The brilliantly talented chef and cookbook author Edna Lewis helped raise Southern food to celebrity status decades ago, and now food celebrities in the region are returning the favor—making her famous again with a younger generation of food lovers. Lewis's cookbook The Taste of Southern Cooking, published in 1976, is suddenly a huge bestseller this week, ranking #11 on Amazon's overall bestseller list and #5 on its cookbook list, according to the Washington Post.
The reason? On the latest episode of Top Chef Season 14, which was shot entirely in Charleston, the cheftestants went to Lewis's former Charleston restaurant kitchen, where they were asked to create a dish that pays tribute to her legacy.
As it turned out, some of the chefs hadn't heard of Lewis, who worked at high-profile New York City restaurants back in the 1940s, places like like Gage and Tollner and Cafe Nicholson (where she cooked for stars like Greta Garbo and Truman Capote, "who was always badgering me about biscuits," she told the Washington Post) and at Charleston's Middleton Place. Lewis was rare among her culinary peers as a high-profile African American woman chef. Lewis, who was born in Virginia and was the granddaughter of slaves, became "the South's answer to Julia Child," as quoted in her obituary in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; she died in 2006, at age 89.
In the obituary, Judith Jones, the famed Knopf cookbook editor who worked with Lewis on her cookbooks, said Lewis "lives on every time I taste fried chicken or in little memories of how she listened to the sound of a cake baking in the oven." Lewis, however, made her name for her fresh and sophisticated approach to the region's diverse cuisine, and for broadening the sense of what "Southern food" can mean: "It's not all fried chicken and greasy greens," she told the Washington Post back in 1990.
As for who won the Edna Lewis challenge in the episode, and what the winning dish was, we won't spoil the surprise for anyone who hasn't seen it yet.
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