A cookbook that should be in every American home is Edna Lewis’ The Taste of Country Cooking, one of the veritable bibles of Southern cuisine. Lewis was an influential cook, author and trailblazer, as one of the first African-American women who published a cookbook without hiding her gender or race. By the time she died in 2006 she had been rightly recognized in the pantheon of great American chefs. However, she was still not as much of a household name as some of her peers.
Edna Lewis was born in Freetown, Virginia in 1916, the granddaughter of an emancipated slave. She grew up cooking traditional Southern dishes with her family, using techniques that did not require modern appliances and ingredients that were local to the area. She later moved to Washington DC and eventually New York City where she became a fashion designer. She first worked as a chef at Café Nicholson in 1949, where she brought her southern cuisine to a broader audience. She worked later in catering and even as a docent in the Hall of African Peoples in the American Museum of Natural History. She wrote her first cookbook The Edna Lewis Cookbook in 1972. Her stature continued to grow with each subsequent cookbook, especially with The Taste of Country Cooking in 1976 (edited by Julia Child’s editor Judith Jones), where Lewis incorporated her own personal stories and recollections with recipes. She followed this with In Pursuit of Flavor in 1988 and The Gift of Southern Cooking in 2003 (with Scott Peacock).
Throughout her life, Edna Lewis remained a tireless proponent of Southern cooking, increasing its esteem in the US, and bringing southern recipes to a wider audience. In the 1990s Lewis was honored with a James Beard Living Legend Award and was named “Grande Dame” by Les Dames d’Escoffier International. Two years after her death in 2006, Gourmet published Lewis’ essay “What is Southern Cooking?,” an elegant distillation of her philosophy. In 2015, Francis Lam penned a great piece for the New York Times about Lewis’ enduring legacy, “Edna Lewis and the Black Roots of American Cooking.” In more recent years, a new generation of chefs became familiar with Lewis’ work, and her cookbooks received a publicity boost after a “Top Chef” tribute.
Another great way to honor Lewis’ memory is to cook some of her recipes. There are almost too many delectable recipes to decide among, but here is a smattering: Busy Day Cake, Shrimp Grits, Baked Tomatoes, Biscuits, Fried Chicken, Greens and Cornmeal Dumplings, Stove top Asparagus, and Oven Brisket. If you are looking for more Lewis recipes, please get one of her cookbooks, and if you can, buy from a Black-owned bookstore (we often shop at Semicolon in Chicago).