In Pursuit of Flavor: Edna Lewis and the Art of True Southern Cuisine

Edna Lewis © John T. Hill

In 1976, chef Edna Lewis at last came into the national spotlight. This is in part thanks to her editor Judith Jones, who, before setting off as Ambassador of Important Cooking with her gamble on Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, got The Diary of Anne Frank published and even guided authors like Anne Tyler and John Updike.

Lewis’s The Taste of Country Cooking was a joyful ode to the foods and cooking of her childhood in Freetown, Virginia. Four years prior, a brand-new Edna Lewis and Judith Jones relationship had produced The Edna Lewis Cookbook, forged from the handwritten notes of the young self-taught Southern chef from her days at the Café Nicholson on NYC’s East Side in the 1950s.

It was co-written by Evangeline Peterson, but it soon became clear that Lewis’s own voice was a rich and unique one, and further plans for a co-writer were quickly changed. The tales that regale in her second book — her family and neighbors growing vegetables, gathering herbs, and raising livestock — resonate with today’s nationwide focus on eating locally. But during Lewis’s lifetime these foods would quickly become a fabled, forgotten past in the country, saved in fewer and fewer corners of the U.S., though preserved for decades in her pages.

While Lewis’s first cookbook was the nation’s first widely available look at this food and its history, it was her second — seasonal, detailed, and country — that introduced the United States to its most valuable and entrenched cuisine: the one forged in the antebellum South, a mix of African-European-native American foods that would become both regional staples and one of the country’s grandest cuisines. The many narratives that fill this book of recipes (it’s often been acknowledged as as much memoir as cookery book) are as straight from Lewis as you can get: In meetings with Jones, she spoke about her childhood, and the foods that helped define it, while Jones wrote them down in encouragement. Moving away from the day’s rote cookbook style, Lewis at last poured herself into the deceptively thin, 270-page southern food book destined to become a classic.

From Freetown, a sixteen-year-old Lewis whose father had just passed away headed north, first to Washington, D.C., then to New York City. She carried her earliest days with her, taking on a range of jobs, from seamstress to window designer, all the while hosting dinner parties for the friends she was making, her table laden with the elegant, simple foods she had helped her mother, aunts, and neighbors make all those years ago. Many of those women had taken jobs cooking for white families and restaurants. Those culinary techniques made their way into these unsung cooking women’s kitchens at home, where they were put to use with African, European, and Native American crops and dishes.

True Southern cuisine, which Lewis crafted for her guests in her adoptive city, remained unknown in most United States kitchens. Food at the time was typically packaged, instant, from nowhere, and made by no one, to be quickly stirred and heated, a meal from box to table. In the cities of the north, the bulk of fresh ingredients were often grown far away and poorly, making it difficult to find flavor. For Lewis, however, the foundations of tight-knittedness and hands-on cooking, the measure of Freetown’s seasons- and community-based meals, kept on. As she would later tell the New York Times, “As a child in Virginia, I thought all food tasted delicious.”

Things proved otherwise in the North, and Lewis instinctively turned to childhood lessons in her new home: procure a few of the best ingredients and cook them the way you did back then. When she finally partnered with Café owner Johnny Nicholson — a window decorator, too, and a regular at her dinner parties — Lewis put that philosophy to use once big names of the day flocked to the classically-decorated Café Nicholson, which took up the bottom floor and courtyard of a Manhattan brownstone. Lewis’s food — substantial, ingredients-based fare that paid homage to the U.S.’s most embedded culinary traditions — drew people like William Faulkner, Marlon Brando, Gloria Vanderbilt, Marlene Dietrich, and Diana Vreeland to the cramped midtown restaurant. Lewis’s Southern influences met her love of French food in the Café’s famous herbed roasted chicken, and savory and sweet souffles. In a now immortalized review, the New York Herald Tribune restaurant critic Clementine Paddleford pronounced Lewis’s souffle as “light as a dandelion seed in a high wind.”

In the following decade, Lewis would go on to cook at Gage and Tollner, the sought-after spot (closed in 2004) on Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn. In the late 1980s, she teamed up with Scott Peacock, a white chef almost fifty years her junior, from the coast of Alabama, whose understanding of the South’s food would meet her own. Together they cooked and wrote The Gift of Southern Cooking, published in 2003. The Southern Foodways Alliance is linked to her as well: She cofounded its initial incarnation, the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food. She amassed a bounty of awards including the first James Beard Living Legend Award in 1995.

In time Peacock became Lewis’s caretaker, too. She spent the last six years of her life living at his home in Decatur, Georgia. In 2006, she died there at the age of eighty-nine. The food she loved, and its history, live on. The region’s ingredients and recipes are being resuscitated by well-known chefs like Low Country-champion Sean Brock, cajun-born Donald Link, and other participants in this complex cuisine for which Lewis remains one of its most important spokespeople.

While many of her beloved foods are coming back to us today, there is mostly still a vast silence when it comes to the cuisine itself. But in 2015 Toni Tipton-Martin brought many unnamed black cooks of Southern food into the spotlight with her book The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks (in which Lewis appears as well). And, earlier this year, an episode of Bravo’s “Top Chef” took chefs and judges to the historic Middleton Place Restaurant, in Charleston, South Carolina, where Lewis worked as resident chef after her days at Café Nicholson.

On Bravo, the chefs’ task was to prepare foods that were Southern, with Lewis in mind, the two made rightly indistinguishable in the show’s instructions. “Clean, seasonal, quenching,” describes one judge of Lewis’s food. “Refined and simple,” and “simple is hard,” point out two others in their attempts to reach what Lewis had been after. “That was what she wanted, was flavor,” is a final pronouncement on a contestant’s dish.  

“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,” wrote Lewis in The Taste of Country Cooking. Much more than a sentiment, it’s an ethos, a practice of joy and deliciousness forged in times that were hard as well; it’s a  lesson, a reminder, like that of Southern cooking, of once again great importance for the whole United States.

For history that’s not talked about enough, plus foods that probably aren’t cooked enough, here is a collection of Edna Lewis and her food, in writing: