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ORANGE, Va. – The first time Denise Thompson heard about Edna Lewis, the Black American chef who helped illuminate Southern cuisine, it was from a regular customer at her restaurant, Coopers Cookin’ and Catering.
“Your food reminds me so much of her,” the customer told Thompson. “Are you sure you’re not related to her?”
“I don’t even know this lady,” Thompson recalled thinking.
Lewis, a revered figure in culinary circles who was born and raised nearby, is still not a household name, despite decades of contributions to the food world. Yet when the customer returned to Coopers with some literature, a U.S. postage stamp with Lewis’ likeness and two of her cookbooks, Thompson recognized something very familiar.
Thompson (née Cooper) and her cousin, Phillip Cooper, had started their restaurant in 2020 as a tribute to their family, in particular her mother, Mildred Cooper. Mildred raised 15 of her own children and numerous others, while also running a small side business selling food to rail and factory workers.
“I read up on [Lewis] and looked at her cookbooks and just some of the recipes,” Thompson said. “You know, my mom used to do it the same way.”
Soon after that discovery, Thompson was approached by her local economic board. They were planning an Edna Lewis menu trail at restaurants nearby in honor of the 50th anniversary of her first cookbook, running from Thanksgiving 2022 to Memorial Day.
Thompson leapt at the chance to add Lewis’ dishes to her menu – curried chicken, apple pie and quiche Lorraine. Items that would be true to Coopers, her mother and Lewis.
“I think the recipes, it’s just, as I would say, so genuine.”
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Wild pheasant, roast quail or the chicken curry that Thompson is dishing up (with rice and a roll on the side) is not what many picture when they think of Black American cuisine.
It’s not a fluke that in a 2017 episode of the reality cooking show “Top Chef,” one of the challenges was to cook a dish inspired by Edna Lewis – and several of the chefs did not know who she was. Yet her contributions are undeniable.
Over the course of her career, Lewis both preserved the traditions of regional Southern cooking and reshaped the way people thought about it. Her genre-defining cookbook celebrated heritage but also possibility.
“I think of Lewis as the single-most important figure in American regional cuisine, both as an historian, but obviously also as a writer,” said Sara Franklin, a food scholar whose first book was a collection of essays about the chef and author.
While the menu trail commemorates “The Edna Lewis Cookbook,” it was “Taste of Country Cooking,” her landmark 1975 book, that made Lewis famous. Part history, part recipes, it describes Lewis’ childhood, the lives of the people in her community, their ties to the land and each other, as well as how different foods became available and were prepared as the seasons changed.
“I think she, unlike many cookbook writers of her era, really branched those categories of history; of writing as a lyrical literary form; and food. And she was really one of the first to put all three into a book together,” Franklin said.
The innovation of “Taste of Country Cooking” did not end there. Unlike other cookbooks that categorized their recipes by ingredients or course, Lewis organized hers chronologically, connecting to the changing seasons and the cycle of life. She celebrated food that came straight from the terroir of Central Virginia into the kitchen and onto plates.
There’s a tendency to conflate Black American food with soul food, which reveals a bigger misunderstanding about food from the South, said Ashanté Reese, assistant professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
“I think all the times when people talk about African American cuisine, they’re really thinking about soul food. They think about the things that people see on TV are actually what many of us experience, like the collard greens, fried chicken, mac and cheese, cornbread,” Reese said.
“I think that is definitely a part of African American cuisine. But I think what that does is, it kind of constrains the imagination and limits us to thinking that Black food equals soul food, which is not necessarily the only culinary tradition,” Reese said.
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Lewis was shaped by her agrarian upbringing, as well as the cosmopolitan and political life she forged for herself. Born in 1916 in Freetown, Virginia, she moved to New York City as a teen. She worked as a seamstress, once making a dress for Marilyn Monroe, and a typesetter for the Daily Worker, a communist newspaper. She and her husband, Steve Kingston, never missed the evening news, Franklin said, and she later served as a docent at the American History Museum. Lewis became co-owner and chef of the bohemian Cafe Nicholson, and ran a catering business that prepared food for New York’s well-to-do — including Marlon Brando, playwright Tennessee Williams and Eleanor Roosevelt — before she decided to try her hand at a cookbook.
According to Franklin, Lewis’ correspondence with her editor, Judith Jones – who also championed Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” – shows a conscious effort to set down on paper the life of Black, independent communities that had been neglected by history and whose living memory was in danger of disappearing.
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“She goes back to Virginia and she goes to the historical societies for the first time in her life,” Franklin said. “She sees not only what kind of records are there, but what’s missing, which has a huge amount to do with the kind of urgency that she feels about telling that story that, at the time, had not been told.”
Freetown, Lewis writes in the introduction of “Taste,” “wasn’t really a town.”
“The name was adopted because the first residents had all been freed from chattel slavery and they wanted to be known as a town of Free People,” she wrote. Granted to Lewis’ grandfather by a plantation owner, the land is about 10 miles outside the town of Orange in the Piedmont region of Virginia, not far from Montpelier and Monticello, the slaveholding residences of Presidents James Madison and Thomas Jefferson respectively.
On an early spring morning, Bruce Monroe is reading old wills at a long table covered in an ivory cloth, the bookshelves behind him filled with old records at the Orange County Historical Society. His organization, the Orange County African American Historical Society, of which he is president, does not yet have its own office.
There are few records detailing the lives of enslaved Black Americans, Monroe notes. Wills left by white slaveholders are sometimes the only evidence of genealogy.
Monroe himself grew up in another nearby town settled by freed enslaved people. Not unlike like Lewis’ family, his parents and their seven children farmed and managed to feed themselves by raising crops and livestock on only one acre.
“We raised animals, chickens. We had a garden, fruit trees, we grew herbs. You know, it was most of the major food that we ate was produce,” Monroe said.
How was all this harvest possible? “Seven kids,” he simply answers.
In her book, Lewis focuses on the self-sufficiency of the community and the mutual aid residents provided each other, leaving an impression that, while there may not have been wealth in Freetown, there was also a lack of want. She rarely mentions, say, the selling of farm goods.
The truth was more complicated, Franklin says.
“They attempted self-sufficiency, but they never achieved it. Almost all of the Black women in Freetown went and worked in white households as domestics,” Franklin said, something Monroe recalls from his own childhood growing up near Orange.
This reality – Black domestic workers preparing food to the taste and style dictated by their white employers – also informed the Black cuisine of the region, including what Lewis and her family cooked and ate.
In the case of the women of Freetown, that meant “learning, cooking under a deeply French-influenced tradition that was highly, highly specific to Orange County in the Piedmont region of Virginia,” Franklin said.
Monroe still farms in the county, though many of his siblings have moved away. As did many of the residents of Freetown and other descendants of enslaved people who joined the Great Migration, seeking greater economic and educational opportunity outside the South as part of one of the largest movements of people in the history of the United States.
The movement was not only from the South to other parts of the country, it was also largely from rural areas to cities. With them they brought their culture, including their food.
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“Taste of Country Cooking” is written as a sort of diary, with storytelling and recipes unspooling from an early spring dinner of mutton, to be eaten after a long winter with the first wild asparagus harvested from alongside their fence. It ends in winter, with popcorn made on a charcoal fire and eaten with butter or sugar, or strung together and colored as decoration for a Christmas tree.
The book is an “elegy” to Freetown, Franklin said. Likewise, the Lewis who was writing in the ‘70s is not the little girl she depicts herself as in the book – her point of view had also changed.
“She’s writing from decades of distance. And Freetown as a place has ceased to exist. Geographically, it’s still there, but the community is completely disconnected, including all of her siblings,” she said.
What else influenced her? At the time, the United States was preparing to celebrate its bicentennial, noted Franklin, and “thinking about how we look back over 200 years and what hasn’t been reckoned with.”
Black arts and culture in the ‘60s and ‘70s also played a role. Outside of cooking, Lewis was known for the Africa-inspired print dresses she tailored for herself.
“She’s writing in conversation with other artists and thinkers who are talking about Black culture in earnest, in concert,” Franklin said.
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She argues that “Taste of Country Cooking” can also be read as an anti-capitalist book, that the land the people of Freetown lived on was not just theirs to exploit but also care for so that it could be given to future generations.
“I think that’s another mode of resistance to the capitalist economy, to the white capitalist economy, to production of aggregations and accumulations of wealth,” Franklin said. “But also she’s kind of showing off her communist stripes a little bit there. Certainly her socialism. Her sense that people are meant to take care of one another and take care of the land and they can’t just sort of run roughshod all over it.”
And then of course there is the transfer of skills and knowledge repeated between Black cooks on countless plantations and in white kitchens for hundreds of years and even after the end of slavery – a legacy Franklin said has been neglected by history. This influence goes beyond the skills that originated with James Hemings, French-trained cook of Thomas Jefferson, and includes adaptations honed by other Black chefs, including Lewis.
“To suggest that it is just a straight French influence suggests that Black folks learned it and then they didn’t do anything with it, that it was static or stagnant, that they just were repeating what was taught to them,” Franklin said.
Lewis was using French technique but adjusting and applying them to local ingredients, including the wild plants and animals found in the forests and fields of the Piedmont.
Thompson believes that soul food is Black food “but it goes beyond it.” She doesn’t necessarily consider the food she grew up with and now serves to be soul food.
“I don’t use that too often. I use ‘home cooking’ because that’s what I feel that we have here, like Southern, home cooking,” Thompson said.
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Adaptation is something Chef Zack Andrews knows well. Across town from Denise Thompson at Coopers, his restaurant Spoon & Spindle is also participating in the Edna Lewis Menu Trail. His dishes include a few twists on a Lewis recipe for pheasant, a familiar item in Freetown despite its reputation.
“While many city dwellers may seem to think pheasant is only served under glass, for country folk it was a way of life. In the fall, while harvesting the corn, we would come upon a variety of game feasting on fallen grains of corn. We always carried the rifle, hoping to return to the house at night with a bagful,” Lewis writes in “Taste of Country Cooking.”
Whole pheasant is pricey for a restaurant to source in 2023 and hard to sell on a menu for one or two diners because of its large size. So Andrews adapted the dish to roast quail. While Lewis prepares her pheasant aged, hung “in a cold place in the feather,” with butter and thyme, Andrews stuffs his quail with wild rice and grapes, served with a blueberry soubise (a French onion sauce).
For Andrews, taking a dish and adding tweaks to it while staying true to its Southern roots is itself a tribute to Lewis.
“She was able to take [Southern cuisine] to New York City and all these other places and really kind of showcase what was happening in the South on a grand scale,” Andrews said.
“That’s really why we called the dish Quail Lewis, and if we’re going to call it Quail Lewis then it’s got to be good.”
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Lewis returned to the South and continued to write and cook late into her life. But her prominence began to fade among the general public even as other chefs became famous for their farm-to-table cooking and Southern cooking went through waves of trendiness.
“I think race, gender and class always are important, no matter if it’s about who’s elevated or who’s not elevated,” Reese said.
Geography also matters. Though, according to Reese, Lewis and the chef and restaurateur Alice Waters did not have the same professional goals, the fact that Waters was in Northern California and Lewis in New York and later the South played a role in how Lewis would be regarded later.
“I think just geographically, large parts of California have been associated with foodie movements and sustainable movements,” Reese said. “I would say then the type of regional identity that developed in New York and then certainly the South, regardless of how much food is grown there, has really not been considered a part of that kind of farm-to-table identity.”
Lewis “lived through a period of seismic change” in the South and in America more generally, said John T. Edge, founder and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance. She also witnessed monumental changes in farming, he noted, which became mechanized as food became commodified and industrialized alongside it.
She and her collaborator and friend, Scott Peacock, founded the Society for the Preservation and Revitalization of Southern Food in the mid-’90s, following her retirement from cooking in 1992, according to the Edna Lewis Foundation. That organization was eventually folded into the Southern Foodways Alliance, which has for more than two decades worked to document and explore the South’s wide range of ever-evolving food cultures.
“What [Lewis and Peacock] were attempting to do was to focus our attention on something they deemed valuable, and scarce in, and at risk,” he said of their vision.
Memory can be scarce when it comes to the many Black cooks who did not get all the credit they were due.
“It’s hard to even conceive of American cuisine without the ingenuity, care, and improvisation of Black people. I can’t even imagine it,” Reese said.
“What would it look like if America really appreciated Black contributions to food? What does it look like if people actually appreciated Black people, period,” she said. “There is no American anything without Black people.”
When Monroe at the historical society recounted a dinner he had with Lewis’ sister, nephews and nieces, his smile gets a little bigger.
“One of her nephews, he said, ‘I want you all to know that Edna wasn’t the best cook in the family,’” Monroe said.
“Edna is a gem to us because she represents the Black women of that time and their contributions. But she had the platform to where she could actually explain it and practice it. So a lot of Ednas are out there.”
Near the door of Coopers, one of the first things you see as you walk in and the last thing as you walk out is a wall dedicated to the “matriarchs” of the Cooper family, the women who grew and cooked the food whose recipes are now on the restaurant’s menu. At the very top is Thompson’s mother, Mildred Cooper, with the words:
“Every family has a story, welcome to ours.”
Bella Isaacs-Thomas contributed reporting.