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A Woman in the Kitchen? The Legacy of a Southern Culinary Legend Continues to Inspire & Teach Us

 



A Culinary Legend is an accolade bestowed on those who revolutionize our eating style. To have done so in an era when social and media didn’t go together like peanut butter and jelly, it’s all more remarkable Edna Lewis earned enduring consideration as the “First Lady of Southern Cooking;” recognized as one of the most important and influential American chefs.

She also merited an “answer” on Jeopardy, and a US Postal Stamp!

Here’s her story and the family legacy as told by her niece, Nina Williams-Mbengue, the manuscript’s typist for Lewis’ cookbook, ‘A Taste of Country Cooking.”


Nina honored me and my Ladies Who Lunch Conversations Followers and viewers this month as a very special and inspiring guest.

I first met Nina at a panel discussion at the New School in New York City some years ago.

As audience members, Nina was two seats away from me with no one in between to block her engaging, wonderful smile.

I was lucky to have secured her autograph in a copy of her Aunt Edna’s 1976 cookbook, “A Taste of Country Cooking,” the manuscript she typed, along with that of the legendary Knopf publisher Judith Jones, who also “discovered” and published Julia Childs.

In the years since, I’d listened to or read interviews with Nina on the Radio Cherry Bombe podcast, Afros and Knives, The New York Times, and in other media.

I believe that what makes Nina and her family so very interesting and inspiring is not only how they were so successful in spite of many difficult barriers and struggles but also how they did it during a time of uncharted change in America. Moreover, they did it with talent, dignity, and sincerity.
Edna Lewis is revered for her cooking and her spirit. She codified the classics of Southern cuisine, helped inspire the farm-to-table movement ~ insisting on using local and seasonal ingredients long, long before it became a culinary crie de coeur, and documented the foodways of Freetown, Virginia, the settlement founded by Edna’s grandfather and other individuals who had been freed from chattel slavery.

And the place Miss Lewis called her “North Star.”

4__franklin_john_hill_photo_edna.nyc_.jp (Photo: Edna Lewis Foundation) 

Scholarship Opportunity
In our Conversation, Nina heralded the Foundation’s Culinary Scholarship ~ the $5,000 awarded annually to qualified candidates who identify as black within the categories of Agriculture & Farming, Culinary Arts, and Writing.

The deadline to apply is coming up fast: July 31.
Follow this link.


The Foundation and the Scholarship are remarkable examples of a legacy ~ a way to honor our elders after they pass from this life. My Doula studies and work have greatly illuminated for me the significance and importance of creating a legacy after death so that we remember a life.

The Edna Lewis Foundation and the Scholarship are the best examples of creating legacy…

If you aren’t candidate material, you can donate to the Foundation!

The Ladies Who Lunch Conversation
I was curious how a legend influences the world and at the same time, the family? Are there two personas to a legend? And what obligation or “burden” is it to carry on a family legend’s work?

There is no doubt that Aunt Edna casts a long shadow.

Nina detailed answers to my questions as well as offering some great behind-the-scenes anecdotes of writing a cookbook and life with Aunt Edna.

I learned from Nina that Aunt Edna would have a double martini after her 10 or 12-hour work day at Brooklyn’s Gage & Tollner restaurant, often followed by a shot of Jack Daniels! What a dame!

Here’s a celebratory menu Nina shared featuring the double martini ~ with Serene Green Tea. This cocktail confection is sure to add some style to my celebrated “Duchess Martini” I featured in my Art of the Garnish cocktail book. 😀 

The recent Martini Cocktail Homage was part of a celebration marking Miss Lewis’ inclusion into the National Portrait Gallery, along with her “life, legacy, and contribution to American cuisine and culinary heritage.” 

Edna Lewis was an indefatigable mover and shaker at a time when one would’ve argued that Southern Cuisine was an oxymoron; when her peers were Julia Child and James Beard ~ now food heroes in the culinary pantheon but back then were “just” folks teaching cooking in their homes or struggling to write their own cookbook.

And a time when most folks, especially women, most especially a black woman, would’ve been reconciled to the cooks to be forgotten ~ so it’s all the more remarkable that Edna Lewis, the “First Lady of Southern Cooking,” is so very revered today as an extraordinary, influential American chef.

We owe much of our knowing to Nina.

Nina Williams-Mbengue is the daughter of Edna Lewis’s younger sister Naomi. At the age of 12, she lived with her mother and Miss Lewis in New York City, in the South Bronx, and typed up the manuscript for A Taste of Country Cooking.

Nina said that living in the South Bronx at that time, (when the Bronx was “burning”) she made a deal with God… God listened to her plea; Nina kept her end of the bargain, pursuing a career working in child welfare policy. … She’s been giving back ever since. To not only Aunt Edna’s legacy but also to Nina’s community and her family.

Nina is also an author in her own right: “Preventing Child Fatalities, The Role of State Child Death Review.”

​Nina is also a member of the Edna Lewis Foundation Board of Trustees.

A graduate of the University of Virginia, Nina holds a BA in Latin American Studies and has worked as a grant writer with Care International, as a Resource Assistant with American Humane Association and as a Program Director and Senior Fellow with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).  

In 2020, she retired from NCSL’s Child Welfare Project where, for nearly 25 years she provided advice and consultation, interpretation and analysis of child welfare legislative trends, and commentary on child welfare policy initiatives. She conducted legislative research and policy analysis on child welfare issues. She was recognized as NCSL’s child welfare expert for state legislatures and across a broad spectrum of organizations. 

Nina is currently providing policy consultation on child welfare. 

A woman after my own heart, Nina is a volunteer master gardener ~ and enjoys her own gardening, photography, all things sci-fi/fantasy and spending time with her daughters.  

Perhaps her family also influenced her love of gardening… After all, her uncle ~ one of Edna’s brothers ~ earned a degree in Botany after his service in WWII, part of the Normandy invasion. He went on to run the world-class Descanso Gardens in California, noted for its native plants and oak woodlands.

Edna supported and paid for Nina’s mother schooling, and later Naomi became a fine artist. So much talent for one family!


In our Ladies Who Lunch Conversation, Nina graciously shares her stories about typing up the manuscript from Aunt Edna’s “chicken scratch,” With galleys sent or brought to her publisher, Judith Jones’ office in midtown Manhattan.  

The book was and remains a trailblazing set of recipes that celebrates the  seasons, while cultivating community. With a preface by Judith Jones and foreword by Alice Waters!

With menus for the four seasons, Miss Lewis shares the ways her family prepared and enjoyed food, savoring the delights of each special time of year.

Can you guess what Nina’s favorite recipes are?  She shares a few of them in our Conversation. 

Today, Nina works to keep the Edna Lewis legend relevant and enduring. And she wants everyone to know about and support the Foundation and Freetown.

Now, we just need someone to write that book. 😀

Thank you so much, Nina.  You and your family continue to inspire us.

I sincerely hope you all enjoy this fascinating Conversation.

2 Comments

  • Garden Glamour

    Thank you so much for letting me know how much you were moved and inspired by Nina's talented family. My Ladies Who Lunch Conversations guests are inspiring women who I am so very honored to showcase…. Nina and Aunt Edna's stories and recipes teach us so very much… Please consider contributing to Freetown and also, I encourage you to purchase Edna's Cookbook! Enjoy.

  • Anonymous

    A wonderful family of so many talented members. Everyone should be inspired by their legacy. Thanks Leeann for bringing it all to our reading and cooking.

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"Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art."
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 I adore plants. Plants are my muse ~ they are my paramour… I’m a garden artist; a nature lover, & horticulturist. I’m an author & writer. My passion for culture & beauty, along with my trait curiosity, brings you an authentic celebration of life. I’m a storyteller ~ weaving the artful gifts of horticulture, garden design, tablescape decor, floral design, cocktail culture, garden-to-glass recipes & their glamorous garnishes, homegrown edibles, food & drink; & cooking, to bring you my flair & what I’ve been told is an avid elan ~ as well as the stories from those who inspire me ~ to pursue an elegant, enduring, & joyful, entertaining lifestyle. It’s an honor & a privilege to do what you love.

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