Unless you’re an avid cook, you might not be familiar with the name Edna Lewis. But the late Chef Lewis is legendary in the culinary world. Known as the Grande Dame of Southern Cooking, she penned the groundbreaking Edna Lewis Cookbook, published in 1972 with co-author Evangeline Peterson, and was the first-ever recipient in 1999 of the James Beard Living Legend Award. Lewis died in 2006 at age 89.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of her most famous cookbook, the Orange County, Virginia, tourism office created the Edna Lewis Menu Trail, comprising eight Orange County restaurants that will serve dishes inspired by Lewis’ recipes through Memorial Day.
Chef Edna Lewis; Photo by Phil Audibert
Gordonsville, Virginia, historian and writer Philip Audibert recalls his friend Lewis as “shy, quiet and soft-spoken.” Lewis’ demeanor was as humble as her roots. She grew up in Orange County’s Freetown on a farm granted to her grandfather, a freed slave, where she learned to cook on a wood stove with foraged and harvested ingredients.
That experience would inspire her simple Southern repertoire as head chef in New York’s famed Cafe Nicholson in the 1940s, when Black female chefs were a rarity in restaurant kitchens.
“It was her influence that really got the momentum going for what Southern cuisine is now,” says Andrew Eppley, culinary director of the Inn at Willow Grove in Orange, whose restaurant Vintage is on the menu trail. Eppley’s Lewis-inspired menu for the cookbook celebration includes smothered rabbit, a take on Lewis’ fried rabbit and gravy, and slow-roasted spareribs.
The menu trail also honors the legacy of Black slaves who brought ingredients such as sorghum, okra and peanuts from Africa and helped make them staples of Southern cuisine, says Craig Hartman, chef and owner of two Gordonsville restaurants, the BBQ Exchange and Champion Ice House, which are also on the trail.
“When I think about Southern cuisine, it’s really African Americans who created it,” Eppley says. “Edna Lewis was a huge part of Orange County and the inn’s history. It’s good to pay our respects to the people who came before us.”
Ready to experience Lewis' southern cuisine? Click here to view a map of the Edna Lewis Menu Trail.