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 LevyReuse content