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Revolutionary Chef Forgotten By History

Photo of Edna Lewis smiling
John T. Hill

Edna Lewis changed the perception of Southern food in American culture with her cookbook, “The Taste of Country Cooking” (Knopf/1976). She touted the use of fresh, local ingredients before the farm-to-table movement began. But many people know very little about the chef and cookbook author, despite her many contributions to food culture.

A new collection of essays from movers and shakers of the food world pays tribute to the life and legacy of Lewis. Essayists including Alice Waters, Nathalie Dupree, and John T. Edge share their encounters with Lewis, and detail how she shaped their approach to Southern cooking. Host Frank Stasio talks to Sara Franklin, editor of the new book “Edna Lewis: At The Table With An American Original” (University of North Carolina Press/2018).

Interview Highlights

On what made Lewis' recipes different:
She's taking American ingredients and Southern ingredients, in particular, and using French techniques to sort of exalt them, which is something that you see a lot today in restaurant culture … People will take the foods of a particular region of the U.S. or the world and use French — particularly French and also some Italian — techniques to bring them into the world of Haute cuisine or fine cooking. And Edna Lewis was one of the early people to do that.

She was woke forty years before the term was coined. - Sara Franklin

On considering Lewis one of the first celebrity chefs:
If you think about celebrity chef culture today and the people that we might see on TV or in big magazines and newspapers, they're chefs that don't stay in their kitchens when particularly notable people come into the restaurant. They'll come out and shake hands and say hello. And Edna Lewis was doing this in this tiny, little restaurant before there was really any food culture to speak of in the way that we know it now.

On how Lewis’ legacy is felt today:
I think part of what we wanted to do with this book is to help people understand that this is not a woman whose importance is just frozen in history. She's not at all sort of stuck in amber, but that her influence is being felt now. And that in fact people that are interested in eating in restaurants now may be eating food that is inspired by her. There is a very real presence in the here and now of her legacy.

Note: This program originally aired April 3, 2018.

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Amanda Magnus is the executive producer of Embodied, a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships and health. She has also worked on other WUNC shows including Tested and CREEP.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.