Miss Edna Lewis

One of the nice things about working at Chez Panisse for so long was that I got to meet a lots of famous and important chefs and cooks. James Beard would walk through the kitchen and say hi, Richard Olney brought bottles of Y’quem for us to taste, and Danny Kaye grabbed the whisk out of my hands while I was making soufflés to show me the correct way to beat egg whites into a meringue.
Well, the correct way…according to him.

Not all were wonderful. (Obviously.)
And in fact, there were a few jerks. Of course, the good outweighed the bad (although the bad had gave us much to talk about afterwards…) and I was so very fortunate to meet and work with some of the great cooks of our times, like Edna Lewis.

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Scott forwarded this photo of him and Miss Lewis, by Bill Osinski, with a note saying that it was their favorite.

I met Edna Lewis during a benefit that we were doing for Meals on Wheels in New York City. I walked in the kitchen and her long-time assistant and companion, Scott Peacock, was stirring what was perhaps that largest cauldron of steaming vanilla-scented milk I’d ever seen in all my restaurant years, using a giant whisk. He looked up with a big warm grin, kept stirring, and introduced himself to me. Scott is a big guy, not just in girth, but in his passion for what he cooks and as he stirred and chatted, he became like an old friend.
I instantly liked him: his southern drawl and charm were too sweet to resist.

Standing next to him, wearing a colorful shawl was Miss Lewis. Scott, the ever-polite southern gentleman and her best friend, always called her ‘Miss Lewis’.
(Imagine if my best friends called me Mr. Lebovitz!)

Edna Lewis offered her fragile, delicate hand to me. It was bony and rough, signs of a life spent in a kitchen; years of chopping, measuring, mixing, and carving. In a tiny voice that was barely audible, she introduced herself. And like a fragile scoop of vanilla ice cream uncontrolably melting on a slice of warm apple pie, Miss Lewis’ voice and manner had a way that would just make you melt.

A tiny woman, she wrote the book, (several books, in fact), on real, down-home southern cooking. Not “Y’all take a tub of Cool Whip, stir in some of this here possum-fat…”, but she taught true southern cooking and was the last of the well-respected authors and cooks to write about the subject she loved so dearly, alongside Scott.

My favorite story that she told me was the difficulty she faced when she wrote her first cookbook. She’d always cooked using coins for measuring dry ingredients like baking powder, salt, and the like. She learned to bake that way, scooping up a quarters-worth of baking powder and tossing that with a few handfuls of flour for making her feathery-light biscuits.
She soon changed how she baked; that a quarter became a tablespoon, a dime’s worth became a teaspoon.

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Edna Lewis passed away peacefully Monday in her home and she’ll be missed by many of us who were touched by her warmth and uncommon grace.

18 comments

  • What a lovely tribute, David. You are lucky to have known such a lovely person. But then you are pretty special yourself!

  • Wonderful memoire David – 6 degrees of difference – I used to volunteer shoot the Meals event for Restaurant Assoc…maybe I took your picture there:) I did get to photograph & meet Scott & Miss Lewis at the James Beard House, where they were honored guests.Rare people & wonderful food. Thanks for the memory

  • This is hometown news for me – thank you for the touching tribute.

  • David, beautifully written and very touching. You sure have got a sweet side Mr. Lebovitz.

  • A lovely tribute to a personal hero of mine, Ms. Lewis.

  • Merci David..
    I love her measuring with coins!

  • A proper Valentine.

  • I could read her recipes all day long. A lovely post.

  • Beautiful tribute, Mr.Lebovitz. Very appropriate for Valentine’s Day. I love the image you used of the fragile scoop of vanilla ice cream. Perfect.

  • Mr.L., passing the torch of information and carrying the torch of passion for good food and friendship keep us all in this family. Miss Lewis would be proud of all her boys and girls. Thanks.

  • D – this is such a beautiful and touching tribute. Truly fitting for Valentine’s Day.

  • Too many years ago when I would go to the Saturday green market in Union Square, NYC, Miss Edna would be shopping there as well. I would follow her to see what she was buying and then buy the same! She was always a regal figure at the market, and I am sure she still is a regal figure, wherever she might be. Thank you for your memories.

  • I don’t know how I didn’t hear about this sooner…such a loss and such a beautiful woman. I saw a program about them a few years back and I fell in love instantly.

  • Mr. Lebovitz, this made my day. I love your description, and the gentleness with which you wrote this. Thank you for illuminating her for us.

  • Southern Cuisine was my first love. And we all have Edna lewis to thank for her courage and stamina. Thank you for remembering and sharing her with us.

  • Thanks so much, David. Recently I was given a present of The Gift of Southern Cooking, which was particularly poignant since I had had the great good fortune to eat Miss Lewis’ remarkable cuisine at Gage and Tollner in Brooklyn during her tenure there as chef. You brought up these lovely memories for me!

  • I had not heard that she passed.So sad.I have the cookbook you have pictured.

  • Thank you for sharing these memories. I heard that she had died on NPR this evening. I know her only through her cookbooks, Scott too. But they both feel like family. How can they not when they have helped me feed mine?

    I ordered the finely ground white cornmeal from Hammond’s Mill in Alabama in time for Thanksgiving this year and, using the recipe in The Gift of Southern Cooking, made first the best cornbread ever produced on this earth. I was making it for dressing for the turkey, but manged to whip up several extra batches. No one minded and none was wasted. Nor did anyone notice that there was no white flour in it.

    Needless to say, following both the recipe for the cornbread dressing and the turkey in the same book, we dined like royalty. I never dreamed food could be that good. Of course, I also made sure to buy the best ingredients. It was only fair to match the food to the recipes.

    Everything I’ve made that has come from Miss Lewis has been of the same quality. Though I never got to meet her or eat her cooking, I have had the opportunity to benefit from her legacy.

    I am pleased to learn that she and Scott were close and not just associates who got together to write a cook book. This makes the book all the more precious.

    Thank you for sharing this tribute. I too loved the picture of her using coins to weigh the dry ingredients. Like an assayer and his weights measuring gold dust.