Edna Lewis’ Years At Middleton Place

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From The Charleston Post and Courier a January 13, 2016 article about Chef Edna Lewis’ time as executive chef at Middleton Place.  The full article may be viewed here.

The content of the article is below:

Linda Neale didn’t have a chance to hesitate over her dessert order. Her server insisted that she get the chocolate souffle, which is what everyone who came to Middleton Place Restaurant in 1987 seemed inclined to do, sometimes even after dining on cheese souffle. “You could make a meal out of souffles,” Middleton Place Foundation president Charles Duell recalls. Souffles were a signature of chef Edna Lewis, whose presence had inspired Neale to travel from Raleigh, N.C., to Charleston for supper.

“We came to meet Edna,” says Neale. Almost two decades later, still nurturing memories of the experience, Neale would move to Charleston, take a job at Middleton and marry the head of its interpretation department. At the time, though, her main concern was getting her cookbook signed by the woman hailed as Southern cooking’s grande dame.

“She was very nice, very quiet,” Neale says, seemingly grasping for words other than “regal,” which is the adjective most frequently and wholeheartedly used when describing Lewis. “And the chocolate souffle was so good, and it was so elegant. It came with a little cup of chocolate sauce.”

Lewis developed the souffle in the 1940s as chef of Manhattan’s stylish Cafe Nicholson, perfecting techniques she’d learned from her mother in Freetown, Va. Once she discovered souffles wouldn’t collapse so long as she didn’t overcook them, Lewis was forever linked to the Baker’s chocolate pastry, dabbed with whipped cream to still its bitterness.

Yet fans had to wait for the 1988 publication of her third book, “In Pursuit of Flavor,” to discover how she made the dessert. (And even then, Lewis’ observational and present-tense approach to cooking resulted in the kind of empowering recipe that went out of fashion a century ago: “I can’t give you precise timing advice,” she wrote.) Sweets in her pioneering “The Taste of Country Cooking,” released 12 years earlier, ran toward blackberry cobbler, sweet potato pie, ginger cookies and pound cake.

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“She was farm-to-table before the term became popular,” says Eric Brooks, who recommended Lewis to Duell. “It was really Alice Waters on the West Coast and Edna on the East.”

A suckling pig

Over her three years at Middleton, Lewis upheld her ahead-of-their time principles. She got rid of Middleton Place Restaurant’s microwaves. She planted a kitchen herb garden, and worked with Jack Limehouse to obtain wild strawberries when they were red and ripe. But her menu was fancy, reflecting her New York City years as clearly as her Virginia childhood. On one night, the pre-souffle offerings included broiled oysters, rabbit pate, beef tenderloin and sliced veal sauteed in butter with lemon sauce. On another, guests had their pick of chilled tomato soup with whipped cream and pan-broiled flounder with black olive mayonnaise.

As The Evening Post noted soon after her arrival, “Ms. Lewis has established a menu at Middleton that is more aristocratic.”

“I was surprised by the richness of Edna’s food,” says John Martin Taylor, who celebrated Thanksgiving at Middleton during Lewis’ tenure; he held the grand opening of his legendary bookstore, Hoppin’ John’s, later that night. “Suckling pig is, granted, a decadent dish, but it astounded me that her recipe would be so extravagant, given her upbringing. I wrote then, ‘Edna Lewis uses a 15- to 16-pound pig, stuffs it with lots of pork and liver and fruits and chestnuts and uses more than a pound of butter and lard and then more in the sauce, with more liver. Overkill.’ ”

Or perhaps not. In biographies of Lewis, the years spent in South Carolina are typically glossed over as a disruptive detour from the Virginia-to-New York-to-Georgia trajectory that provides the arc of her life story. For Charleston, though, her stay was extraordinarily significant. As Brooks points out, “Charleston then was just beginning to develop its culinary flair. There were really three restaurants: Henry’s, The Barbadoes Room and Perdita’s. That was it.”

Downtown, it was hard to find a dish that would qualify as seasonal and sophisticated. But out at Middleton (“and believe me, it was a challenge to convince persons to trek out to the plantation for a meal,” says food historian David Shields, who then taught at The Citadel), there was suckling pig bathed in butter. Southern food, Lewis demonstrated, could be refined. It could connect eaters with the region’s past. And in the case of her sugar-dusted souffle, pictured on the front cover of Gourmet magazine in 1984, it could draw visitors like Neale to the Lowcountry for the sole purpose of eating.

Tar Heel stopover

So what was in it for Lewis? In addition to allowing her to poke around the roots of African-American culture and providing her with a quiet space for writing, Lewis’ Southern sojourn gave her the chance to try something new. Friends say she was intellectually antsy, a condition that led to her farming pheasants in New Jersey and teaching in the African Halls of the American Museum of Natural History. In the words of a folk song she might have heard while working as a typist for a 1930s Communist daily, she had a touch of the roving gambler in her soul. “If an opportunity came, Edna went with it,” food historian Barbara Haber told The Los Angeles Times on the occasion of Lewis’ death in 2006.

“She was always adventurous,” Lewis’ niece Nina Williams-Mbengue says. “She was a bit of a bohemian, so she liked to move around.”

The Fearrington House Restaurant called on Lewis first, hiring her in 1983. Owner Jenny Fitch, who had overseen the North Carolina restaurant since it opened in 1980, wanted a professional chef on staff; someone mentioned Lewis, so Fitch and her husband, R.B., invited her to the property for a visit.

“We immediately took a liking to her and she decided to stay,” R.B. Fitch says, adding that Lewis was set up in an apartment within walking distance of the kitchen. “Sometimes I’d ask to meet her after work to see if she needed anything and her only request was a Milky Way. So I’d go to the store and get her a Milky Way bar.”

Although Fearrington’s menu has been radically revised over the past 30 years, chocolate souffle has remained a constant since Lewis introduced it. It was made according to her recipe until 2013, when the chef replaced it with a gluten-free version.

Lewis quit her job at Fearrington after one year. As Patricia Lynden wrote in a 1987 profile, “Edna was not happy when such fashionable but un-Southern foods as kiwi fruit arrived for the compote, or when pasta crept into the menu to accompany Virginia ham without her permission.”

Before she left, though, Brooks went to Fearrington for lunch: “I told Charles I found someone I thought Middleton should investigate.”

Presence of ancestors

Until the 1980s, Middleton Place had a speck of a restaurant that was really more a tearoom: It got its start as a Junior League enterprise on the ground floor of the plantation’s old rice mill. Duell remembers the menu as “okra gumbo and cornbread.” Meal service was later relocated to a guesthouse, but the menu wasn’t significantly upgraded with the move. While the restaurant offered more than the hot dogs and hamburgers that guests at most historic sites could expect when they got hungry, it wasn’t playing in the same league as The Inn at Middleton Place, which broke ground in 1984.

“We knew it would have to move up quite a few notches to meet the quality of the inn,” says Brooks, who was then coordinating a number of hospitality projects around Charleston.

Neither Brooks nor Duell was content to patch up the problem with caviar and pasta salad, among other culinary fascinations of the time.

“As a philosophy, we agreed that food service is not just putting food in people’s stomachs,” Duell says. “We wanted to include cultural history in some way.”

Middleton’s goals resonated with Lewis immediately. “I think it clicked with her when she saw what Middleton was all about,” Brooks says. “The setting and the aspiration struck a chord with her, and the Lowcountry and the tradition of Gullah cuisine. I think that was important to her. It struck her as the right place to be.”

As at Fearrington, Lewis was housed down a path from the restaurant. But at Middleton, her apartment occupied the second floor of the rice mill where enslaved workers once processed the plantation’s most important crop, and where tourists who later came to learn the plantation’s story once gathered for sandwiches. Lewis studied how the mill worked, and related what she’d learned to Williams-Mbengue, who twice stayed with her.

“She felt she could feel the presence of our ancestors there,” Williams-Mbengue says. “She often talked about the slaves who had lived there, and wondered at their lives.”

When sunset neared, Lewis would warn Williams-Mbengue to watch the footpath for alligators. But during the day, she would lead her to a 700-year-old tree; Williams-Mbengue remembers Lewis pressing her hand against it. “She loved looking at the flowers and everything in bud and bloom.”

More than a consultant

Other walks ended at the home of Mary Sheppard, an octogenarian who had cooked for five generations of Middleton descendants, succeeding a woman who had cooked for the family since before Emancipation. Sheppard had been frying chicken and steaming rice since she was 9 years old. “I done so much cooking,” she told culinary folklorist Jean Anderson in 1977.

“Edna, of course, feasted on Mary Sheppard,” Duell says. “They loved each other.”

Always inquisitive, albeit in a calm and unhurried way, Lewis doubtless quizzed Sheppard about the Lowcountry dishes that didn’t figure into Virginia cookery. “When I lived in Charleston, South Carolina, I discovered all sorts of dried beans, all different sizes and shapes and colors,” she reported in “In Pursuit of Flavor.” Lewis dreamed of someday writing a comprehensive history of African-American cooking that would enfold everything she’d learned about food practices from Ghana to Georgia. First, though, as the Associates of Middleton Place newsletter reported in 1986, she had to write “distinctive menus for the Middleton Place Restaurant.”

Officially, Lewis was the restaurant’s chef consultant, which makes it sound as though she sequestered herself with “The Carolina Housewife,” published in 1847 by Arthur Middleton’s niece, and drafted interesting entree titles. Instead, she cooked every day, usually arriving a few hours before the rest of the staff.

“In modern terms, she was the executive chef,” Duell says. As Lynden wrote, “It is nothing special for her to make, in the course of one afternoon, four lemon meringue pies; a batch of chunky, creamy celery soup; dozens of flaky cats’ tongues, each shaped by a spoon rather than squeezed from a tube; dozens of tender, light biscuits and several loaves of chewy bread; finally, for someone’s anniversary, a cake covered with finely grated fresh coconut.”

Middleton Place’s gift shop was alongside the restaurant. “(Lewis) would come in and say, ‘Well, I’ve tried a new dish ladies: Meringue with lemons,’ ” shop manager Maria Keneally remembers. “We really added a few pounds.”

Capturing the novelty of spinning estate-grown herbs and fruits into pastries that might appear on the nation’s finest tables, she continues, “Her desserts were certainly exotic. Not exotic, but local. Local ingredients.”

Legacies

Lewis came to Charleston years before eaters obsessively tracked the movements of chefs, but many residents were aware that her installation at Middleton was a big deal. Lynden speculated that “the people who run Middleton Place Restaurant would like to make Edna a star,” but she resisted most of the fuss, preferring to focus on each dish that left her kitchen.

“She did not want to see nothing come back,” says Sylvester Holmes, who joined Middleton Place Restaurant as a line cook just before Lewis arrived. “She would get on the server, ‘Why did you bring that back?’ She ran it pretty tight.”

Lewis complained to Food & Wine that “graduates from the nearby cooking school” were “a disaster.” They only thought about how much money they stood to make, she said. Even the cooks she did trust weren’t allowed to make certain dishes, such as the souffles and tomato aspic. Lewis monitored Holmes’ every movement from the time he punched in.

“She would say, ‘Come and go with me; let’s pick some rosemary to cook a special dish for Mr. Charles,’” Holmes says. “She was right there. It was interesting. At the same time it was challenging, because she was right there on her stool, watching me, saying, ‘You’re searing it too hard. You’re grilling it too hard.’ But she was a very nice person to learn from.”

Orcelia Pinckney didn’t work in the restaurant, but she was responsible for making breakfast for guests at the inn. “She didn’t tell nobody her recipes, but I picked up on the way she did shrimp-and-grits with sauteed onions and peppers, so the way I do mine, it kind of tastes the same,” she says. “I know people used to come to eat her food.”

They eventually came in numbers that were at odds with Lewis’ penchant for never prepping before service, lest it dim the freshness of her food. In the off-season, Middleton might admit 200 people a day. But in the spring, daily ticket sales quintuple, with as many as 500 people lining up for lunch. “She wasn’t a production person,” Duell allows.

Lewis left Middleton just before the spring rush of 1989.

“It was one of the highlights of her life,” Williams-Mbengue says. “Just soaking up the memory of the people who had endured and left behind such a legacy, she just really, really enjoyed it. She felt deeply, deeply honored.”

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