Ladies of the Pen and the Cookpot: Edna Lewis

Edna Lewis, Chef (Used with permission.)
Edna Lewis, Chef (Photo credit: John T. Hill)

Who was Edna Lewis? Why call her an American Idol?

Before she wrote The Edna Lewis Cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking, In Pursuit of Flavor, and co-authored that recent jewel of a book, The Gift of Southern Cooking with chef Scott Peacock, well, Edna Lewis did many things in her long, experience-rich life, including campaigning for Franklin Roosevelt.

But she always cooked — what Southern girl from her background didn’t? After all, she was the granddaughter of freed slaves who helped found Freetown, Virginia.

Miss Lewis stood on the shoulders of those giants, cooks like her female slave forebears. But she also harkened back to the work of several African-American cookbook authors: A Domestic Cook Book Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen, by Mrs. Malinda Russell, an Experienced Cook (1866), What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking (1881), and Rufus Estes’ Good Things to Eat: The First Cookbook by an African-American Chef (1911).

This chef got her start in the usual way — by cooking.  Because she cared about cooking and freshness and people, all homey everyday things, her cooking brought her fame and deep friendships.

At a time when a black female chef was as rare as a chicken with incisors, or nearly so, Edna Lewis cooked in the Café Nicholson in New York City. Homesick Southerners like author Truman Capote used to hang around the back door, hoping for a fresh biscuit or some buttermilk cookies.

In a world where a frozen pie crust suffices for most people, Edna Lewis insisted on making her own pie crusts, so much so that once, when she was to prepare hundreds of pies for a reception in Georgia, she lugged a hundred pounds of her own pie dough with her on the train. She made her own baking powder, too, cream of tartar and baking soda. You can see her heritage in the cookbooks left by Martha Washington and Mary Randolph, Virginia aristocrats who enjoyed the cooking of black female slaves like Edna’s grandmothers and great-grandmothers, no doubt.

Her gift to us was that insistence on the fresh, the natural, the personal touch that doesn’t come out of a box or a can or a jar (unless she canned it herself). Getting it right and taking care. It was all about those kinds of old-fashioned values. Like a tot of Southern Comfort on a crisp fall night.

Lord knows, we need more people like Edna Lewis in our world today.

Pound Cake (Used with permission.)
Pound Cake (Used with permission.)

Pound Cake

From The Virginia House-Wife, by Mary Randolph (1824)

Wash the salt from a pound of butter and rub it until it soft as cream, have ready a pound of flour sifted, one of powdered sugar, and twelve eggs well beaten ; put alternately into the butter, sugar, flour, and the froth from the eggs ; continuing to beat them together till all the ingredients are in, and the cake quite light ; add some grated lemon peel, a nutmeg, and a gill of brandy [1/4 of a pint or 4 ounces] ; butter the pans and bake them. This cake makes an excellent pudding if baked in a large mould, and eaten with sugar and wine. It is also excellent when boiled, and served up with melted butter, sugar, and wine.

To Make an Excellent Curran Cake

From Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery (dating to the 17th century)

Take 2 pound of butter and wash it in rose water, casting ye water out. Then take 2 pound of flower & 2 pound of sugar, mix ye flower and sugar together, deviding it into 2 parts, & putting in some into a dredging box. & shake it into a trey till halfe be shaked in, beating ye butter all ye while with ye hand. Ye take 6 eggs to a pound of sugar & flower (takeing out 2 of ye whites), 6 spoonefulls of rose water, some mace beaten. Yn put in ye other halfe of ye sugar & flower, & 2 pound of currans, picked & rubbed verly clean. Yn butter yr pans & fill them halfe full, & set them in a moderate oven.

Malinda Russell’s Plain Pound Cake

This recipe reads a lot like the one in Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-wife, which Mrs. Russell used, since she spent time in Lynchburg, Virginia, on her way to settle in Liberia.

One lb sugar, one lb flour, one nutmeg, 3-4ths lb butter, twelve eggs, half gillbrandy. Paper and grease your pans well ; bake in a moderate oven.

Vanilla Pound Cake

Serves 8-12, depending on appetite and girth
Adapted from
The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis, who said “The keeping quality of pound cake made it a popular favorite, plus the fact that the main ingredients were always available: butter, eggs, and flour. Sugar and flavoring were nearby at Lahore store. All the grownups had their own way of measuring, be it on a dime, nickel, teacup, or sifter, and their cakes were perfect. It was my dream to make a pound cake equal to theirs. I learned that the formula for a good pound cake is a slow oven, cold butter, carefully measured flour (too much flour will cause the cake to crack on top), and proper mixing of butter, sugar, and eggs.” The original recipe calls for beating the butter with a wooden spoon for 5 minutes – true, the beaters might make the butter a tad bit too warm, but 5 minutes of beating causes my arm to fall off. Hence the mixer.


1 cup (1/2 pound) cold butter
1 2/3 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoons salt
5 eggs (medium to large but not jumbo)
2 cups sifted unbleached flour
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice

1. Beat the butter with a hand-held mixer in a large bowl until it becomes smooth and pliable, about 5 minutes. Add the sugar and salt and continue to beat sugar and butter together until light and fluffy.

2. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. After the third egg has been incorporated, add 2 tablespoons of flour and stir well. This will keep the batter from separating and curdling. Add the fourth and fifth egg and continue to stir, then the rest of the flour in four parts, stirring well after each addition. Finally beat in the vanilla and lemon juice.

3. Grease and dust with flour a 9-inch tube pan on the bottom only (Bundt or Angel Food cake pan). Spoon the batter into the pan-it will be thick.

4. Put into an oven that has been preheated to 300°F. Bake 40 minutes at that temperature, then raise the temperature to 325°F for 20 minutes.

5. Remove cake from the oven, run a knife around the sides of the pan, turn out right away on a wire rack, and turn face up. Cool uncovered for 15 minutes, then cover with a clean towel; otherwise the cake will become dry and hard.

6. When cold, store in a clean metal cake tin. Plastic containers develop an undesirable odor.

© 2008, 2010 C. Bertelsen


  1. Hello –
    I am a filmmaker in Atlanta. I read your blog with the mention of Edna Lewis and her recipes.

    I just wanted to let you know I produced a 21 minute documentary about Miss Edna Lewis and its viewable in its entirety on Internet at a Gourmet Magazine website:

    and at a Georgia Public Broadcasting website:

    My documentary is called Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie.

    My website,

    has more information about the film and the story of Miss Lewis.

    Bailey Barash


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