Edna Lewis

And the Beginning of the

Charleston Culinary Renaissance

John T. Hill

Editor's Note:

Three years ago the then great food columnist for the New York Times Francis Lam (now the Top Chef 's Judge and Host of the Splendid Table)wrote a piece on Edna Lewis where the title read "Edna Lewis and the Black Roots of American Cooking . The chef and author made the case for black Southern cooking as the foundation of our national cuisine. Does she get the credit she deserves?  We pulled a few excerpts from the wonderful piece on Miss Edna as she was known.

But Lewis, who placed Southern cooking in the pantheon of great cuisines, respected fried chicken as a special-­occasion food. She made hers not by punishing it in a pot of hot grease, but by patiently turning it in a shallow pan, crisping it over time in a blend of lard, butter and country ham, a technique that reflects something greater than the flavor of conjoined fats. When Lewis was growing up in Freetown, (Virginia) she learned that there was a season truly perfect for frying chickens — late spring to early summer, when the birds were the right size and had the right feed — just as there was a season for peaches and a season for blackberries. Foods, Lewis argued, are always temporal, so all good tastes are special. And when you have only a few chances every year to make something, you make it well. You use home-rendered lard to cook the bird. You brown the breasts first, then lay them on top of the sizzling legs so that they finish cooking gently in the heat above the pan. You slip in a slice of country ham to season the fat. That’s how you give thanks for it. But Lewis, who placed Southern cooking in the pantheon of great cuisines, respected fried chicken as a special-­occasion food. She made hers not by punishing it in a pot of hot grease, but by patiently turning it in a shallow pan, crisping it over time in a blend of lard, butter and country ham, a technique that reflects something greater than the flavor of conjoined fats. When Lewis was growing up in Freetown, she learned that there was a season truly perfect for frying chickens — late spring to early summer, when the birds were the right size and had the right feed — just as there was a season for peaches and a season for blackberries. Foods, Lewis argued, are always temporal, so all good tastes are special. And when you have only a few chances every year to make something, you make it well. You use home-rendered lard to cook the bird. You brown the breasts first, then lay them on top of the sizzling legs so that they finish cooking gently in the heat above the pan. You slip in a slice of country ham to season the fat. That’s how you give thanks for it.

Karl Bissinger

Server Virginia Reed in the garden of Cafe Nicholson, in New York City in 1949 where Edna Lewis was the chef  (l to r):   ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq,  the novelist Donald Windham,  artist Buffie Johnson,  the writers Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal.  All the big names in the arts went to Cafe Nicholson in the late forties and  fifties in the city.

 

In the 1980s, Edna Lewis came to Charleston and was the Chef at the Restaurant at Middleton Place at Middleton Plantation. Her fried chicken was world famous.  Today, you can order from a special section of the lunch menu called "A Tribute to Edna Lewis"  at the Restaurant at Middleton Place.  What an amazing talent Ms. Lewis was at Middleton and going to lunch or dinner then was spectacular as it is today. And after your meal you can stroll through the old growth garden next to the restaurant. It is much like a movie set on the Ashley River.

Click here    to view the 2018 Middleton Place Restaurant menu and for information and directions to the Edna Lewis lunch.

Middleton Place is a wonderful destination for lunch or dinner. It is about 16 miles from the Historic Peninsula. Try to give yourself a little extra time if you are driving out from the peninsula or close by so that you can walk the paths close to the Middleton Place restaurant before and after dinner. Short walks or long. The restaurant is located next to the formal gardens and the paths through the old growth are breathtaking.  Along the Ashley River that is also right behind the restaurant there is a path that goes by giant live oaks that are easily 300-years-old with the river a stone's throw away. If it is dinner you are lucky enough to be there for, then you can experience a sunset that will forever be a fond memory any time of the year.

The Middleton Place Restaurant on the left with America's first formal landscaped gardens in the back of the restaurant.    And to the right of the terrace, the old growth garden paths meander through ponds filled with resident swans. The massive Live Oaks along the river path are easily 300 years old. It is so worth your time to visit the restaurant and the garden. It is a living museum and the formal  gardens were designed after the principals of the gardens at Versailles.

As a girl, Lewis busied herself with gathering berries, sewing and other home-taught skills. She watched the older women intently, learning to cook alongside them. After leaving Freetown, she made her way to New York City, where she took a job at a laundry and was fired three hours later: She’d never ironed before. She became a Communist and bristled at having to enter employers’ buildings through the back door but nonetheless worked for a time as a domestic, helping to put her baby sister Naomi through art school. At one point, she became a sought-after seamstress, making dresses for Doe Avedon and Marilyn Monroe, and dressing windows for the high-end department store Bonwit Teller. Surrounded by bohemians and fashion figures, she gave dinner parties for her friends, channeling her memories of her mother and aunt at the stove.

 

In 1948, Johnny Nicholson, a regular at Lewis’s table, was getting ready to open a cafe on the Upper East Side. As Nicholson used to tell it, Lewis walked by, about to take another job as a domestic, when she looked into her friend’s place and said it would make a terrific restaurant. A week later, Lewis was cooking lunch at Cafe Nicholson. She offered a tidy menu: herbed roast chicken, filet mignon, a piece of fish, some cake, a chocolate soufflé. The restaurant was a smash. It had a dining room like a fabulist’s dream: floral displays and soaring palm fronds dipping down to kiss the heads of guests like Paul Robeson, Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. Truman Capote would come into the kitchen, purring at his new friend Edna for a fix of biscuits. William Faulkner once flattered Lewis by asking if she had studied cooking in Paris. But no, her sister Ruth Lewis Smith told me: She learned to make soufflés from their mother, back in Virginia. Smith, in fact, often made them herself, after the restaurant took off and she came to help out.

 

The restaurant critic Clementine Paddleford reviewed the restaurant in 1951 in The New York Herald Tribune, calling that soufflé ‘‘light as a dandelion seed in a wind’’ and noting a sense of pride in the chef: ‘‘We saw Edna peering in from the kitchen, just to see the effect on the guests and hear the echoes of praise.’’

The Middleton Inn is a short walk along the Ashley River path  from the restaurant and the terraced landscape. The Inn is an Architectural Master Work by the Architect W.G. Clark.

 

Click here    to view the information and directions to

the Middleton Place Inn.

 

Middleton Place is the best of both worlds. You are staying in a living museum a short distance from downtown and the Inn will organize easy transportation to events and dining experiences.

 

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