23: Edna Lewis, “Miss Lewis,” as she was known, was born in 1916 in a settlement known as Freetown, west of Charlottesville, Virginia. It had been founded by her grandfather and others after the Civil War. Her cooking skills came mainly from watching her Aunt Jenny cook. The farm kitchen was primitive. There weren’t things like measuring spoons, for instance. Ingredients like baking powder were measured on coins. The cooking was done open-hearth style, over a wood fire.
Miss Lewis next to one of the still-standing chimneys in Freetown, Virginia
After her father died, in the midst of the Great Depression, Edna, just 15, saw no future in staying on the farm. So when a couple of girls decided to head north, she went along. She landed first in Washington, where she was a cook at the Brazilian embassy. Then came New York. She tried various jobs, and was a competent seamstress. It’s said that she had sewn a dress for Marilyn Monroe. Along the way, she got a job typing for The Daily Worker, the communist party newspaper. Meanwhile, at house parties, Edna gained a reputation as a good cook.
Edna Lewis, 33, in 1949. She was tall (5’8”/5’9”) and had an elegant bearing.
She became acquainted with John Nicholson, an antiques dealer. In 1949, he decided to open a restaurant, and talked Edna into being the cook. The Café Nicholson, in a brownstone on E.52nd St., soon became a hit among the arts and letters crowd, especially among southern writers such as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote, who especially appreciated Edna’s down-home southern cooking.
The Café Nicholson, 1949, had a backyard garden. Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams are on the right. That’s almost certainly Edna in the background.
In a time when southern cooking was not well known in New York, female chefs were rare, and African American female chefs even more rare, it didn’t take long for Edna’s reputation to grow. In 1954, however, she left the restaurant at the urging of her husband, Steve Kingston, a communist, who thought it had become too bourgeois. They spent roughly the next twenty years, until his death, pursuing a variety of ventures such as catering, chef gigs in the Carolinas and elsewhere, and even running a pheasant farm.
In the 1970s, after a broken leg sidelined her in the kitchen, Edna began to write down her recipes. In 1976, her classic book, The Taste of Country Cooking was published. In it, she anticipates by 25-30 years the contemporary interest in food that’s fresh, local, and seasonal; in fact, the book’s recipes are organized around the four seasons.
She then returned to restaurant work, including a stint at Gage & Tollner, in Brooklyn. Gage’s was a fine restaurant from 1875-2004. Its interior was designated as a national historic landmark:
Miss Lewis didn’t “retire” until she was past 75, in 1992. Meanwhile, she was a founder of the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food. In 1988, she had met a young chef, Scott Peacock, and after her retirement, the two developed both a deep friendship and professional collaboration, ultimately living under the same roof. Peacock has said, “I was a success as a chef before Miss Lewis, but I was a failure as a human being.”
In her declining years, Peacock became her caretaker, something which did not please her adopted son and surviving siblings in Virginia, who tried to make their case in court to assume care for her, but failed.
Miss Lewis died in 2006, two months before her 90th birthday. A 22-minute documentary, “Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie,” completed just after her death, is definitely worth watching. She received pretty much every honor that the cooking world hands out, and was routinely called the “First Lady” “doyenne,” and “grande dame,” of southern cooking.
In 2008, Robbin Gourley published a children’s book about Miss Lewis, Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie.
In 2014, she was one of five chefs honored by the U.S. Postal Service with a commemorative stamp.