From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s food and dining editor Ligaya Figueras: “This month, as we observe the achievements of African-Americans in U.S. history, we would be remiss not to reflect on Edna Lewis (1916-2006), arguably the most important black culinarian in the history of this country.
I never got to meet Lewis in person. Admittedly, it’s since I moved to the South a couple of years ago that her name began to surface regularly in my conversations with chefs and food writers. What has struck me in these chats is the deep admiration that this contemporary body of food professionals has for Lewis, particularly the role she played in championing, chronicling and preserving Southern food traditions.
Born in Freetown, Va., a community founded by former slaves, Lewis slugged through life and left glory in her wake. Upon the death of her father, she left her hometown at the age of 16, headed to Washington, D.C., and then to New York City. She earned her pennies ironing clothes (a gig that lasted all of a few hours), and then as a seamstress. There are fill-in-the-blank moments that you can Google, but among important ones, she opened a restaurant on Manhattan’s East Side, Café Nicholson, garnering aplomb and becoming somewhat of a celebrity.
Edna Lewis was a critical voice for blacks and their contributions to American cookery. Her cookbooks — “The Edna Lewis Cookbook” (1972), “The Taste of Country Cooking” (1976) and “In Pursuit of Flavor” (1988) — continue to serve as a lasting record for understanding what is a layered and complex Southern food narrative. Equally important, and some 12 years since her death in 2006, Lewis continues to inspire a new generation of chefs.
One such person she inspired is Mashama Bailey, executive chef and co-owner of The Grey in Savannah. Under the leadership of Bailey and her business partner, John Morisano, the contemporary Southern restaurant has garnered numerous awards and accolades since doors opened in late 2014. These include 2015 James Beard Foundation award nods as a semifinalist in the best new restaurant category and as a finalist for restaurant design. Digital media food and dining brand Eater named The Grey its 2017 Restaurant of the Year.
When I think of Edna Lewis “disciples” these days, I immediately posit Bailey in that group. I said as much to Bailey when we spoke on the phone. She laughed. But consider Bailey’s involvement with the Edna Lewis Foundation, whose mission, per its website, is “to revive, preserve and celebrate the rich history of African-American cookery by cultivating a deeper understanding of Southern food and culture in America.”
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