On a quiet fall morning in Orange County, Virginia, low clouds pass over the orange- and emerald-colored hills of the Shenandoah Valley. The slight chill on the wind doesn’t dissipate the moisture in the air. Dew clings to blades of grass, catching rays of light as cars hum along nearby Highway 33.
Though it’s a different season, the scene is not dissimilar from the one the late chef Edna Lewis described in her seminal essay, “What Is Southern?” in Gourmet. “Southern is an early spring morning shrouded in a thick mist,” she wrote. “The warmth of a bright sunrise reveals shimmering jewellike dewdrops upon thicket and fence.” Published in 2008, two years after her death, the essay is grounded in Lewis’s understanding of what is, well, Southern: vividly colored memories of gatherings and meals, people she’d encountered over the course of her life as a chef and author, and Freetown, Virginia, a community founded by formerly enslaved African Americans, including her grandfather.
About half an hour away, Freetown is now a quiet pasture of green grass. Presently a working cattle farm, the humble buildings that once held families, organized in a circle around a central building, are gone, save for the bones of the general store on the edge of the 40-acre property. Later this year it will be home to a public marker from Virginia’s department of historic resources, declaring the area the former home of Freetown and the birthplace of the late chef and part of the state’s new Edna Lewis Menu Trail. It is a long overdue acknowledgment.
Lewis was born on April 13, 1916 in Freetown. At 16, she moved to Washington, D.C. and then to New York City where she found work as a seamstress. Her career in food came later after she went into business with a friend, Johnny Nicholson, and became head chef at Café Nicholson in 1948, where she cooked for the likes of Truman Capote and Marlon Brando. By the time of her death in 2006, she had authored four cookbooks, taught cooking classes, and even operated a pheasant farm in New Jersey (though unsuccessfully).
Freetown is immortalized in Lewis’s second cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking, released in 1976 when she was 60 years old and living in New York City. Part cookbook and part manifesto, Lewis’s documentation of her memories in Orange County centered on holidays and the ebb of seasons. The impetus was to tell the story of a community that no longer existed. “We are now faced with picking up the pieces and trying to put them into shape, document them so the present-day young generation can see what Southern food was like,” she wrote in 2006. “The foundation on which it rested was pure ingredients. . . . We grew the seeds of what we ate, we worked with love and care.”
Our modern understanding of “community” loosely translates to a group that we can rely on in both hard and good times. But Freetown—and Lewis’s depiction of it—showed a different meaning. Community was with one another and with nature, its seasons and bounty. Childcare and child rearing were shared, the responsibility of growing and harvesting produce was, too; cooking and preserving, hunting, and learning how to properly butcher animals were essential skills that contributed to the collective’s well-being.
Still, Freetown is not merely a bucolic setting in The Taste of Country Cooking. “That book is also a full-throated call for Americans to reckon with the legacy of slavery,” says Sara B. Franklin, writer, professor at New York University, and editor of Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original. Freetown was one of several communities in the county established by formerly enslaved African Americans. Sharing food, agricultural responsibilities, and caregiving was about survival in a country that was very unsafe for Black people. But the words showcase a love of Black life and cooking that speak to a particular piece of U.S. history that’s not often told. “She’s really making a case for the beauty and abundance of Black life outside of any white involvement,” Franklin says. “Lewis’s was the work of reclamation, not translation.”
Today, Lewis’s work as a chef and author is often credited with documenting and defining Southern cuisine; she is featured in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. as a champion of Black culture. But she remains unknown to many Americans, despite her story being explicitly tied to the beauty and ingenuity of Black Southern cooks.
Driving from coastal Virginia to Orange County after Thanksgiving, I saw the landscape change from flat lowlands with marshy creeks to the hilly peaks of the Shenandoah Valley. After spending three days with my family, I replayed my Thanksgiving meal. My dad, born and raised in Virginia Beach and its immediate surrounding area, had never heard of Edna Lewis. Many of my other relatives had not either. I thought about who is immortalized in our history books, in our lore. In culinary school, we didn’t cover Edna Lewis. Instead, we learned about white men and two women—M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child—and how their stories reflected and shaped American food culture. I understood the importance of these texts. Still, I couldn’t connect to Fisher’s memories of eating oysters at boarding school or Julia Child’s rendition of boeuf bourguignon for the home cook. These things were unfamiliar. But reading The Taste of Country Cooking for the first time in my 20s made me acutely aware of how fortunate I was to have formative food memories in Virginia: those of late summer fish fries in my grandmother’s backyard, chicken drumsticks and thighs shaken in a brown paper shopping bag filled with flour before they were fried in Crisco.
As I drove, I tried to imagine what chef Lewis would serve on her Thanksgiving table and what similarities and differences I’d find in the dishes and how they were prepared. As it turns out, Thanksgiving was not celebrated in Freetown. “Thanksgiving was a Yankee idea, you know, the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock. In Freetown we just had a dinner,” she told the New York Times in 1992.
Although in the same state, there are regional differences in how Virginians eat and what shows up on the table. At my family gatherings, because Chesapeake is coastal, there’s always seafood: crab deviled eggs and oyster dressing, buttery and aromatic with bits of smoked oysters among the celery and onions. In central Virginia there’s less of a focus on seafood; instead the focus is on the state’s celebrated ham, served with biscuits or crackers.
Reading Lewis made me acutely aware of how important those food memories are in shaping how we understand the rest of the food world. Her work of documentation allowed me to see my own story and my family’s history as an important part of American history and a tie to a specific place in the country.
In November 2022, Orange County introduced the Edna Lewis Menu Trail, a collection of locations that played a critical role in her life. They include Bethel Baptist Church, which lists her grandfather and father as founders, Orange’s African American Historical Society, and the James Madison Museum, which hold several artifacts from Lewis’s life, including a chest of drawers from her childhood home as well as commemorative stamps. It also highlights seven local restaurants serving dishes inspired by her work. Spoon & Spindle, in Orange’s town center, serves “Quail Lewis,” a roasted quail stuffed with wild rice alongside roasted brussels sprouts inspired by fall in Orange County. “She was so great at showing the sophistication of Southern food,” says Zach Andrews, executive chef and partner at Spoon & Spindle, who became familiar with Lewis’s work growing up in nearby Charlottesville. Andrews owns all her cookbooks and keeps a copy of In Pursuit of Flavor, her 1988 release, in the restaurant’s kitchen for inspiration. “She was at the forefront of revitalization of Southern food but doesn’t get the credit she deserves,” he says. “She forged a path for Southern chefs to follow.”
Elsewhere, Vintage Restaurant is serving stewed braised rabbit, a favorite of chef Lewis’s in the fall; Cooper’s Cooking and Catering is serving a deep-dish apple pie with nutmeg sauce based on Lewis’s recipe. Taken together, the dishes create a map of her influence on Virginia’s chefs and restaurants for travelers who may not know about her life and legacy. In large part, this was the goal, says Julie Perry, assistant director of economic development and tourism for Orange County’s tourism board.
“The Edna Lewis Menu Trail gives local chefs a chance to pay tribute to Ms. Lewis’s legacy in the place where she grew up and learned to cook, with the very agriculture that inspired her and her family,” says Perry, who helped to create the trail. Perry also worked with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the Orange County African American Historical Society to erect the historical marker “to permanently honor her and tell her story for many years to come.”
The Lewis family was consulted on the creation of the trail and contributed their thoughts, but mostly live away from the area now, leading me to think about how Black land ownership is being preserved in Orange County. While tasting the dishes at many of the restaurants on the trail, I wondered, too, how Orange County was offering programming to help Black women chefs own their own restaurants or write their own books. It feels part of the story that should be continued.
While eating lunch at Spoon & Spindle, I looked over the county’s promotional Edna Lewis Menu Trail table talker, featuring Lewis’s silhouette and a QR code to learn more about her story. “Lewis grew up in Freetown in Orange County before taking the New York City food scene by storm.” I turned it over and placed it back on the table. As lunch progressed, I noticed diners at other tables doing the same. “Some people know the story [of Edna Lewis] and some people don’t, so we’re happy to tell them,” says manager and co-owner Shalese Higginbotham.
Visiting the Edna Lewis Menu Trail, I took a detour: to visit her family’s grave and see her headstone. A small, fenced-off plot designated the Lewis family headstones. I took a step toward the headstone that read “Grand Dame of Southern Cooking” and stopped in silence. Then, I thanked Lewis for her work.