1999 Lifetime Achievement Award: Edna Lewis
Edna Lewis was one of the first to generate respect and acceptance for southern cooking as true American cuisine. Born in Freetown, Virginia, the granddaughter of freed slaves, she went on to become a celebrated black chef in New York in the late 1940s and 1950s, when there were few, if any, other black or female chefs working in the city.
One of eight children, she thrived on the land, helping to grow, gather, hunt, and harvest everything her family and neighbors put on their tables. In the morning she watched when the women gathered fresh vegetables and fruits still covered with dew. She helped hand-feed and raise chickens so they would be just the right size and age in the spring, when fried chicken was a seasonal favorite.
During the Depression, Lewis decided to ease the family burden by moving to New York, where she felt free from racism for the first time. She took on several different jobs, from typist at the Communist Party offices to live-in housekeeper. She even tried her hand at window dressing. Two friends, Karl Bissinger, fashion photographer, and John Nicholson, window designer, convinced her to become a partner and cook at their new restaurant, Café Nicholson on East 58th Street, in 1948.
The recipes were not necessarily Southern, but they proved Edna Lewis’s unique skill in intensifying their inherent flavors. The small restaurant became a Mecca for celebrities; writers, artists, performers, and politicians packed the place every day. Edna Lewis’s composure and self-assurance belied her youth, and with her regal appearance, patience, and humor, she gained the respect of all she met.
In 1952 Edna Lewis left Café Nicholson and again took up a variety of occupations from pheasant farmer to private caterer to lecturer at the African Halls of the American Museum of Natural History. She had a lasting impact as guest chef on the cuisines of Fearrington House in Pittsboro, North Carolina, and Middleton Place in Charleston, South Carolina. In the early 1970s she met Judith Jones, editor at Alfred A. Knopf, who encouraged her to write down her recipes and her memories of home in her own words. The result was The Taste of Country Cooking, one of several cookbooks Edna Lewis authored.
In 1992 Edna Lewis retired from her last job as a chef, at Gage and Tollner in Brooklyn. She continued cooking and promoting the flavor and value of traditional Southern food. Her last cookbook, The Gift of Southern Cooking Recipes and Revelations from Two Great Southern Cooks, was written with her friend and collaborator, Scott Peacock, with whom she lived in Decatur, Georgia.
– Bailey Barasch from the New Encyclopedia of Southern Foodways