Q&A with Edna Lewis, Renowned Chef of Southern Cooking

Our latest nutrition education program called Chefs@Home was created to encourage children to experiment with new foods, have fun in the kitchen, and maybe even be inspired to become a chef! The program will be piloted in Spring 2021.

Each child will receive a handout in their bag once a month that introduces them to a local or nationally recognized chef, includes some fun facts about a particular food and a recipe to try at home. 

For March’s Chefs@Home, we included a Q&A with Edna Lewis, a renowned chef who was influential in America’s Southern cooking scene; the featured fresh food was collard greens and a recipe for Vegetarian “Southern-Style” Collards was also included.

Here is the Q&A with Edna Lewis where she shares why she was inspired to become a chef.

Edna Lewis lived a long, beautiful life from April 1916 to February 2006. Her legacy still lives on today. Answers have been adapted from an article in The New York Times by Francis Lam entitled “Edna Lewis and the Black Roots of American Cooking.”

Why do you love cooking/being in the kitchen?

I love to be in the kitchen because it brings back memories of home and being on the land where I grew up. When I cook I reflect on what it was like to catch or collect my food, and prepare it surrounded by my family. I loved growing up on the land in a community that valued and revolved around cooking. Even when I left my hometown and went on to New York, I loved cooking because it carried with it that sense of purpose, pleasure, and home. 

Where/how did you learn to cook?

I grew up in a rural community in Virginia founded by my grandparents; it was called Freetown. In Freetown I learned to love food and learned to study its seasons. I figured out the best times of year to cook certain things based on our land. My whole family loved to cook and learned from each other. You receive the food of the earth like it’s a gift. Lots of my family learned to cook as slaves working for the wealthy, and developed an aristocratic strain of southern cuisine.

What is your favorite childhood memory in the kitchen or around the table?

In Freetown, neighbors were family and food held our culture, work, and families together. I can remember that  ‘If someone borrowed one cup of sugar, they would return two. If someone fell ill, the neighbors would go in and milk the cows, feed the chickens, clean the house, cook the food and come and sit with whoever was sick. I guess rural life conditioned people to cooperate with their neighbors.’’ 

Best advice you have for an aspiring chef?

To aspiring chefs I say, honor your roots. Don’t be apologetic with what you love to eat and want to cook! Be mindful of your food and where it comes from, and notice the details. Organic foods, fruits, vegetables, meat, and anything else from the earth, are the best things to eat. Start there and add flavor to bring your ideas to life! 

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