Edna Lewis was the granddaughter of a former slave. She was born in 1916 in a small settlement in Virginia called Freetown, on a farm given to her newly-freed grandfather. The growing, harvesting and cooking of food was not only the family's way of life, but their entertainment. She learned most of her cooking from her Aunt Jenny. Edna could tell when a cake was done just by listening.
At the age of 16, after her father died, Miss Lewis took a bus to Washington and then New York where she worked as a laundress, a seamstress ( she was exceptionally talented and copied Dior dresses for clients), and as an employee of the Daily Worker (a communist newspaper). She was also involved in political demonstrations and campaigned for FDR.
In New York, Edna’s cooking was making her into local legend. In 1948, when female chefs were few and black female chefs were even fewer, Edna was chef at a restaurant owned by her friend John Nicholson, an antiques dealer and bohemian with a taste for high society. Café Nicholson on East 57th Street in Manhattan was a huge success.
In the meantime, she married a former seaman, Steve Kingston, who was a Communist. Her husband was not happy she worked at Café Nicholson: "He used to always say, 'This restaurant should be for ordinary people on the street. You're catering to capitalists,' " Mr. Nicholson said in an interview with The New York Times in 2004. "It was such a bore." (He was right: the café attracted numerous famous faces like Gloria Vanderbilt, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Richard Avedon, Marlene Dietrich, and Diana Vreeland.)
Miss Lewis did not leave Café Nicholson until 1954, after which the couple tried a number of ventures, including running a pheasant farm.
In the late 60's, nursing a broken leg, she decided to write down her recipes and, urged on by Judith Jones, who also edited Julia Child, she wrote a cookbook. Those handwritten pages turned into "The Taste of Country Cooking." James Beard and M.K.F. Fisher praised the book and Craig Claiborne of The Times said the book "may well be the most entertaining regional cookbook in America." Her books included personal memoirs and her thoughts on rural life. Chapters on fresh food and their seasons predate the American culinary revolution.
In a 1989 interview with The Times, Miss Lewis said: "As a child in Virginia, I thought all food tasted delicious. After growing up, I didn't think food tasted the same, so it has been my lifelong effort to try and recapture those good flavors of the past." Alice Waters admired her dedication to the "purity of ingredients, taste and authenticity". She said Miss Lewis was uncompromising but subtle in her approach to food and politics alike.
Miss Jones, who edited three of Miss Lewis's cookbooks said: " She loved Jack Daniel's, Bessie Smith and understated conversation. She had a tremendous sense of dignity in the face of often difficult treatment."
Miss Lewis's husband had died as she completed "The Taste of Country Cooking."
Miss Lewis returned to restaurants, most notably to Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn. In the mid-90s she retired from the restaurant and with some friends, she founded the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food, dedicated in part to seeing that people did not forget how to cook with lard. :)
"One of the biggest goals they had was they didn't want to lose the classic Southern dishes, and this was the binding factor," Marion Cunningham, the grande dame of home cooking, said in an interview with The Times in 2004: "They preached about it, and they wanted to let the country know what the South stood for."
One of the friends she met through the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food was Scott Peacock, a young, gay, white chef. He became a lifelong friend and eventually her caretaker as she aged, causing quite a rift in her family.
Edna died in her sleep at age 89. Despite a quiet demeanor, Miss Lewis had a reach that extended from her family farm in Virginia, to left-wing politics in Manhattan to the birthplace of California cuisine.
Read a reminiscence from a blogger who met Edna Lewis HERE. And read through the comment section...many bloggers have met her.
Edna Lewis's awards:
1986 – Named Who’s Who in American Cooking by Cook’s Magazine
1990 – Lifetime Achievement Award IACP (International Assoc. of Culinary Professionals)
1995 – James Beard Living Legend Award (Their first such award.)
1999 – Named Grande Dame by Les Dames d’Escoffier, an international organization of female culinary professionals.
1999 – Lifetime Achievement Award from Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) (Their first such award.)
2002 - Barbara Tropp President's Award (WCR – Women Chefs & Restaurateurs)
2003 – Inducted into the KitchenAid Cookbook Hall of Fame (James Beard)
2004 – The Gift of Southern Cooking nominated for James Beard Award and IACP Award
Edna's cookbook is a gem. With all the choices you may well wonder why I chose to make Blancmange. I confess, it's my childhood again. My mother made it frequently, but her recipe consisted simply of cornstarch, milk, sugar and vanilla; she didn't use almonds at all. Funny how desserts like this stick in your mind. I never made it for my own family even though I always liked it....I've been trying to recall if my mother served it with fresh fruit or just the pudding itself. I can't imagine not using fruit...will have to ask my sister.
Here and there I found blancmange (including in Edna's cookbook) written as two words, but more commonly it's one. I was unable to discover an explanation for this, but for the etymologists and historians among you, I did find this:
Blancmange translated means "whitedish" (from the original Old French term blanc mangier) was an upper-class dish common to most of Europe during the Middle Ages and early modern period. It occurs in countless variations from recipe collections from all over Europe and is mentioned in the prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, 1. 387, was apparently a compound made of capon minced with flour, sugar, and cream and also in an early 15th century cookbook written by the chefs of Richard II.
The "mangier" part is, incidentally, closely related to our English word "manger," meaning a trough or other place where animals are fed. Another source explains: "Blancmange" was originally a main course, made with chopped meat, eggs, rice, cream and almonds. Over the years, however, the recipe was simplified, the meat was omitted, and "blancmange" became a dessert.
It's pronounced "bla-mahnj," and is also used in a figurative sense to mean "nonsense" or "trivial matters."
Blancmange is also mentioned by one of my favorite authors, Roald Dahl in "Matilda" : "The Trunchbull, this mighty female giant, stood there in her green breeches, quivering like a blancmange." Don't you love Dahls' stories?
I made this more fun by using a cute mold and cheated just a bit by using Bob's Red Mill ground almond flour which I already had. But I followed the directions exactly starting from the point of adding water to the almonds in the blender. BTW: I felt this pudding was too sweet and would cut the sugar to 1/2 cup, perhaps even less. Start with 1/3 cup, taste it, and add what pleases you and your family. I had a rhubarb puree in the freezer and served it with that. You could use any kind of fruit or sauce made with fruit.
Recipe by Edna Lewis
1 cup unblanched Jordan almonds
1 1/3 cups water
1/2 cup cold milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
2/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon unflavored gelatin
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or dark rum
Fruit for serving
Drop the almonds in boiling water, remove from the stove and let them sit until the water cools enough to remove them. Their skins will peel right off. Put some in a blender and blend with the water; repeat until all the almonds are pureed. Return everything to the blender and add the milk and cream. Blend until smooth.
Dissolve the gelatin in 1/4 cup cold water.
Strain the almond/milk mixture into a sauce pan with the finest strainer you have. Heat (but do not allow to boil, adding the gelatin to dissolve. Remove from heat, add the vanilla and rum and strain one last time.
Pour into a wet ring mold (or any mold you like) and leave in the fridge overnight or until firm. Run a spatula around the mold and turn out on a serving platter. Serve with fruit.
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