Chef Edna Lewis: She Nourished Our Bodies and Fed Our Souls

We’ve read profiles of women who contribute artistically, so let’s look at a woman who made considerable contributions in the culinary arena. Edna Lewis was born in 1916 and died in 2006. She is credited with changing the way highbrow culinarians view Southern cuisine or what we sometimes call “soul food.” Born and raised in the black community, Freetown, Virginia, Edna Lewis began working in a laundry and eventually as a seamstress in New York City. She made dresses for many people, including Marilyn Monroe. She took work at Café Nicholson in Manhattan as a cook, and from there her reputation as a cook grew.

At Café Nicholson she cooked for transplanted southerners and socialites like William FaulknerMarlon BrandoTennessee WilliamsTruman CapoteRichard AvedonGloria VanderbiltMarlene Dietrich, and Diana Vreeland. She would meet the woman famous for catapulting Julia Child into the spotlight as a cookbook author, and she would publish her first cookbook, The Edna Lewis Cookbook (1972). She co-founded the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food, a precursor to the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA). James Beard and others referred to her as the Southern answer to Julia Child. Here is one of her famous recipes.

She-Crab Soup with Benne Seed Biscuits
Makes 8 Servings

In Lowcountry, female crabs are prized for this famous soup because they contribute a potent but delicate flavor. Following tradition, she-crab soup should be prepared using female crabs exclusively, with their roe added for even more flavor.

  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick)
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 cups milk
  • 4 cups heavy cream
  • 1 pound lump crab meat, picked
  • 1/4 cup dry sherry
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 cups crab roe or the yolks of 4 hard-boiled eggs
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/2 tablespoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 dozen Benne Seed Biscuits (see recipe)

 

  1. Melt butter in a heavy 4-quart soup pot over medium heat.
  2. In a saucepan, heat milk, but do not boil.
  3. When butter is hot, whisk in flour to make a roux. Cook roux 2-3 minutes, do not brown.
  4. Slowly stir in hot milk, whisking well. Cook over medium low heat until hot,stirring occasionally to prevent scorching.
  5. Pour cream into a large skillet. Bring to boil, whisking occasionally, then reduce heat and cook for about 10-15 minutes until cream has thickened and reduced by [1/4].
  6. Pour cream into hot mixture. Mix well, then stir in crab meat.
  7. Cook 30 minutes to allow the flavor to develop, stirring occasionally.
  8. Season with sherry and salt.
  9. Add crab roe. Ladle into serving bowls. Garnish with parsley and a generous sprinkle of cayenne.

This recipe developed by Chef Edna Lewis all rights reserved. Copyright © 3/1/2012

 

Benne Seed Biscuits
Makes 2 dozen

The slaves brought benne seeds [sesame seeds] to the New World with them from Africa and they have been a staple in Southern cookery ever since.

  • 1 cup benne seeds [sesame seeds]
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 11/2 teaspoons Baking Powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2/3 cup lard
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • Salt

 

  1. Place the benne seeds in a shallow pan in a preheated, 425 degree oven. After 5 minutes, check on the benne seeds. They should be the color of butterscotch and should have a delicious toasted smell. If not, shake the pan and return to the oven for 1 to 2 minutes longer, but watch carefully. They burn easily.
  2. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a large bowl. Add the lard and work the mixture with a pastry blender or your fingertips until it has the texture of cornmeal. Add the milk and mix well. Mix in the toasted benne seeds.
  3. Place the dough on a floured surface, knead for a few seconds, and shape into a ball.
  4. Roll the dough out until it is about the thickness of a nickel. Using a 2-inch biscuit cutter, stamp out rounds and lay them on an ungreased baking sheet or a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
  5. Bake for about 12 minutes, until lightly browned.
  6. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with a little bit of salt and serve hot.

Chef’s Tip: You may store the cooked biscuits in an airtight tin or jar and reheat them before serving.

This recipe developed by Chef Edna Lewis all rights reserved. Copyright © 3/1/2012

 

 

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