Chapel Hill-based food writer and editor Sara B. Franklin debuts Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original at The Edna Effect. Photographs courtesy of (book cover) University of North Carolina Press & Charleston Wine + Food
February 21, 2018
Honoring Edna On Thursday, March 1, Charleston Wine + Food pays homage to the late Edna Lewis, sometimes called the “Julia Child of Southern cooking”
Written by Hailey Middlebrook
Each year, Charleston Wine + Food gives festival-goers a taste of what’s of the moment in food and bev, both on the local and global scale. But this year, one special event honors the past, paying homage to the woman who brought classic Southern cooking to the national stage.
At “The Edna Effect,” taking place next Thursday at Alhambra Hall in Mount Pleasant’s Old Village, six chefs are serving up dishes inspired by the cooking of African-American chef and cookbook author Edna Lewis. Born the granddaughter of freed slaves in 1916 in rural Freetown, Virginia, Lewis learned how to cook with goods from the land: wild spring greens boiled in pork stock and served with dumplings, pickled melons from her father’s farm, turtle soup made after a thunderstorm washed the reptiles onto the riverbanks.
After her father died in her teenage years, Lewis—a statuesque woman, standing nearly six feet tall—moved to New York City, working as a seamstress before becoming friends with Johnny Nicholson, who needed a chef at his Manhattan-based Café Nicholson. Self-taught Lewis stepped into the kitchen, soon gaining a following for her roasted chicken with herbs, buttery biscuits, and cheesy soufflés from the likes of Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner. She also found a fan in Judith Jones, the editor at Knopf who championed Julia Child’s iconic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, who helped turn Lewis’s handwritten recipes into The Edna Lewis Cookbook (1972) and The Taste of Country Cooking (1976). The latter was her most famous work, a tome filled with recipes and stories from her childhood in Virginia. Lewis returned to the South later in life, cooking in kitchens across the Carolinas, including Middleton Place from 1985 to 1987. She passed away in Decatur, Georgia in 2006, at the age of 89.
Today at Middleton Place, a watercolor portrait of Lewis by artist Jonathan Green hangs in the dining room. “Edna won the hearts of Charlestonians with her wisdom and grace, as well as her cooking,” says Nathalie Dupree, cookbook author and food personality. “She tied her love of cooking with her love of the land of the South.”
Lewis’s influence has touched many a Lowcountry chef, including Frank Lee, April Robinson, and Savannah’s Mashama Bailey, all of whom will be cooking at the event along with Vivian Howard, JJ Johnson, Toni Tipton-Martin, Duane Nutter, Jessica Harris, and Andrea Upchurch.