Edna Lewis

June 1991

Food Arts presents its June 1991 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Edna Lewis, grand dame of Southern cooking.

Long before young chefs rediscovered and revitalized regional American cuisine, Edna Lewis was cooking the much-loved specialties of her native Virginia. Now 75, she is still producing her ethereal corn pudding, feather-light spoon bread and succulent pan-fried quail at the 112-year-old gaslit Brooklyn landmark restaurant, Gage & Tollner, where she has been chef for three years.

A one-woman culinary preservation society, Lewis is revered for protecting the endangered farm country cooking of the South, which is deeply ingrained in her though she has lived most of her adult life in New York City.

Like many young people whose imagination and talent propel them to the big city, Lewis had not yet turned 20 when she made the pilgrimage, though she never abandoned her culinary roots.

She started out in New York City designing clothes and fell into cooking by accident. Looking back on it, she traces her inspiration to an aunt "who lived up the path from us and was a great cook." Lewis grew up in Freetown, Virginia, a farming community founded by her grandfather and his friends after their emancipation.

"My aunt would be skimming the cream off yesterday's milk," Lewis remembers, "canning and preserving and making wine. She always had a pound cake on the sideboard in case someone dropped by unexpectedly. I still make that pound cake. I just loved the way she worked, but I wasn't planning on copying it.

"Then," Lewis continues, "when I came to New York and made all these friends, they liked my cooking. One night, at a part at my house, John Nicholson said, "I'm going to open a restaurant and you're going to be the cook.' " And so Lewis was chef at Café Nicholson for the next five years. Tennessee Williams lived across the street, took his morning coffee at the cafe and frequently walked Lewis home after work. William Faulkner came for dinner. Truman Capote was a customer and so was Carson McCullers.

Lewis married and tried her hand raising pheasants in new Jersey. Later she worked as a guest chef at The Fearrington House in North Carolina and Middleton Place plantation in South Carolina. Her cookbooks, The Taste of Country Cooking and In Pursuit of Flavor, both published by Alfred A. Knopf, are eloquent chronicles of American regional cooking. She also spent eight years working as a docent in the African Hall at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. "I find it helps your main job to do something else," she says.

Today, in addition to her main job, Lewis is working in Atlanta with young chefs to revive Southern food. "We talk about it," she says, "and we cook about it."