t write it, she didn’t feel it was her book. Plus her eyes were sort of failing and I don’t think she really read it.”

The last book, The Gift of Southern Cooking, published two years ago, was written with Peacock, who was Lewis’ roommate and cooking companion. They met in 1989, when he arranged to be at a sold-out dinner party for her at the Southern Food Festival. He was chef for the governor, and she was one of his heroes—the two fell into conversation over pet topics like the benefit of cross-pollinated versus hybrid vegetables. Their friendship developed long-distance, over the course of several other meetings. Then, seven years ago, she moved to Decatur.

Jones describes the last book as a “real collaboration, a partnership. I would be with them, and Scott would say, ‘What’s that you’re doing, Miss Lewis, over there in the corner?’ and she’d say, ‘These tomatoes don’t taste sweet enough, so I’m putting some sugar on them.’ Scott tapped every nuance and got it all down.”

In the book, they temper each other, and the beautifully written introductions detail delicious results like cornmeal soufflé and the time Lewis smuggled potatoes home in her suitcase from their trip to Italy. Red rice that she uses to stuff a suckling pig, he pairs with duck.

Pork chops layered with sugared cranberries she made at Café Nicholson need no tinkering, and okra and collards are Peacock’s department. “Miss Lewis will eat collards when I cook them but seems to have no interest in preparing them herself,” writes Peacock. On the topic of grits, he laments the pesto, sun-dried tomato and lemon grass grits that have come along. Miss Lewis says, “People should really leave grits alone.” They print a formula for homemade curry powder and one for their own baking powder.

This August, Knopf is bringing out the 20th anniversary reissue of Taste of Country Cooking. The book features Alice Waters’ introduction and a remembrance by Judith Jones. On the new book’s cover is a beautiful portrait of Lewis by John T. Hill, who shot the covers for Pursuit and Taste. For the original Taste cover, Lewis was photographed in a white dress. “It made her look like a servant,” says Jones, who never let them shoot another cover without her present and insisted they tint the dress pink to lessen the effect. Pursuit and The Gift of Southern Cooking’s covers more accurately depict her dress and the clothes she designed, for which the fabric all came from Africa. “I used to tease her,” says Peacock—“anything that was good, she would try to attribute it to Africa or Virginia.”

“Edna always came home for Revival,” says Smith. “We cooked the entire weekend. We made preserves together, and we’d share in relish making and pickling.” Lewis’ favorite contribution was blueberry cobbler. “She’d add to this a freezer full of ice cream,” remembers Smith. Revival was the highlight of summer and the first time since school let out that many of the children wore shoes.

Nobody tells the story of Edna Lewis better than Edna Lewis. In Taste of Country Cooking, a chapter introduction warmly describes Revival Sunday. Her mother made white muslin outfits for her six children, two adopted cousins and herself, “usually finishing the last buttonholes and sashes late Saturday night in between the cooking that she would have begun for the next day’s noontime dinner at the church.” When the children went to bed that Saturday night, no cooking would have begun, but they woke to find the long rectangular dining room table laden with pastry-lined pie dishes waiting for filling and cakes for icing. The children would be dressed and instructed to wait on the front porch until noontime, when they would head to the church. “There would be two more days of feasting during the week besides a round of visiting and entertaining in every home in Freetown. Festivities ended for us on Friday, when the visitors stopped by to thank us and say good-bye, promising to return the next summer.”

August 13 is Revival at Bethel Baptist, the church where Lewis’ funeral was held some seven months earlier. After a lifetime spent in many spots, she came back to Unionville to be buried, and the crowd that came to honor her came hungry.

“Afterward, I invited everyone to come home,” says Mrs. Smith. “And they did.”

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© 2020 Edna Lewis Foundation