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.