Black History Month Spotlight: Chef Edna Lewis
Black History Month gives us an opportunity to recognize and celebrate the achievements of Black Americans from all segments of society and culture – entertainment, science, art, education, music … and culinary. Today, we honor the legacy of Chef Edna Lewis, the Grande Dame of Southern Cooking.
Edna Lewis was born in Freetown, Virginia, in 1916. Her grandparents were the formerly enslaved founders of the freedmen’s agricultural community where she was born and raised. Her early life was characterized by a commitment to food in all its phases: growing, foraging, harvesting, and cooking.
‘‘Our mother was an excellent cook,’’ Lewis’s younger sister, Ruth Lewis Smith, told The New York Times in 2015. ‘‘Our Aunt Jennie was an excellent cook. A lot of our family went to Washington, D.C., to work as cooks. When they came home, they all learned from each other.’’
When her father died, Edna Lewis joined the Great Migration north to New York City. Her culinary career took off in 1951, at the height of the Jim Crow era, when she opened Café Nicholson in Manhattan’s East Side. Her restaurant had a limited menu and was a smashing success among cultured celebrities, from Tennessee Williams to Eleanor Roosevelt. Lewis was regal and beautiful, with a commanding if gentle presence and the mindful cooking style she learned on her farm in Freetown was often compared to French cuisine. She won the admiration of a senior editor at Knopf Publishing House who wanted to turn America’s culinary attention to its own roots. Lewis’ first cookbook, The Edna Lewis Cookbook, was published in 1972, but it was 1976’s The Taste of Country Cooking that put her on the map. Country Cooking captured Lewis’ distinctive voice and style while teaching legions of followers about American food’s relationship to the seasons. It was also among the first popular cookbooks that celebrated and revered its Black author, standing in subversive opposition to predecessors where recipes of domestic workers were recorded by white employers who tended to underrepresent the contribution of Black cooks. Country Cooking was an instant hit and inspired American chefs to embrace the South’s philosophy of cooking with the seasons. One of those chefs was Alice Waters, who credits Lewis with revolutionizing her thinking about farm-to-table cooking.
She even inspired our chefs.
“I had the pleasure of working with Edna Lewis three times in my life,” said FLIK corporate division chef Michael Lemon. “To say I was starstruck would be an understatement. Something as simple as making biscuits was terrific. I have all of her books, and every last one of them is my go-to book when I’m creating a memorable meal.”
And our home cooks.
“Edna Lewis changed my life, and I love her so much,” said Entrepreneurial Council member and bona fide Southerner Julie Nattis. “Her cookbooks taught me to love cooking the food I grew up eating, and I’ve never been the same. I’m not even a great cook! But I love to eat the foods that connect me to home, and she made it possible for me to do that from my very own garden and in my very own kitchen.”
Edna Lewis’ mastery in Southern cuisine was held in such high esteem that she is featured in the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, along with chefs Hercules, Patrick Clark, Leah Chase and Joe Randall.
Our dish honoring the Grand Dame of Southern Cooking was selected by Chef Lemon, who chose to feature Lewis’ signature dish: Brunswick stew. There are competing claims to the origin of Brunswick stew. Some believe it is from the Georgia lowcountry; others believe it originated in Edna Lewis’ childhood home of Virginia, and it also has roots in ancient indigenous traditions. But one thing is for certain: Brunswick stew is a dish well suited to cooking whatever ingredients a cook might have had on hand. It typically includes one or more kinds of game along with a variety of garden vegetables like corn, lima beans and okra.
“Whatever you had, you put in the stew and you made a meal out of it,” said Chef Lemon about Lewis’ signature stew. “Edna Lewis took that to the next level by popularizing the dish for wider audiences than just home cooks, making it one of America’s favorite comfort foods.”
Brunswick Stew, Braised Chicken & Pork
There are competing claims to the origin of Brunswick stew. Some believe it is from the Georgia lowcountry; others believe it originated in Edna Lewis’ childhood home of Virginia, and it also has roots in ancient indigenous traditions. But one thing is for certain: Brunswick stew is a dish well suited to cooking whatever ingredients a cook might have had on hand. It typically includes one or more kinds of game along with a variety of garden vegetables like corn, lima beans and okra.
|1/2 tsp. black pepper|
|3 lb. chicken thigh, bone-in, skin on|
|8 oz. pork shoulder, diced|
|1 sm. yellow onion, sliced|
|1/2 tsp. thyme leaves, crumbled|
|1 qt. 2 c. water|
|16 oz. canned tomatoes, diced in juice|
|1 c. frozen lima beans|
|1 1/2 c. potatoes, peeled & diced|
|8.5 oz. frozen corn kernels|
|1 tbsp. fresh parsley, chopped|
|1 1/2 tsp. salt|
- Put the chicken and pork into an 8-10 quart pot with the onion and thyme. Cover with water and bring to a simmer -- do not let the liquid boil. Simmer for 2.5 hours.
- Add in the tomatoes, lima beans, potatoes & black pepper. Cover and simmer gently for about 30 minutes. Add in the corn and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. If the stew becomes too thick, add a little water.
- When ready to serve, swirl in the parsley and enjoy!
Interested in reading more about FLIK's celebration of Black History Month? Check out related posts here:
- A Path Forward
- FLIK x Black History Month: On Rice & Roots
- Black History Month Spotlight: Chef Hercules Posey
- How Black Chefs Shaped American Cuisine
- Black History Month Spotlight: Chef Leah Chase
- The Culture of Food as Medicine
- Black History Month Spotlight: Chef Patrick Clark
- The Story of Soul Food
- Black History Month Spotlight: Chef Joe Randall
- Edna Lewis and the Black Roots of American Cooking, by Francis Lam for The New York Times
- Herstory, the Edna Lewis Foundation
- Inductee: Chef Edna Lewis, African American Chefs Hall of Fame
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