Chef spotlight: Edna Lewis

Sara Nigohosyan celebrates the widely influential Southern American chef, Edna Lewis

Sara Nigohosyan
25th July 2020
Image: ciasamin - Instagram

The contribution of black culture to our modern kitchens as we know them is undeniable, but to what extent are we informed on how much we have benefitted from it?

Edna Lewis is one of the most influential figures when it comes to memorializing Southern American cuisine and popularizing it, whilst also incorporating her deep knowledge of African American food culture into her cookbooks. Her famous books, The Edna Lewis Cookbook (1972), The Taste of Country Cooking (1976), and In Pursuit of Flavor (1988) immortalized the culture behind Southern kitchen and popularized it among the general public. Combining the appreciation for this subgenre of cuisine with African American heritage, her books have a unique feel and make her the first African American woman to have published a cookbook under her real identity. Before her, many women of colour would have to use pseudonyms to be allowed to write or even publish books. 

Being one of the few female chefs, and even fewer black female chefs in the US, Edna became a local legend

Lewis’ ambition helped her move out to the Big Apple and become integrated into New York’s elite. After meeting John Nicholson, a high society antique dealer, the two of them opened their own restaurant in East Manhattan. Café Nicholson quickly became a popular place which attracted famous personages such as Truman Capote, Marlon Brando, Salvador Dali, Eleanor Roosevelt, Greta Garbo, and many more. Lewis would do all the cooking in her own restaurant, serving the simple, but delicious, Southern dishes she had been raised with. Being one of the few female chefs, and even fewer black female chefs in the US, Edna became a local legend and popular cuisinier. 

Edna’s determined nature made her a woman of many talents. Before diving into the professional world of food, she would work for the newspaper The Daily Worker and later would make clothes for celebrities such as Marylin Monroe and Doe Avedon. She would also be involved in politics, campaigning for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She would reap success in every venture of hers, which helped her gain valuable connections and become a known name. This hard work gave her the opportunity to become the success she is in the culinary world. 

Image: kinfolk on Instagram

After owning her own restaurant, which pushed the popularity of the Southern kitchen, and publishing three books which further made Southern dishes common in the United States and the rest of the world, Edna would move and work all across the country as a chef, spreading the culture of Southern food. She even started the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food with the aims to spread knowledge, remember, and reproduce the old and traditional ways of Southern cooking. 

Lewis’ legacy not only helped spread the knowledge and culture behind cooking Southern food, but she also paved the way for other women, and more specifically, women of colour, to be recognized in the fields of culinary culture. Having become a representative of female African American chefs, her hard work, ambition, and talent would lead not only to her personal success, but also to the acknowledgement of the importance of black culture in the world of food.

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