Throwback Thursday: Edna Lewis, the Julia Child of the South

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·Editor
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Edna Lewis
    American chef
  • Julia Child
    Julia Child
    American chef

During Yahoo Y’All week, we’re celebrating the food culture of the American South. Expect profiles of cooks, makers, and bartenders, plus recipes showcasing the classics (and twists on those classics) you love.

image

Photo credit: USPS

Are you acquainted with Edna Lewis?

You know, the chef and cookbook author who in her lifetime was hailed as “the South’s answer to Julia Child" and widely regarded as the person to put Southern cooking on the map in the 20th century. The granddaughter of an emancipated slave, she rose to prominence cooking for celebrities the likes of Marlon Brando, Marlene Dietrich, Tennessee Williams, Greta Garbo, Howard Hughes, Salvador Dali, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Truman Capote. In September, she was immortalized by the United States Postal Service on a Forever stamp alongside other culinary luminaries including Child, James Beard, Joyce Chen, and Felipe Rojas-Lombardi.

So, yeah. You should know her.

In life, Lewis enthralled her contemporaries, who hailed her homespun style of Southern cooking as downright legendary. Though she was closely associated with the South, her two most prominent cooking gigs were in New York City. The first, Café Nicholson, became world famous for Lewis’s airy chocolate soufflé. (Food writer Clementine Paddleford once described it as “light as a dandelion seed in a wind.”) Her second, at Southern-style restaurant Gage & Tollner, brought her to Brooklyn decades before modern “hipsters” ever took up residence in that borough. She cooked professionally there until her mid-70s, although she didn’t publish her fourth and final cookbook, The Gift of Southern Cooking, until the ripe old age of 87.

Lewis has continued to have a lasting influence even after her death in 2006, evident in younger chefs who have taken up the mantle of excellent Southern cooking. Not to mention her still-very-popular cookbooks, which many consider an essential part of any culinary library.

Here’s what both camps had to say about her:

Former New York Times food editor and critic Craig Claiborne, on her second cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking: “It may well be the most entertaining regional cookbook in America.”

Southern Foodways Alliance director John T. Edge, on her recipe for shrimp and grits: ”It’s just butter and shrimp, but it requires great butter and great shrimp, and a puddle of that over stone-ground grits… This pays homage to the frugal South, but it’s also worthy of damask dinner cloth.”

Publishing icon Judith Jones, Lewis’s longtime editor: “Edna taught me a lot about what I care about, human nature.”

Chef Scott Peacock, who helped Lewis author The Gift of Southern Cooking, and became her chief caregiver toward the end of her life: “Miss Lewis was the first person that ever just saw and accepted me. She saw the good and the bad, and maybe she saw someone who could see her, too. This is what I learned from her: The power comes around when you are just being exactly who you are.”

We miss you, Edna. We’ll be cooking up some shrimp and grits in your honor tonight.

Read up on more Southern-inspired fare here:
Boiled Peanuts, the Caviar of the South
What Is Jewish Southern Food?
Behind the Scenes at a Georgia Farm

Who inspires you in the kitchen? Let us know!