Born in 1916 on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, 20 miles from Monticello, Lewis spun a narrative that was bucolic and rural. As William Faulkner illuminated northern Mississippi, and Randall Kenan mythologized eastern North Carolina, Lewis made a study of Freetown, beginning with “A Taste of Country Cooking.” Published in 1976, her book arrived as the nation celebrated its bicentennial and renewed a commitment to reckon with its past.
Lewis drew inspiration from her extended community and her family. Orange County had been an early center of black entrepreneurship. From the mid-1800s onward African-American women there peddled food to the trains that paused in the county seat of Gordonsville to take on water and coal. Before the Civil War, women earned their freedom with profits made selling fried chicken, coffee and fried pies.
Read: John T. Edge remembers Edna Lewis