Edna Lewis, the chef and cookbook author widely praised as a master practitioner and preservationist of Southern cuisine, died at home Feb. 13. She was 89, two months shy of her 90th birthday. Scott Peacock, Lewis' housemate and executive chef of Decatur's Watershed, was with her when she passed.
"Miss Lewis," as she was known by many in her later years, lived a spiritedly independent life. The granddaughter of a freed Virginia slave, she moved to Manhattan in her teens and in the late 1940s became chef at Cafe Nicholson, where she cooked for noted personalities such as Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and Richard Avedon. Later, she served as chef at the Fearrington House in North Carolina and at Gage and Tollner in Brooklyn. She was named Grande Dame of Les Dames d'Escoffier, an international association of women food professionals, in 1999.
During her long culinary career Lewis also penned three cookbooks: The Taste of Country Cooking (Knopf, 1976) is her most famous book, along with In Pursuit of Flavor (Knopf, 1988) and The Edna Lewis Cookbook (Ecco Press, 1972).
Lewis also co-authored The Gift of Southern Cooking (Knopf, 2003) with Peacock. The two met in 1990 when Lewis traveled to Atlanta to cook for a fundraising dinner. An enduring friendship both in and out of the kitchen was born from that meeting.
"I'm more grateful for my friendship with Edna Lewis than anything else in my life," says Peacock. "She saw things in food and in people that others wouldn't see, and she could coax them out without you hardly realizing it. That was her magic, as a cook and a human being."
Lewis will be buried in Virginia. No public memorials are scheduled at this time, though Peacock says opportunities to honor Lewis will be planned for the spring nearer to her 90th birthday, which would have been April 13.
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