The U.S. Postal Service’s introduction of a special commemorative line of stamps to honor celebrated chefs and cookbook authors – to include the legendary Edna Lewis – is bound to give new momentum to a three-year-old effort to create a culinary foundation in Lewis’s name. [See companion story on this website.]
Joe Randall, who was a confidant of Lewis’s and is a highly-achieved master chef who trained in French classic technique but who specializes in Southern cuisine, says the philatelic recognition to Lewis can help fuel the dreams of his and many more to institutionalize Lewis’s memory and contributions with a dedicated non-profit foundation.
Owner of the Joe Randall Cooking School in Savannah, Ga., Randall has been the point man on a three-year campaign – so far comprising of posh, upscale fund-raising dinners and a thoroughly enjoyable and interactive website (www.ednalewisfoundation.org) – to foster awareness and raise money for the development of a building.
While Randall admits the effort is far from having a capital budget, let alone a location to break ground, he expresses confidence that the commemorative stamp will go a long way to spur awareness and possibly generate new funding sources to advance the dream.
Like the revered James Beard Foundation in New York, Randall says the Edna Lewis Foundation would follow in some of the same steps. It would celebrate and preserve authentic Southern cooking, honor the best practices of chefs in the genre, provide a forum for mentoring young chefs and, of course, be a temple for good eating.
The foundation would have a secondary goal, but no less important.
“What we need as African-American chefs and professionals in the food arts is an organization that speaks for African-Americans in this industry,” Randall proclaims. “Three years ago when we were envisioning this at a minority chefs summit in Jacksonville, Fla., we agreed that we needed to organize around someone like Edna, who everyone respected and loved so much that they wouldn’t even question why we chose her.
“And so, I wanted to make it clear, we are claiming her for ourselves and going to move forward to honor her forever.”
Atlanta, by dint of its popularity as the so-called capital of the South and given that Lewis spent many of her final years there, will be the headquarters of the Foundation, he notes.
“We have not yet established a capital campaign,” Randall explains. “We have been existing on money from dinner-to-dinner and a few corporations have contributed.
“But at some point we would like to put together a capital campaign to raise the money [for a building] and generate the acknowledgement for who she is. This stamp is going to help.”
But Randall says he is racing the clock in some respects. What worries him is that as time goes on what Lewis brought to Southern cuisine is being discounted by mainstream commercial restaurants without crediting her on one hand, while many food writers who should know better continue to refer to her cuisine as “soul food” on the other.
“You hear this phrase these days, ‘new Southern cooking,’ and all the promotion and publicity falls on these white folks not knowing that Edna pioneered that road long before they were around.”
Randall says both he and Lewis had mixed feelings about the term “soul food” when it came to describing the food produced by black chefs.
“Soul food didn’t exist before the 1960s,” he says. “Then came soul music, soul man, Soul Brother No. 1 [James Brown] and “Soul Train.” It wouldn’t take much for those of us who earned their living cooking food black folks liked to call it food soul food.
“Edna rejected that term. Yet a white boy can open a restaurant, call it soul food and get funding for it. Nobody gives us money to open a soul food restaurant.”
The debate about soul food and its proper place in Southern cuisine will be one of many discussions that Randall hopes to participate in during the Savannah Food and Wine Festival Nov. 10th to Nov. 15th.
The event will include a discussion, “Edna Lewis: Farm to table before it had a name,” on Lewis’s legacy and soul food. Several prominent chefs are expected to participate.
For more information about the festival, visit www.savannahfoodandwinefest.com. To learn more about the Edna Lewis Foundation or to make a tax-deferred donation to the non-profit, visit www.ednalewisfoundation.org.