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 Postreported 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 Chefdidn’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.
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.