April 13, 1916 – February 13, 2006
“the perfect representation of African American History, and also the American Dream”
All great food tells a story. The smells describe a region; the ingredients describe a people. A dinner is often the remnants of a struggle for life—the price of putting love onto a plate. So how does one woman tell the story of America with lard, butter, and country ham?
To discover the answer, one cannot just comb through the pages of African American chef Edna Lewis’s cookbooks, but must truly taste the gold it describes. The tales she told with food that earned her the title of the “Grande Dame of Southern Cooking,” and even “the South’s answer to Julia Child,” but when she was born in 1916, she was simply the granddaughter of a freed slave living in Freetown, Virginia. Back then, cooking was not a profession to her but a way of life. It connected community members to each other and as well as the land.
Lewis came from a family of great cooks. They cooked according to the season and used the recipes that were developed by black chefs from the plantations. Lewis took in all she could, and in 1932, followed the Great Migration north to New York City. She worked as a domestic, doing odd jobs here and there, and while in the epicenter of the “New Negro,” she hosted dinner parties for her friends. It was through this that she met Johnny Nicholson, an antiques dealer who was opening a restaurant. He gave her the chance to be the head chef at Café Nicholson, and she quickly became a supreme name in New York’s culinary scene. She served southern meals the likes of Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and William Faulkner, but she left after only five years. She returned home to the South.
Her life became dedicated to becoming a champion of Southern cuisine and establishing it as a true artform. She sought to show the world that chicken was a canvas that could be painted with a skillet and fats to become a masterpiece, that it had far more to offer than the deep-fried, greased mound most of us are familiar with today—and she did. Lewis’s food tastes of passion and dignity. There is a pride in her past that represents the cherished qualities of all that is America. What does it mean to be American? Look down at your plate.
ReflectionOn Edna Lewis’ legacy:
I found out about Ms. Lewis from watching the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table (you should totally check it out). It was an episode about a southern black female chef named Mashama Bailey. She is the head chef at The Grey restaurant in Savannah, Georgia. At one point in the episode, she beings to discuss the connection that African Americans have with the food in the south. She spoke about it being more than a meal—it was community. Later in the episode, Bailey spoke about the different chefs that inspired her. She named a few, but the one that stuck out was Edna Lewis. Bailey said that Lewis showed the world that Southern cooking could be “gourmet,” and that a piece of fried chicken could be just as prestigious as foie gras. I quickly googled Lewis, ordered her first cookbook, and began reading. Her story was everything to me. It was more than remarkable. It was American. It was the story of Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, Henry Frick, and even Walt Disney. It was an outsider making a name for themselves in a country that did not want them.This is why I chose Lewis. To me, she was the perfect representation of African American History, but also the American Dream. She was the granddaughter of a freed slave and she rose to become one of the most famous American chefs ever to have lived. She came from nothing, which proves the fact that history does not begin in a vacuum. Lewis struggled to get where she was. She was not born the most famous Southern cook. She embodies the dream of so many minorities in this country, also she was a woman, and not a lot of people discuss women making something great of themselves. Men steal a lot of the glory, but women do so many amazing things. The farther I get into academia, the more I realize that fact to be true. Another reason I think she relates to Black History Month is because she is a huge part of African American history, but people do not know about her, so in this month of reflection, I want her story to be shared. A woman who paved a way for so many black chefs after her deserves to be recognized.
I also think her story is an example of how African American history is entwined with American history (the idea that we discussed in class). Edna Lewis is not simply a black chef; she is an American chef. She helped establish a truly American cuisine, that was developed by slaves in the households of rich white people. Soul food (a term that Lewis separated herself with, but has, nonetheless, became the name we refer to it today) has become synonymous with American food. It is truly American, and Lewis revived it and made it art. Our country owes her a debt, and her efforts must be respected as not just African American, but American.