Edna Lewis

Author of 'The Taste of Country Cooking' who put Southern cuisine on the foodie menu


Edna Regina Lewis, chef and cookery writer: born Freetown, Virginia 13 April 1916; married Steven Kingston (deceased; one adopted son); died Decatur, Georgia 13 February 2006.

Slim, elegant and beautiful even into old age, Edna Lewis was a chef, a cookery writer who rescued American Southern cooking from its good ol' boy associations, a cooking teacher, a failed pheasant farmer, a dressmaker who could copy Dior and once made a dress for Marilyn Monroe, a museum teaching assistant and a Manhattan restaurateur with a café society clientele. The granddaughter of a Virginia slave, "Miss Lewis", as she was always known, grew up in a farming community of freed slaves in Freetown, Virginia, and her later writing gave the authentic flavour of early 20th-century Afro-American rural life, with its seasonal rhythms of dandelion wine-making, blackberrying and hog-killing.

Lewis wrote about a time when preparing a meal entailed harvesting vegetables, fishing and cleaning and gutting the catch, shooting game birds, plucking and drawing them, curing your own hams, baking your own bread and biscuits and putting up your own preserves: "We never bought anything from stores except sugar and kerosene," she said in a 1996 interview. "Spring," she remembered in one of her books, "would bring our first and just about only fish - shad."

It would always be served for breakfast, soaked in saltwater for an hour or so, rolled in seasoned cornmeal, and fried carefully in home-rendered lard with a slice of smoked shoulder for added flavour. There were crispy fried white potatoes, fried onions, batter bread, any food left over from supper, blackberry jelly, delicious hot coffee, and cocoa for the children.

She learned to cook from her mother, who taught her how to tell when a cake was properly baked by listening: "When it is still baking and not yet ready," she wrote (in a piece entitled "In Pursuit of Flavor"), "the liquids make bubbling noises."

Edna Lewis's father died when she was nine, and her mother when she was 18, which forced her to give up her ambition to become a botanist. In the early 1940s she got on a bus and went to New York in search of work, but was thwarted by the racial attitudes then prevalent. She finally found a job in a Brooklyn laundry, and was assigned an ironing board. As she had never ironed in her life, the job lasted only a few hours. Fortunately, she was more skilled with her needle, and soon was copying couture dresses for Dorcas Avedon, wife of the photographer Richard Avedon. Another job involved dressing the windows of the fashion store Bonwit Teller.

Although there is some question about the date when she married (some sources say it was in the 1930s, though another source says she was already in New York), Edna Lewis's husband was Steven Kingston, a retired cook with the merchant marine and a member of the Communist Party. She told Bon Appetit magazine in November 2001, "I was a radical," and that she had worked in the office of the Daily Worker. She also worked for Franklin D. Roosevelt in his second presidential campaign of 1936, and was an election poll-watcher in the south.

Lewis occasionally cooked for friends. One of them was John Nicholson, who owned an antiques shop, and in 1948, in a brownstone with a garden on East 58th Street, they opened Café Nicholson, which served French food with a Southern twist. She later said that she had managed by keeping a French cookbook open in one hand, with her family recipes in the other. Those who dined there remember her for her cheese soufflés and her roast chicken.

Her husband, though, disliked the "bourgeois" character of the restaurant - it was a success with the Bohemian crowd and the clientele soon included writers, artists and movie stars. "We had everybody that was anybody," she said, and listed Howard Hughes, Salvador Dali, Marlene Dietrich, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett. William Faulkner asked her if she'd trained in Paris, and was surprised when Lewis said, "No, I've never been out of the States."

Tennessee Williams, a regular, walked her home at night, and once brought Greta Garbo and two small poodles to dine on a Monday when the restaurant was normally closed. Word got out that Garbo was inside, and a crowd of onlookers formed on the pavement. Truman Capote was another regular. "He was a big mess," said Lewis:

He had on these little pumps. If he had something new, he would come in and say, "How do you like my beloved pants?" He was cute.

But her husband was adamant:

He used to say, "This restaurant should be for ordinary people on the street. You're catering to capitalists."

She left the restaurant in the 1950s and they moved to New Jersey to farm pheasants, but within one year lost all their birds to what she described as "sleeping sickness". She then opened a Southern-style restaurant in Harlem in 1967, but the business went bankrupt the following year. Her husband died in the early 1970s, and she worked as a chef in some restaurants in the Carolinas serving regional food; but she was actually commuting from Manhattan, where she worked as a teaching assistant at the American Museum of Natural History.

A broken leg in the mid-1970s put her out of action for a bit, and she began writing her first cookery book, the classic The Taste of Country Cooking (1976), with encouragement from Judith Jones at Knopf, the doyenne of American cookery editors. In 1989, Lewis became the chef at the old-fashioned Brooklyn chophouse Gage & Tollner, adding Southern notes of pan-fried quail, corn pudding and country ham to its menu. Her writing career flourished, and she was taken up, honoured with awards and cherished by the foodie establishment, ranging from Craig Claiborne and James Beard to Richard Olney and Alice Waters.

I saw her occasionally at award events. Even then she was striking in appearance, wearing dramatic jewellery, long, almost floor-length dresses she made herself from African fabrics, with her silver hair done up in a twist on the nape of her neck showing off her fine features. About this time, she founded, with some friends, the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food. One of its chief aims was to prevent people from forgetting "how to cook with lard".

Before retiring from Gage & Tollner in 1992, aged 76, she had met, two years earlier, a 20-something, white, gay, Southern chef called Scott Peacock. They formed a deep friendship, became a social couple, and joined forces in 1999, sharing an art-filled flat in Decatur, Georgia. Peacock completed her last book, The Gift of Southern Cooking (2003), which won them accolades and good sales.

Paul Levy

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future