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Cooking up a legacy: the story of famed chef Edna Lewis

Greens, grits, cheese soufflé — and, of course, fried chicken. You can’t forget the fried chicken. For many in the South, these foods are a taste of normalcy. But the rest of the country can rightfully thank the first noted African-American chef and celebrated cookbook author, Edna Lewis, for elevating Southern vittles to an American dining favorite.

In 1916, Edna Lewis was born in Freetown — a tiny place founded by her grandfather, an illiterate freed slave. She learned some of her most poignant culinary lessons in the small Virginia settlement from family members who worked as cooks in Washington, D.C., and returned home to Virginia.

She eventually moved to New York, where Lewis met her husband, a Communist, and John Nicholson, an antiques dealer who in 1949 opened a restaurant, Café Nicholson, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. One of New York’s most influential citizens, Nicholson was a regular at Lewis’ dining table at home, and he made Lewis the café’s first chef and co-owner. Her simple, Southern-inspired menu included roast chicken, filet mignon, fish, cake and a chocolate soufflé that established Café Nicholson as a famous dining spot for society’s elite, including playwright Tennessee Williams, famed American novelist and poet William Faulkner, and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Lewis left Café Nicholson in the mid-1950s but continued a burgeoning culinary life. Book editor Judith Jones prodded Lewis — who was unable to cook because of a broken ankle — to write a cookbook that chronicled the style of Southern American cuisine. Her book editor, Jones, was also the editor of Julia Child.

First came “The Edna Lewis Cookbook.” Then in 1976 Lewis wrote a culinary classic, “The Taste of Country Cooking.” Two other cookbooks followed: “In Pursuit of Flavor” (1988) and “The Gift of Southern Cooking” (2003).

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Later in her career, Lewis returned to the restaurant life, most notably as the chef of Brooklyn’s Gage & Tollner. And it’s not surprising the bona fide celebrity chef received many honors, such as her induction into the KitchenAid Cookbook Hall of Fame. In 2006, Lewis died in her Decatur home at 89, leaving a succulent legacy for Southern cuisine.

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