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.
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.
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.