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Edna Lewis, Southern Cooking Legend

The Grand Dame of Southern Cooking

In honor of Black History month, we'd like to highlight some of the great chefs who have influenced us and the meaning of American Cooking. Edna Lewis was born on April 13, 1916, in Freetown, Virginia. She was one of eight children. Lewis acquired her cooking skills and love of freshness and seasonality growing up in Freetown, where such things were part of life. She learned most of her cooking from her Aunt Jenny. Lewis left Freetown at age 16 after her father died. First, she moved to Washington, D.C., and eventually to New York City. Her first jobs in New York City included ironing in a laundromat and as an employee of the Daily Worker, a newspaper. She was also involved in political demonstrations and campaigned for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Edna Lewis' Cooking Becomes Legend

In New York, Lewis’ cooking made her a local legend. In 1948, when female chefs were few and Black female chefs were even fewer, Lewis opened her own restaurant with John Nicholson, an antique dealer and bohemian with a taste for high society. Café Nicholson, on East 57th Street in Manhattan, was a huge success.

Lewis did all the cooking. Her dishes were simple, delicious Southern food but the café attracted numerous famous faces like Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Richard Avedon, Gloria Vanderbilt, Marlene Dietrich, and Diana Vreeland.

In the mid-1990s, Lewis and a group of friends started the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food. The goal was to share, reproduce, and remember the older ways of cooking Southern food.

Cookbook Author

In the late sixties, Lewis broke her leg and was forced to stop cooking professionally for a while. During this period, she decided to write down some of her recipes. The result was the Edna Lewis Cookbook. Iconic culinary figures James Beard and M.K.F. Fisher praised the book. Her follow-up landmark book, The Taste of Country Cooking (1976), was one of the first cookbooks by an African-American woman to reach a nationwide audience and is credited for rekindling interest in genuine Southern cooking.

More than a skilled cook, Edna Lewis touched the lives of those around her with grace and the beauty of life. She died in 2006 at the age of 89.

Edna Lewis Awards and Accolades

1986: Named Who’s Who in American Cooking by Cook’s Magazine 1990: Lifetime Achievement Award IACP (International Assoc. of Culinary Professionals) 1995: James Beard Living Legend Award (Their first such award.) 1999: Named Grande Dame by Les Dames d’Escoffier, an international organization of female culinary professionals. 1999: Lifetime Achievement Award from Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) (Their first such award.) 2002: Barbara Tropp President's Award (WCR – Women Chefs & Restaurateurs) 2003: Inducted into the KitchenAid Cookbook Hall of Fame (James Beard) 2004: The Gift of Southern Cooking nominated for James Beard Award and IACP Award

Edna Lewis Foundation

Take a moment to visit the Edna Lewis Foundation website. Their mission is to honor and extend the legacy of Edna Lewis by creating opportunities for African Americans in the fields of cooking, agriculture, food studies, and storytelling.

Food and Ingredients at Morton Williams

Morton Williams offers a wide selection of ingredients from all across America and the world. Our chefs are influenced by our great American culinary entrepreneurs such as the iconic Edna Lewis. Stop in any Morton Williams for all of your cooking needs.

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