Who Is Edna Lewis? Here Are 5 Things to Know About the Grande Dame of Southern Cooking.

published Feb 11, 2023
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Forever USA stamp of Edna Lewis on a graphic shape
Credit: Shutterstock

To speak about Southern cooking and not mention Edna Lewis would be criminal. She was never on television, nor did she gain the title of “Celebrity Chef” through the means of modern-day methods, but that can’t shake the mark she left on Black food culture and the ways Americans cook in general.

Born in rural Orange County, Virginia, in 1916, Lewis was the granddaughter of emancipated slave Chester Lewis. One of seven siblings, she grew up eating off of the land farmed and foraged by her family; once she left home at an early age to migrate north, she carried with her a culinary legacy that honored her farming roots.

It was country cooking, yes, but poised, refined, and centered around a less-than-traditional idea of what Southern cooking was believed to be. She made her restaurant patrons think twice about what they understood American Southern food to be — even when she was serving up quintessential dishes. Emphasizing seasonal and farm-to-table ingredients, Edna Lewis’s legacy is rich in history, tradition, and joy.

Here are five facts about the grande dame of Southern cooking.

To Edna Lewis, southern cooking was more than just shrimp and grits.

Very vocal about her fear of classic Southern cooking and its methods becoming extinct, Lewis saw that “Southern soul food” was gaining a reputation for being monolithic. Fried chicken, collard greens, ham hocks, and macaroni and cheese were not the only dishes she wanted to be known for, and her mission was to show that the cuisine of Southern Black America was more expansive than a protein on a bed of grits.

Through her writings, she worked to bring emphasis to the fact that country cooking relied heavily on regional farming and seasonal availability. She was a champion of fresh and foraged ingredients and focused on showing that Black American cooking wasn’t just Southern and poor, as the narrative we’ve received surrounding it has been that it is of lower class.

To be included in the true definition of Southern soul food was also to mention the food and techniques brought from Africa with our ancestors. She redefined the term soul food as haute and elevated and worked tirelessly to spread this message through her writings, teachings, and by establishing the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food in the 1980s.  

She gained notoriety through her books.

Edna Lewis didn’t just cook. Throughout her life, she had a wide variety of careers, working as a seamstress and a teacher, raising pheasants, and campaigning for Franklin D. Rosevelt. Additionally, Lewis also ran a New York City cafe — Cafe Nicholson — that was frequented by legends such as Truman Capote, Marlene Dietrich, and Tennessee Williams. What brought her the most spotlight, however, was being an author.

Lewis authored four published works including The Edna Lewis Cookbook (1972), The Taste of Country Cooking (1976), In Pursuit of Flavor (1988), and The Gift of Southern Cooking (2003) — that latter of which was co-authored with Scott Peacock — leading her to many honors. From receiving the James Beard Living Legend Award and IACP’s Lifetime Achievement Award to officially being named grande dame by Les Dames d’Escoffier, Lewis’s contributions continue to make an impact today.

Wherever Edna Lewis went, she brought the South with her.

Growing up in rural Virginia gave Edna Lewis her roots in Southern food. At the ripe age of 16, she left Freetown and moved to Washington, D.C., eventually landing in New York by the time she was 30. Before migrating herself, though, she and others from her hometown would package and ship farm-fresh ingredients to friends and family living in the north needing a taste of home.

When it was her turn to receive care packages, Edna’s sister would send canned watercress with her cornmeal, which safely transported her eggs nestled within. Hosting New York dinners with ingredients she sourced and lugged back from her Virginia home town, the prolific cook wanted everyone to have a taste of the country cooking she knew. And, of course, she wanted everyone to love it as much as she did.

Her pan-fried chicken is legendary.

Edna Lewis’ pan-fried chicken was known to impress. Her cooking method, although it takes a lot of unattended time, produces the most delicious and flavorful fried chicken. Her recipe calls for an overnight salt brine, followed by a second brine of buttermilk. But the infusion doesn’t stop there. 

The oil for frying should include not only lard, but also a half-cup of country ham as well as a full stick of butter. And for the final component, it gets fried in a cast iron skillet — because everyone knows everything tastes better when it’s cooked in a seasoned cast iron pan.

Edna Lewis was featured on a postage stamp.

On September 26, 2014, the United States Postal Service (USPS) released a sheet of limited-edition Celebrity Chef Forever Stamps featuring five chefs who challenged America’s understanding of food and cooking

Joining the likes of James Beard, Julia Child, Joyce Chen, and Edward (Felipe) Rojas-Lombardi, the stamps debuted at the 2014 Chicago Gourmet Food and Wine Celebration and further cemented the revolutionary impact Lewis has had on the industry.