February is the month we acknowledge and celebrate with special intention the abundant sacrifices, contributions, and achievements of Black Americans in this country. From the most heralded icons to the folks we see everyday, Black people are essential to the culture and vibrancy of America. Baltimore Hunger Project amplifies Black history as American history.
As BHP works daily to feed bodies and minds, in February, we invite our community to learn with us our country’s rich culinary history through the Black Americans who generated American food culture. Each Tuesday in February, we will share with you and explore the work of Black American chefs and culinary historians to expand our knowledge of Black American history and culture. If you desire to purchase a book, choose a Black-owned bookstore!
Our first highlight is the Grand Dame of Southern cooking Edna Lewis (April 13, 1916- February 13, 2006). Lewis combined her love of food and her knowledge of African American history to teach others about the cultural value of Southern cuisine.
As one of eight children, Lewis lived in a small community of emancipated slaves in rural Freetown, Virginia. Lewis learned how to cook without modern appliances and grocery stores. Instead, she was taught how to grow, forage and harvest ingredients, to cook in wood stoves and keep food fresh with the help of wells and streams. “If someone fell ill, the neighbors would go in and milk the cows, feed the chickens, clean the house, cook the food and come and sit with whoever was sick. I guess rural life conditioned people to cooperate with their neighbors,’’ Lewis told documentarian Phil Audibert in 1984.
Lewis left Freetown as a teenager, joining the Great Migration north. In New York City, she first found work as a seamstress. Her skillful copies of African American inspired dresses drew a following among New York’s fashion icons, including Marilyn Monroe and Doe Avedon. She was also introduced to restaurateur and entrepreneur John Nicholson, who hired her to be the head chef at his French bistro, Cafe Nicholson in 1949. Lewis’s roast chicken, mussels in delicate broth, lightly dressed green salads and cheese and chocolate soufflés received high praise, attracting socialites like Eleanor Roosevelt, William Faulkner and Marlo Brown.
Lewis left Cafe Nicholson after three years to continue to build her brand as a chef and private caterer. Once she had earned industry recognition, Lewis published her first cookbook in 1972, The Edna Lewis Cookbook, which she co-authored with socialite Evangeline Peterson. Lewis’ next cookbooks–– The Taste of Country Cooking in 1976, followed by In Pursuit of Flavor in 1988 and The Gift of Southern Cooking in 2003–– was created in collaboration with legendary culinary editor Judith Jones ( she had previously edited cookbooks for Julia Child and James Beard). The Taste of Country Cooking is perhaps Lewis’ most acclaimed book. Though the book includes refined and nuanced Southern recipes, it is also a culinary memoir sharing the story of Lewis’ childhood in Virginia and the community born out of her food.
Meanwhile, Lewis continued to cook professionally, heading the kitchens at Fearrington House in North Carolina, Middleton Place in South Carolina and Gage & Tollner in New York. She has received numerous awards for her culinary expertise, including an honorary Ph.D. in Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales University in 1996 James Beard Living Legend Award in 1999. Lewis passed away from cancer in 2006, a few months before her 90th birthday.
The Edna Lewis Foundation seeks to “honor and extend her legacy by creating opportunities for African Americans in the field of cooking, agriculture, food studies, and storytelling.” The foundation primarily funds scholarships to help aspiring African American culinary professionals advance their careers. Scholars receive funding for school tuition, apprenticeships, fees for workshops and travel expenses related to their culinary pursuits. They are also assigned a mentor who is an accomplished professional in their field of interest. For example, 2020 recipient Orlando Johnson has used his scholarship to support the maintenance of Gray’s Manor Farm, a black-owned sustainable permaculture farm and wellness center in Maryland.
In the 15 years since Lewis’ passing, black chefs have continued to show us the rich history and influences that black cooks have had on American food. The BHP can’t wait to teach you about all the chefs following Lewis’ legacy!
Jessica Kaplan, Bucknell University Class of 2021, Intern