By: Sydnee Winston, Project Coordinator
African-American chef Edna Lewis spent her lifetime celebrating southern cooking, and she published cookbooks that revived the art of refined Southern cooking while simultaneously offering America a window into African American farm life in the early 20th century. Ms. Lewis was born in April of 1916 in a Freetown, Virginia. She spent most of her childhood growing up on her family’s farm that had been granted to her grandfather, a freed slave. There, the family would gather and prepare food using improvised methods including measuring baking powder on coins.
Her cookbook The Taste of Country Cooking is considered a classic study of southern cooking and helped dispel the popular image of southern cooking as unsophisticated. In an interview in 1989 with the New York Times Miss Lewis commented that “As a child in Virginia, I thought all food tasted delicious. After growing up, I didn’t think food tasted the same, so it has been my lifelong effort to try and recapture those good flavors of the past.”
During the 1940s, Miss Lewis left Virginia to relocate to New York. It was there that she became friends with John Nicholson, an antiques dealer, who opened up a restaurant on the East side of Manhattan. Miss Lewis’ cooking delighted the pallets of people who came to eat at Cafe Nicholson and the restaurant quickly became popular among bohemians and artists. Her cheese souffles and roast chicken were especially popular. She worked at the restaurant until the late 1950s.
In the mid-1970s, she began writing her acclaimed cookbook and in the mid-90s she founded the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food.
Check out this wonderful documentary about Miss Lewis’ mission to preserve and pass on the rich tradition of southern cooking to future generations.