Food History

Want to Know Edna Lewis? Start By Cooking Her Food

January 13, 2017

During last week's episode of Bravo’s Top Chef, contestants were asked to create a dish that paid tribute to Edna Lewis, the trailblazing African-American icon of Southern cooking who died in 2006 at age 89. The Washington Post reported that the episode sent Edna Lewis’ 1976 cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking, rising meteorically up bestseller charts.

The news is somewhat bittersweet. It’s a shame that it took a Bravo show—one that's mired in justified controversy for filming on a former plantation, no less—to bring Edna Lewis into the mainstream. She should've been a household name much sooner. Though Lewis is well known in the food world (though, astonishingly, some contestants on Top Chef didn’t even know who she was), she doesn't have the widespread name-recognition she should, especially given her impact as a black woman cooking in a time when the odds were stacked against her. She’s been called the “Julia Child of the South,” a sobriquet I can't help but feel totally flattens her legacy: Lewis stands on her own.

If you’re just getting to know Edna Lewis' cooking, you might want to begin with these two recipes. Both were adapted from The Gift of Southern Cooking, a 2003 book she authored with chef Scott Peacock. One is a riff on Shrimp Grits, and the other is her Sweet Potato Casserole. They're both wonderfully and unapologetically Southern, and may give you a window into Lewis' philosophy.

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If you don’t know Edna Lewis, start here.

What’s your favorite Edna Lewis recipe? Let us know in the comments.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


MrsMehitabel December 5, 2018
I've never made an Edna Lewis recipe yet- I've only started reading "The Taste of Country Cooking", but so far her descriptions of her family and neighbors touch my heart. The story about their neighbor hiding candy eggs for her to find, and her little aside about how they could never bring themselves to butcher a lamb, were moving to read. I guess as a parent I fantasize about a world in which my children could be innocent and vulnerable yet remain unharmed. I'm sure Edna Lewis's childhood wasn't idyllic- but it sounds like such a good one.
sara Q. January 15, 2017
She has a potato casserole that is way more than the sum of its parts-you thinly sliced potatoes and toss them with melted butter and salt, then layer them in a casserole dish. Then pour good quality stock (I use veggie but chicken or even beef broth would be amazing) to the top of the potatoes, then cover w foil and stick in a I think 350 oven for 45 min or so. Crank the heat up and take the cover off for 15 more minutes of cooking and when it's finished the potatoes are creamy and crispy, earthy and rich. Really insanely good with three ingredients and such a simple, brilliant preparation. I serve it w a salad w a sharp dressing and there's dinner y'all.
Chef L. January 14, 2017
I have adored her cooking/recipes forever. In the "Gift of Southern Cooking, the Silken Turnip Soup and the Macaroni and Cheese are favorites, although I think the latter is Scott Peacock's.
love2cook January 14, 2017
Taste of Country Cooking: Wilted Lettuce with Hot Vinegar Dressing, Thin-Siced Cucumbers with White Vinegar Dressing, Damson Plum Preserves, and Caramel Fudge. But the best part of the book is the various stories and descriptions of her life growing up on the farm
fitzie January 14, 2017
I have all three of her books. Her potato rolls and sweet potato casserole are standbys of our Thanksgiving table. Highly recommend her.
Nora January 13, 2017
I am well-acquainted with Edna Lewis' cookbooks. I love The Gift of Southern Cooking with Scott Peacock. Their friendship is a wonderful story, too. I was surprised and very happy that Top Chef drew attention to this great lady. I hope this is the beginning of greater recognition for her.
Amy L. January 13, 2017
I can't say that I've cooked out of The Taste of Cooking Country very much, although I've had it for years. I will say that my favorite recipe title is "Busy Day Cake." Who doesn't love that??