Posted: Feb 14, 2006 4:57 pm
one of my favorite chefs has died...
February 14, 2006
Edna Lewis, 89, Dies; Wrote Cookbooks That Revived Refined Southern Cuisine
By ERIC ASIMOV and KIM SEVERSON
Edna Lewis, the granddaughter of a former slave whose cookbooks revived the nearly forgotten genre of refined Southern cooking while offering a glimpse into African-American farm life in the early 20th century, died yesterday. She was 89.
Miss Lewis, as she was always called, died in her sleep in her home in Decatur, Ga., said Scott Peacock, her friend and caretaker. Mr. Peacock, a chef, had lived with Miss Lewis for more than six years, taking care of her as she grew frail.
Despite a quiet demeanor, Miss Lewis had a reach that extended from her family farm in Virginia, to left-wing politics in Manhattan to the birthplace of California cuisine.
Edna Lewis was born in a small settlement called Freetown in 1916, one of eight children. The farm had been granted to her grandfather, a freed slave. Growing, gathering and preparing food was more than just sustenance for the family; it was a form of entertainment. Without fancy cooking equipment, the family improvised, measuring baking powder on coins and cooking everything over wood.
In 1976, Miss Lewis turned the focused, close-to-nature cooking of her childhood into the second of her four books, "The Taste of Country Cooking" (Knopf). The book, considered a classic study of Southern cooking and one that sits on the shelves of America's best chefs, helped put an end to the knee-slapping, cornpone image of Southern food among many American cooks.
John T. Edge, the author and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, said that because of her devotion to educating a nation about the nuances of Southern cooking, there was no question that the group's first lifetime achievement award, in 1999, would go to Miss Lewis.
He pointed to her recipe for shrimp and grits, a Southern classic. "It's just butter and shrimp, but it requires great butter and great shrimp, and a puddle of that over stone-ground grits," he said. "This pays homage to the frugal South, but it's also worthy of damask dinner cloth."
Throughout her life, the politics of race and the swirl of New York drew Miss Lewis with a pull as strong as her Southern roots. She took a bus to New York when she was in her early 30's, eager for work but restricted by the racial attitudes of the times. An acquaintance found her a job in a laundry in Brooklyn, where she was assigned to an ironing board. She had never ironed and lasted three hours before a manager showed her to the door.
She sewed better than she ironed and was soon copying Dior dresses for Dorcas Avedon, then the wife of Richard Avedon. She made a dress for Marilyn Monroe, Mr. Peacock said, as well as the African-inspired dresses that became her signature.
In New York, she married Steve Kingston, a retired merchant seaman and a Communist. Shortly afterward, she became acquainted with John Nicholson, an antiques dealer who in 1949 decided to open a restaurant on the East Side of Manhattan. She became the cook, preparing cheese soufflés and roast chicken. Café Nicholson became an instant success among fashionistas, bohemians and artists.
She remained at the restaurant until the late 1950's, during which she and her husband would argue over its bourgeois character.
"He used to always say, 'This restaurant should be for ordinary people on the street. You're catering to capitalists,' " Mr. Nicholson said in an interview with The New York Times in 2004. "It was such a bore." Miss Lewis left Café Nicolson in 1954, and the couple tried a number of ventures, including running a pheasant farm.
In the mid-1970's, while sidelined by a broken leg, Miss Lewis began writing a cookbook. With encouragement from Judith Jones, the cookbook editor at Knopf who also edited Julia Child, Miss Lewis turned her handwritten pages into "The Taste of Country Cooking." In 1979, Craig Claiborne of The Times said the book "may well be the most entertaining regional cookbook in America."
In a 1989 interview with The Times, Miss Lewis said: "As a child in Virginia, I thought all food tasted delicious. After growing up, I didn't think food tasted the same, so it has been my lifelong effort to try and recapture those good flavors of the past."
That dedication to purity of ingredients, taste and authenticity endeared her to Alice Waters and many other chefs. Ms. Waters, whose restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley defined California cuisine in the 1980's, said Miss Lewis was uncompromising but subtle in her approach to food and politics alike.
"She just had a very quiet way of speaking, and it really engaged you because she was so soft-spoken; you have to listen carefully," Ms. Waters said. "There was a kind of intimacy that you immediately had."
Ms. Jones, who edited three books by Miss Lewis, recalled her yesterday as a lover of Jack Daniel's, Bessie Smith and understated conversation. "She had a tremendous sense of dignity in the face of often difficult treatment," Ms. Jones said. Her husband had died as she completed "The Taste of Country Cooking," she said.
After that cookbook raised her profile, Miss Lewis returned to restaurants, most notably to Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn. In the mid-90s she retired from the restaurant and with some friends, she founded the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food, dedicated in part to seeing that people did not forget how to cook with lard.
One member of the group was Mr. Peacock, whom Miss Lewis met in 1990 while he was cooking at the Georgia governor's mansion. The two developed a deep friendship, collaborating on the book "The Gift of Southern Cooking" (Knopf) and teaching cooking classes. Their long association — between a young, white, gay Southern chef and a widowed African-American doyenne — earned them the nickname The Odd Couple of Southern Cooking.
As Miss Lewis aged, Mr. Peacock became her caretaker, causing a split with her surviving brothers and sisters, who waged an unsuccessful legal battle to move her to the family home in Unionville, Va., a town about 70 miles southwest of Washington.
Miss Lewis's dispute with her siblings became well known in the food world, most of whose members supported her and Mr. Peacock, seeing him as an eager student to a master of Southern cooking.
"One of the biggest goals they had was that they didn't want to lose the classic Southern dishes, and this was the binding factor," Marion Cunningham, the grande dame of home cooking, said in an interview with The Times in 2004. "They preached about it, and they wanted to let the country know what the South stood for."
One sister, Ruth Lewis Smith, and a brother, George Lewis, both of Unionville, survive Miss Lewis, as does a stepsister, Bessie Jones of Philadelphia. She is also survived by Dr. Afeworki Paulos, a lecturer at the University of Michigan, whom she adopted as a young adult in 1986 shortly after he had arrived from Eritrea to study in the United States.
Dr. Paulos said his mother possessed a clear-headed sense of equality and fairness. "I always say, yeah, the cooking is there," he said yesterday, "but the way I remember her is as a woman who was very deeply involved in social issues."
Mr. Peacock plans to hold a private memorial service for Miss Lewis in the Atlanta area. She will be buried in a family plot in Unionville.