By Milford Prewitt
Three years after a group of black chefs vowed to create a culinary foundation to institutionalize the memory and genius of famed chef Edna Lewis, the U.S. Postal Service will lend immeasurable muscle with a commemorative stamp to honor her legend.
Edna Lewis was an multi-award-winning, African-American chef, industry mentor, and prize-winning cookbook author whose magical execution of Southern cuisine seduced restaurant-goers and private clients for nearly 60 years and she was an inspiration to young chefs.
Lewis, who was often referred to as the “Grand Dame of Southern Cooking,” died in 2006 at the age of 89.
She will be one of five celebrated chefs and cookbook authors whose images will adorn a new series of forever stamps. The honor recognizes their creativity and unique personalities in elevating American cuisine to a level that matched the sophistication and reverence of French and Italian cuisine.
Other culinary legends receiving the posthumous philatelic honor are:
• James Beard, the prolific cookbook author, baker, television personality and the guiding spirit behind the prestigious James Beard Foundation, who died in 1985 at 82;
• Julia Child, the six-foot, two-inches tall cookbook author who, in 60-plus years on television, revealed to American home chefs the secrets to cooking classical French dishes;
• Joyce Chen, who died of Alzheimer’s in 1994 at 77 but not before she popularized Mandarin Chinese cuisine from her eponymously named Cambridge, Mass. restaurant, wrote cookbooks, and produced America’s first line of name brand bottled Chinese sauces named after a Chinese American; and
• Felipe Rojas-Lombardi, a Peruvian-born chef who was the founding chef of Manhattan’s Dean & Deluca gourmet food store chain, pioneered tapas (small plates) in the New York dining scene, and who died way too early at 46 in 1991 from a heart ailment.
In Lewis’s case, the honorific stamp recognizes how she turned Southern cooking into a nearly distinct culinary art form, relying on nothing more than the freshest ingredients, resourcefulness and mindfulness to produce food that was both soothing and delicious.
“Edna Lewis clearly was to Southern food what Julia Child was to French food,” says Joe Randall, a veteran chef, Lewis confidante, culinary instructor and head of his own cooking school, Chef Joe Randall’s Cooking School and catering company, Savannah, Ga. “She was an inspiration and though she did not like to have her food referred to as ‘soul food,’ she relished the fact that Southern cuisine is rooted in African-American cooking traditions.”[Randall has been at the forefront of a movement to create a culinary, mentorship and food appreciation foundation in Lewis’s memory, similar to the James Beard Foundation. See companion story elsewhere on this website.]
Lewis won nearly every culinary and cooking honor possible. Just a few would include her entry in “Who’s Who in American Cooking,” three applauded cookbooks, including “The Taste of Country Cooking”, and receiving the James Beard Living Legend Award (the first ever) in 1999. On top of all that, she was the recipient of an honorary Ph.D. in the Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales University, one of the two most elite culinary and foodservice management schools in the U.S.
Lewis worked in New York City for decades, moving there as a young woman from Freetown, Va., barely out of her teens. After an unpleasant start as a domestic worker, she migrated to the restaurant industry where she met Albanian immigrant/entrepreneur Johnny Nicholson, who would hire around the late 1960s as his executive chef in the launch of Café Nicholson on E.58th St. at the mouth of the Queensboro Bridge.
Lewis would turn the start-up into a ground-breaking, pioneering establishment where, on any given night, the likes of Marlene Detrick, Marlon Brando, Truman Capote, Eleanor Roosevelt and other luminaries dined on her Southern cooking. The restaurant closed in 2000.
Her last place of employment in New York City was the late Gage and Tollner in downtown Brooklyn, a virtual time machine where regulars were fond of showing up at dusk, just as the waiters lit the original, century-old gas lines in the dining room for illumination.
Once, at a dinner at the James Beard Foundation this reporter attended and where Lewis was the visiting chef, a diner took umbrage with her use of grits as a side dish for dinner and even mistook it for polenta until he was corrected. “Why did you use a breakfast food for a dinner meal?” the diner demanded not too politely.
Lewis replied: “I don’t draw lines like that.”
The USPS says the new stamps are the first ever to honor celebrity chefs. The stamps will be available to purchase Friday, Sept. 26th.