The Edna Lewis Menu Trail in Orange County, VA
Orange County has kicked off a truly tasty effort to celebrate a chef of its own. She’s the late chef Edna Lewis, who grew up in the county’s Freetown and went on to the groundbreaking success in New York City restaurants and penning popular cookbooks that earned her titles like “the Grande Dame of Southern Cooking” and even “the South’s answer to Julia Childs.”
The celebration started Thursday night with a dinner at The Inn at Willow Grove where two Orange County chefs (Craig Hartman and Chef Andrew Eppley) and another from Fredericksburg treated Lewis family members, county officials and others to a three-course meal featuring variations of Lewis’s own recipes on the 50th anniversary of her first cookbook. Diners were served plates of everything from fried chicken to braised greens to a chocolate dessert using locally grown and ground chestnuts—all to illustrate the chef’s unbending belief that growing, harvesting, sourcing and cooking with local ingredients in season is critical to the Southern cooking she introduced to New York elites and the world. The proud black woman and culinary legend was born in Freetown in Orange in 1916, dying in 2006 at the age of 89.
While its dinner was a one-night event, the county’s Department of Economic Development and Tourism has announced an initiative that will make Lewis’s dishes available for months to an expanded audience by literally putting her on the map. That’s happening through a new creation called “The Edna Lewis Menu Trail” which puts Lewis signature dishes on the menus of seven restaurants all across the rural Virginia county. From this Thanksgiving through Memorial Day in 2023, diners will be able to order different Lewis dishes at each of the participating restaurants. That means at the Barbeque Exchange in Gordonsville, hungry diners will have the chance to sample the chef’s Brunswick stew with cornbread and her coconut layer cake. At Clearwater Grill in Locust Grove, the Lewis offerings are sautéed pork chops with whipped sweet potatoes and apple brown Betty.
(See bottom of page for all locations and details.)
To further connect Lewis for a for a collection of travel writers and staff members from the Virginia Tourism Corporation, the economic development and tourism office on Friday offered an “Edna Lewis Familiarization Tour.” Participants on the driving tour traveled to Freetown, where Lewis was born and grew up, to Bethel Baptist Church (the Lewis family’s church), to lay a wreath at Lewis’s grave and to Montpelier to see the “Mere Distinction of Colour Exhibit” and learn more about the lives of the enslaved at the plantation. They ended the tour in Gordonsville to learn why that Orange county town is often referred to as the “Fried Chicken Capital of the World.” Along the way and at the dinner, participants learned about the unprecedented success of Lewis cookbooks that made her internationally known: “The Edna Lewis Cookbook”, which also included Lewis’s experiences, travels and imagination; and “The Taste of Country Cooking,” where the chef advocated seasonal, vegetable-focused cooking while also referencing the people in Freetown who produced the food, as well as the relationships and rituals that gave it meaning Julie Perry, the assistant director for Orange tourism and economic development who has spearheaded the effort to honor and publicize Lewis, said her story is simply so important and compelling that it deserves to be told.
Phil Audibert, who years ago created a documentary on Lewis, was at Thursday night’s dinner and shared memories about meeting her. The journalist and photographer between courses recalled a time when he invited Lewis to his home for dinner. The toughest part of that evening, he recalled, was telling his wife that he’d extended the invitation. Her reaction: “You have invited the Grande Dame of Southern Cuisine to our house, for dinner WITHOUT CONSULTING ME! What am I going to cook?’” Audibert said it all worked out, as the couple who raised and hunted much of what they ate in those days on their farm served their guest a haunch of venison shot on their property, marinated for days in lemon juice, red wine and juniper berries, as well as a cobbler made with wild blackberries picked on the farm. He said the meal was “right up her alley, but added that the strongest memory he has from her visit happened on a wagon ride they all shared behind their steady draft horse Ned, when Lewis accepted an invitation to take the reins. “When she clucked and told Ned to walk on, her face lit up in a radiant smile,” he said. “For a moment there, Edna Lewis, the Grande Dame of Southern cooking, was back home in Freetown as a little girl.”
Another speaker at the dinner was one of the chefs, Fredericksburg’s own Joy Crump of the city’s Foode restaurant, who delighted diners with her main course of Lewis’s food: fried chicken, corn pudding, yams, braised greens and yeast rolls. Contacted the morning of the dinner, Crump tried to put into words what the culinary star means to her. Crump said she sees Lewis as a “continued gateway to the history of our region, the access point where we can learn more about American cookery, about all the unsung heroes in the history of Virginia and of the African American culture who really mattered and made an impact.” Crump noted that there’s magic that comes out of the period when African Americans were put on the bottom rung of any ladder, and forced to work in the shadows, without recognition. “That makes this celebration of Edna Lewis so special, because she took those truths and presented them with honesty and beauty, melting away the class difference so prevalent,” she said. “Mrs. Lewis went from Orange County to Manhattan, cooking food for white diners, because beautiful, honest, seasonally prepared food is loved by everyone. . . Even if you don’t understand how the food traveled to get to the plate, diners know the feeling they get in their mouth when they taste food that was prepared with honesty, love and respect for the process.” Mary Terrell, a neighbor of Lewis’s growing up and part of her extended family, said she thinks it’s phenomenal that the chef is getting this attention. “She was such a dignified lady. I knew her as a child and it was something when Miss Edna would come home, for revival, when ladies would spread their cakes and pies out. They were competing, and she did too.”
Afeworki Paulos, a Georgia resident whom Lewis adopted in 1986, said the fact that she so loved her home community and all of Orange County makes it “so it’s wonderful that the people here are now celebrating her. Her legacy continues.” The retired college professor, who taught everything from African studies to international relations, said that his first thoughts about her are how kind and loving she was. Next comes the way she excelled at telling her own story, typically using food and its harvesting to explain the true nature of a community where if you borrowed one cup of sugar, you returned two. Paulos noted that his adopted mother was also quite the social and political activist. “I’m trained as a political scientist, and sometimes we’d discuss politics and I’d try to show off my knowledge,” he said. “She’d just smile and listen, then add ‘So now let me tell you what we did in the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s and I’d be quite and listen, realizing once again that I was truly the student.”
Distant Lewis cousins Barbara Black and Joan Graves said they think it’s important for the county to highlight the life of Edna Lewis and all those from Orange who have made serious contributions to the country and society, of whom there are many. They also noted that the chestnut tree planted in Lewis’s honor in 2001 at the Inn at Willow Grove is still alive and producing chestnuts, and that the family was gratified when the famous chef was on a postage stamp issued in 2014. “She was so special, and we’re proud that the county is spreading that message,” said Graves.
Article Written by: Rob Hedelt
THE TRAIL, WHICH KICKS OFF THIS THANKSGIVING, FEATURES RESTAURANTS OFFERING MENU ITEMS USING HER RECIPES, INCLUDING:
Champion Ice House in Gordonsville, 540-748-9501, Apple brown Betty, hoppin’ John.
Clearwater Grill in Locust Grove, Sautéed rib pork chops served with whipped sweet potatoes, apple brown Betty.
Coopers Cookin and Catering in Orange, 540-308-7199: Quiche Lorraine, deep dish apple pie with nutmeg sauce, curry chicken or curry shrimp in rotation.
Market at Grelen in Somerset, 434-242-7356, hot biscuit, split, buttered and sugared, with fresh strawberries and whipped cream.
Spoon and Spindle in Orange, 540-308-5874, Roast quail stuffed with wild rice and white grapes.
Vintage Restaurant near Orange, Smothered braised rabbit, slow-roasted sticky ribs.
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