Lewis’s father died when she and her siblings were young, leaving her mother to care for a large family through the lean years of the Great Depression. Lewis left Freetown at age 16, later moving to Washington, D.C. and then to New York City. There, she briefly found work in a Brooklyn laundry (famously lasting only three hours at the ironing board before being summarily fired) and later as a seamstress. Her skillful copies of designer frocks and African-inspired dresses drew a following among New York’s fashion set, including Marilyn Monroe and Doe Avedon, and she went on to dress the windows of such elegant shops as Bonwit Teller. Immersed in the bohemian scene of postwar New York, she married Steve Kingston, a retired merchant who was active in the communist cause. She also met and befriended an eccentric antiques dealer and entrepreneur named Johnny Nicholson and, in 1949, took the helm of his newly opened East Side venture, Café Nicholson.
At Café Nicholson, Lewis earned praise for her fine preparations of such bistro favorites as roast chicken, mussels in delicate broth, lightly dressed green salads and cheese and chocolate soufflés. The restaurant attracted a tony crowd that included Eleanor Roosevelt, Marlon Brando, Gore Vidal and, notably, Southern writers like Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and William Faulkner. Using only muscle memory, Lewis prepared biscuits, pan-fried chicken and other comfort foods that reminded them of home.
Lewis left Nicholson in the 1950s and undertook a number of ventures, including running a pheasant farm with her husband and working as a caterer. Eventually she realized her dream of opening her own restaurant in Harlem, a short-lived establishment the name of which, strangely, none of her living family members can recall.
By then she had earned a name for herself, and in 1972, published her first book, The Edna Lewis Cookbook, which she co-authored with socialite Evangeline Peterson. A few years later, while laid up with a broken leg, Lewis decided to write another book. Around that time, she was introduced to legendary editor Judith Jones (whose list of culinary authors includes a veritable who’s who of modern American food writers including Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard, Claudia Roden and Madhur Jaffrey). It was a working relationship that resulted in the publication of The Taste of Country Cooking in 1976, followed by In Pursuit of Flavor in 1988 and The Gift of Southern Cooking, a collaboration between Lewis and her protégé and companion, Scott Peacock, in 2003. Meanwhile, she continued to cook professionally, helming the kitchen at such noted restaurants as Fearrington House in North Carolina, Middle Place in South Carolina and Gage and Tollner in Brooklyn.
Posthumous articles and food-world awards have tended to rehash the same hackneyed story of the black farm girl from the South translating her happy, autonomous childhood to the pages of cookbooks and onto the tables of fine-dining restaurants. In 2013, a one-woman show, Dinner with Edna Lewis, premiered at the Southern Foodways Alliance annual symposium in Oxford, Mississippi. In it, Lewis is portrayed as a slow-talking, gentle retiree with a thick Southern accent, gone soft around the hips and mired in nostalgia, remembering only her days as a girl in Virginia and then as a chef in the heart of bohemian New York.
“Aunt Edna wasn’t like that at all,” says Lewis’s niece, Nina Williams-Mbengue. “She had no Southern accent whatsoever, moved about 90 miles per hour, and talked kind of fast.” Williams-Mbengue remembers Lewis as a giggler, with a great sense of humor, but also shy, unassuming and humble. “She was politically astute,” Williams-Mbengue remembers. On Sundays, the family watched Meet the Press with the television set up on the dining table; no one was permitted to talk while the show was on. “Aunt Edna may have worked all day, but she’d pull a chair up to the TV and listen,” Williams-Mbengue recalls of the Watergate era, which coincided with the years in which Lewis was working on the manuscript for The Taste of Country Cooking.
Lewis was an utter perfectionist when it came to testing the recipes for her books, throwing away attempts that didn’t live up to her memories. Some recipes she only tested when she went back to Virginia to visit her sister Jenny, who lived on a farm not far from where Freetown had been. For others, she obsessively tracked down the freshest, most historically accurate ingredients she could find. She rode the subway from the South Bronx to the newly opened Greenmarket in Union Square, and once requested that her brother FedEx her a squirrel, so that she could refine a squirrel stew recipe. Lewis even had Jenny mail her pot ash to use in various culinary applications, Williams-Mbengue recalls. “Aunt Edna and my mom laughed about that for a long time,” she says. “They thought they might get arrested if someone mistook it for dope.”
Lewis worked well past the retirement age of most chefs. When she cooked at Gage and Tollner in Brooklyn in the ’90s, she would arrive at 7 in the morning and often work until 11 at night. “Other chefs couldn’t keep up with her,” Williams-Mbengue recalls, “and she was 75 years old.”