“She was just waiting for me to find her.” That’s how Mashama Bailey, The Grey’s award-winning chef described the legendary Edna Lewis last night. At a five course Charleston Wine + Food dinner at Alhambra Hall honoring one of the nation’s most significant chefs, Bailey along with The Jemima Code author Toni Tipton Martin, A Chef’s Life star Vivian Howard, and historian and professor Jessica B. Harris explained the imprint Lewis had on their lives and culinary work.
It was all in celebration of editor Sara B. Franklin’s new compilation of essays, Edna Lewis, At the Table with an American Original in which numerous writers including, Howard and Bailey, along with John T. Edge, Michael Twitty, Kim Severson and more reflect on this remarkable woman.
And she was remarkable. Lewis is often referred to as “Julia Child of Southern Cuisine.” She was born in 1919 in Freetown, Va. built by emancipated slaves. The self reliant group grew all their produce and food was central to the community. Her childhood their would set the foundation for her culinary career later in life. Lewis moved to New York City where she worked as an in demand seamstress, sewing clothes for Marilyn Monroe and Doe Avedon before becoming the chef at Cafe Nicholson. According to Francis Lam’s 2015 profile on Lewis, “The restaurant was a smash.”
A serendipitous meeting with Knopf editor Judith Jones — the same woman who edited Julia Child’s famed ‘‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking” — led to Lewis publish “The Taste of Country Cooking.’’ She made her South Carolina debut at Middleton Place in 1986 where she served as chef for three years.
But that’s just a timeline of her life. What Lewis left behind in her writing is what last night’s chefs can’t shake off. Her prose and recipes have shaped how they approach Southern cooking today. “Because of her I cook how I cook and because of her I’m inspired to cook especially in the South,” said Bailey who served an incredible braised lamb.
For Howard — who dished up the second course: grits with stewed run-ups, air-dried sausage, and pimento relish — discovering Lewis helped her find her voice as a chef.
“I did not who Edna Lewis was until I was maybe 30. My husband and I moved from New York back to my small hamlet of a community in Eastern North Carolina. I was really ashamed of what I grew up eating. Just really simple stuff. When we moved back I was trying to cook goat cheese ravioli with tomato petals and it was working because no one in the area was cooking anything so they were happy with the tomato petals,” said Howard. “But my husband was really frustrated because he worked on the floor and I was cooking other people’s food and not making an effort to search inside myself for what I really wanted to cook.” Ben Knight, Howard’s husband then went on Amazon and ordered dozens of Southern cookbooks.
“I’m like Ben, you’re a Jewish guy from Chicago, I don’t need you to share with me my culinary heritage,” Howard joked. But lo and behold “The Taste of Country Cooking” was in the pile and it caught Howard’s attention. “The first page of it identified her place and I could relate to that. I read it. It read like a book … to see something so unusual as ‘The Taste of Country Cooking’ really drew me in. What Ms. Lewis did for me is she let me know that the humble food I grew up eating was actually really special and worthy of being exalted in a restaurant like the one we have in Eastern North Carolina and I’m not sure I would have understood that without her book.”
For Tipton Martin, “Edna Lewis’ work allowed me to reflect on … my upbringing because she spoke eloquently of being different. She did not fit the mold that everyone had slotted for her in terms of what an African American woman in the kitchen looked like.”
Martin still holds dear a letter she received from Lewis before her passing where she told the author who was then deep in researching The Jemima Code, a book dedicated to revealing the culinary impact of African American female chefs. Lewis wrote her, “Leave no stone unturned to prove this point.’’
Scholar Jessica B. Harris closed out the evening’s panel addressing her personal relationship with Ms. Lewis. “I’ve eaten her food as cooked by her on numerous occasions and that informed my tastes of her food which were very much familial to me in the way that my mother did Virginia cooking,” explained Harris. In fact, it was Harris who escorted the chef to the stage the day she accepted an award from Les Dames D’Escoffier.
“When I took her to the podium and we held hands an locked hands and I looked at her hand and it was my grandmother’s hand. She had the same complexion and skin tone of my grandmother.”
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