Even among novices with little to no knowledge of the kitchen,The Joy of Cooking is one of the most well known cookbooks around. Julia Child’s work is probably a close second. But the name Edna Lewis, depending on who you ask, is either met with a quizzical look or a smile of pure admiration.
For those in the know, Lewis was (and is, thank you very much) the Grand Dame of Southern Cooking. Published in 1972, The Edna Lewis Cookbook is said to be one of the first cookbooks by a Black woman that didn’t conceal the true author’s identity. Her follow up, 1976’s A Taste of Country Cooking, was even more popular, thanks to its mix of recipes and memories of growing up in Freetown, a community in Virginia that was settled by her grandfather along with other formerly enslaved people.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the book that started it all, Orange County, Virginia is paying homage to its own this year with the opening of the Edna Lewis Menu Trail, a food-fueled celebration that runs from Thanksgiving, 2022 to Memorial Day, 2023.
It’s worth noting that Lewis didn’t simply write cookbooks, but anthologies of prized recipes heavily focused on seasonality. Ragout of lamb and green beans in the spring, hot buttered biscuits with fresh strawberries in summer, and roast pheasant and apple brown betty in the colder months all make appearances throughout the pages. That same focus on seasonal and homegrown ingredients comes to life throughout the seven Orange County restaurants participating in the trail, with each showcasing a Lewis-inspired dish on their menu.
Coopers Cookin and Catering, for one, is known for their stellar fried chicken and penchant for Southern cooking passed down from generations. As such, becoming a part of the trail was a natural fit.
“A lot of our recipes [from] my mother and aunts were similar to a lot of hers—our restaurant is catered around recipes that were [passed] on to us,” says Coopers co-owner, Denise Thompson. “To be a part of this Black history is such a blessing.”
In some ways, placement on the trail felt downright divine. Thompson had never actually heard of Lewis until about a year ago, when one of her customers mentioned Lewis’ name and her connection to the county.
“I guess about two weeks [later], they returned and bought us our very own copy of one of her cookbooks, all before we knew this food trail would happen,” adds Thompson.
For their contribution, Coopers recreated Lewis’ signature Quiche Lorraine and deep dish apple pie, only making subtle tweaks like substituting pepperjack cheese and adding allspice, respectively, to give the dishes more of a kick.
Elsewhere, Lenny Schafer of Clearwater Grill & Catering was also new to Lewis, but quickly found similarities in their cooking styles.
“When I looked at Edna Lewis’s cookbook, [it] reminded me of my first job,” Schafer notes. It was the commitment to simplicity done well that made Schafer want to be a part of the Trail.
Clearwater’s menu includes sauteed rib pork chops, whipped sweet potatoes, and Apple Brown Betty. Each table will also feature a short biographical card covering Lewis and her accomplishments.
Aside from tossing in a few pinches of salt, Schafer kept the recipes authentic, no changes necessary. “She was a great chef, and I wanted everyone to taste her recipes as is,” he says. “Anything less would not be a proper tribute to her life.”
One Orange County institution that Lewis had a decades-long relationship with was Vintage Restaurant at the Inn at Willow Grove. Even after moving from Orange (she lived in New York, DC, and Atlanta throughout her life), Lewis often returned to Virginia to work with the Inn’s chefs, and even started a chestnut festival utilizing the property’s harvest.
The Inn’s culinary director, Andrew Eppley, maintains a connection to Lewis that dates back to 2010. As an intern at North Carolina’s Fearrington House, he remembers serving Lewis’ decadent chocolate souffle. This was one of her most famous recipes, one she perfected while working as a chef at New York’s Cafe Nicholson in the late 1940s.
Fast forward more than a decade later, and Eppley’s contribution to the trail is a smothered rabbit toast with a shallot Soubise, mushrooms, and collards. “Rabbit is a protein that’s not as common at the dinner table as it once was,” he explains. “It was an important staple on the Lewis family farm when Edna was growing up in Freetown, often being prepared at the beginning of the fall hunting season.”
“By bringing her dishes back to life, guests will experience the savory flavors she grew up with,” says Lori Carter, communications director for The Inn at Willow Grove. “It’s a tradition born from families thriving on their land and sharing its seasonal bounties with their community through fellowship and real food.”