Agricultural advancements of the 50s and 60s might have liberated many urban city dwellers from their home kitchens, but the encouragement to eat more processed, “soul-less” food made Chef Edna Lewis’ Freetown, Virginia blood boil.
Many chefs tried desperately to keep their Southern cooking heritage a dirty hidden secret in favor of the flavors inspired by french cooking and other cuisines. But not Chef Lewis. Her proudly down-home dishes ushered in offers she couldn’t refuse.
Lewis became head chef and part business owner to New York’s Cafe Nicholson - where diners like Eleanor Roosevelt, actor Paul Robeson, playwright Tennessee Williams, and more were all raving fans from their first bite.
This was a huge achievement considering de facto segregation and sexism was alive and well up North. But her most enduring impact on top chefs of elite kitchens came later.
In 1976, her cookbook "The Taste Of Country Cooking" (and 1988’s "In Pursuit Of Flavor") emphasized using ripe, in-season, locally-sourced produce (before it was trendy to do so), freshly butchered meats, and key ingredients: patience and love for one's community.
Above all, Chef Lewis, wrapped in her favorite African fabrics and gliding through recipes with regal flair, preached a deep reverence for the dishes prepared by the hands of Black people.