If you watched tonight’s Top Chef: Charleston, you know the episode was an ode to Edna Lewis (April 13, 1916 — February 13, 2006). The famed African American chef and author, known as the “Julia Child of Southern Cuisine,” was the executive chef at Middleton Place in the 1980s, and left a lasting legacy on chefs with her books and wisdom. In the words of Jemima Code author Toni Tipton-Martin, “Her words strengthened my resolve to celebrate the invisible women who fed America.”
That being the case for so many, it only made sense that Top Chef would honor the legend on this week’s episode which, of course, took place at Middleton Place. And for the occasion, both Tipton-Martin and Charleston’s current culinary grande dame, Nathalie Dupree, were both on set.
The two joined Gail Simmons, Art Smith, BJ Dennis, Irv Miller, Glenn Roberts, Hugh Acheson, Mashama Bailey, and Alexander Smalls on the plantation’s lawn for a meal (way too close to the swampy alligator pond) dedicated to Lewis.
But who really was Edna Lewis and what was she like? We reached out to Dupree and Tipton-Martin for their firsthand accounts.
“Edna was a lovely person. She was a very kind thoughtful person. I guess I met her in the ’70s or ’80s, somewhere in there. I drove to see her once when she was at Middleton Place. We had the same book editor,” says Dupree.
Lewis cut a striking figure and Dupree remembers how the chef, who was many years her senior, always caught attention whenever they met up.
“She was way before her time. She was very elegant. She had been a model, a seamstress, and she was ambitious. Edna left the farm and home when she was 16,” says Dupree. Lewis grew up in Freetown, Va., a community started by her grandfather, an emancipated slave. “She married a great intellectual — a communist — and she socialized in rarified circles and started cooking for this restaurant Cafe Nicholson in New York City. Then they hired her to do all the cooking. It was kind of a place that included a lot of writers and intellectuals and so forth” — the likes of Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote were regulars. “Most of them were Southern,” adds Dupree.
And the patrons loved Lewis’ cooking which Dupree describes as comfortable and non-threatening. “She was not a fancy cook that intimidated you, but she certainly had a good presentation and all those things as well,” says Dupree.
But above all, Lewis represented the under-represented. She was a woman who Tipton-Martin writes was an “affirming example of real, professional empowered, beautiful black chefs who helped me re-think the link between African American women and the jarring portrait of the South’s “old black Mammy.”
Lewis continues, “She went against the Mammy stereotype. First the obvious is she was this statuesque gazelle. She looked nothing like the depiction typically portrayed to disparage black women cooks.”
[embed-1] Lewis also added an intellectual quality to those women. “She helps us see grace associated with their cooking,” says Tipton-Martin.
Dupree, who met Lewis adds that Lewis was one of the first chefs to really articulate the need for local food and also to articulate the black experience. “There weren’t very many then who were writing about cooking within the black experience then,” says Dupree.
And her writings and recipes continue to inspire both women. “Do I have a favorite Edna recipe? Oh gee. Let me see. I loved her turnip greens and collared greens. She put a lot of fatback in them. She had them seasoned them perfectly,” says Dupree.
For Tipton-Martin it’s Lewis’ blackberry cobbler (something that so many Top Chef contestants tried to incorporate in their dishes on the episode) that stands out. But more than lasting recipes or flavors, for Tipton-Martin it’s Lewis’ legacy that endures.
Says Tipton-Martin, “Edna Lewis stands in the gap for all of the generations of African American women who worked on a plantation or were recorded in a negative and disparaging way.” Love Best of Charleston? Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.
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