Edna Lewis invented Southern cooking.
Well, not exactly. What she did was to define the essence of Southern food for generations of Southern chefs, beginning with the publication of her second cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking, in the 1970s.
Lewis was born in 1916, the granddaughter of former slaves, in the Orange County village of Freetown, a farming community founded by her grandfather. By necessity, and like most farmers at the time, the Lewis family grew their own food and raised their own livestock.
Although the words "local" and "seasonal" seem to crop up like particularly persistent dandelions whenever you talk about food these days, it wouldn't have occurred to most Southerners of Lewis' generation that there was any other way to feed your family. In Bailey Barash's 2005 documentary about Edna Lewis, Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie, Lewis says, "We lived in the country, and so the first thing the women would do, they would go out in the early mornings and cut the greens or cabbages and pick the beans that had dew on them."
She moved to New York City in the 1930s, became politically active in the progressive movement of the day (which included a stint in the office of the communist paper The Daily Worker) and earned her living as a seamstress. She began cooking professionally when her friend John Nicholson opened Café Nicholson in 1949. Food & Wine magazine, in a 1998 article, said that with her traditional Southern dishes such as roast chicken and caramel cake, "the Lewis brand of deceptively simple home cooking began making its way to an American audience hungry for culinary identity."
The restaurant was a favorite of Southern luminaries like Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner, not to mention other well-known figures such as Gore Vidal and Richard Avedon. But it wasn't until the mid-'70s that what would become the first part of her lasting legacy was kicked into high gear by editor Judith Jones (who was also Julia Child's editor). Lewis was recovering from a broken leg, and Jones persuaded her to write The Taste of Country Cooking. It became more than a cookbook. In it, food tethers together seasons, family and the memories of what it was like for Lewis growing up in rural Virginia.
Jason Alley of Comfort restaurant in Richmond was inspired, when he started cooking professionally, by Lewis' story as well as her cooking. "She grew up poor in tiny little Freetown, and even though she was a black woman from the South, I love that she went to Manhattan and became hugely important [in the food world]," Alley says. "I consider myself to be a Southern chef, and to see somebody so professional — to see her take that food we grew up with and cook it well — is super inspiring."
Lewis also became the executive chef at Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn but retired from the restaurant business in the mid-'90s. She founded the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food (a precursor to the Southern Foodways Alliance), which was, The New York Times noted in her obituary, "dedicated in part to seeing that people did not forget how to cook with lard."
In 1988, Lewis met Scott Peacock, a young chef cooking in the Georgia Governor's Mansion in Atlanta. He writes in the introduction to the book that they wrote together, The Gift of Southern Cooking: "We both came from homes where the seasonal harvest was a ritual in which the children participated, where vegetables straight from the garden were often the main feature of the supper table, where skilled home cooking was admired and expected daily. And we realized that we both brought the values of home cooking to our work as chefs."
In Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie, Lewis says, "No one taught me to cook — I just saw. Cooking was just simply part of my life."
Together, they became a powerful voice for Southern cooking and all of its regional diversity. They taught cooking classes and hosted events, and for the last six years of her life, Lewis lived with Peacock, who cared for her until her death in 2006.
"Flour falls out of my copy of her book when I open it, and the spine is broken where the page for her biscuit recipe is," says Alley. "I still use that book all the time because that's the best biscuit recipe in the world."