[review + recipe] Chef Edna: Queen of Southern Cooking, Edna Lewis by Melvina Noel and Cozbi A. Cabrera

“One of the greatest pleasures of my life has been that I have never stopped learning about good cooking and good food.” ~ Edna Lewis

Picture this:

A group of African American family members and friends gathered outdoors around a long, white-clothed table covered with “warm fried chicken, thin slices of boiled Virginia ham, green beans cooked in pork stock, turnip greens picked that morning, potato salad with a boiled dressing, pickles, preserves, and yeast bread.” 

For dessert? Mincemeat, lemon meringue and fried apple pies, along with coconut and black walnut cakes. Don’t forget the watermelon and cantaloupe, the freshly ground coffee to be drunk out of bowls.

Miss Lewis, Culinary Ambassador and Grande Doyen of Southern Cooking.

This is the kind of homemade, homegrown food beloved chef and cookbook author Edna Lewis grew up with. Her advocacy of this simple style of cooking using only the freshest in-season ingredients anticipated the natural foods, slow food, and farm-to-table movements, essentially changing the way average Americans viewed Southern cuisine.

Beautiful painting of young Edna under the dust jacket!

In Chef Edna: Queen of Southern Cooking, Edna Lewis (Cameron Kids, 2032), Melvina Noel and Cozbi A. Cabrera trace Edna’s life from her childhood on a Virginia farm, to her early days as a working single, then finally to her prominence as a restaurant co-owner and chef-de-cuisine in NYC.

Essentially, what Edna first learned about cooking and everything associated with it – family, friends, love, community, cultural heritage – established her identity and defined her life’s work, as she remained committed to preserving traditional Southern foodways while showcasing the seminal role African Americans played in the origins of this regional cuisine.

It all began on a farm in Freetown, Virginia, an African American community founded by Edna’s grandfather and two other freed slaves. From an early age, Edna participated in all aspects of farm life: milking cows, chasing chickens, picking wild greens and gathering berries. Edna especially loved cooking with her mother, Mama Daisy.

Each season they made and looked forward to special dishes: pan fried shad in spring, a bounty of garden ripe vegetables in summer, root crops like peanuts and sweet potatoes in the fall, and sweets like sugar cookies and peanut brittle in winter. 

And then there were biscuits! Edna had watched Mama Daisy make them so often she could make them by heart. She used coins to measure salt and baking powder, and an upside down glass to cut out the biscuits. When Edna made cake, she could tell when it was done just by listening to it.

In her teens, Edna left Freetown and headed for New York to help support her five siblings after her father died. There, she first worked as a domestic, cooking and cleaning. Once her mother passed, Edna found other jobs to increase her income. She worked in an office and as a seamstress and department store window dresser. It wasn’t long before she was sewing dresses for movie stars and being admired on the street for the traditional African dresses she had designed for herself. 

Edna enjoyed her life in New York, but she missed her Freetown family and friends, along with the comforting, flavorful foods that tasted like home. So she began throwing dinner parties for her new friends and catering events. Everyone loved her delicious Southern meals.

Before long, she partnered with one of her friends to open a restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was a great success and became a favorite haunt of literary and artistic luminaries. They couldn’t get enough of Edna’s roast chicken, filet mignon, chocolate soufflé and caramel cake.

Edna serving dinner guests at Café Nicholson (l to r): ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq, the novelist Donald Windham, Buffie Johnson, Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal (1949), photo by Karl Bissinger.

Edna had found a way to bring the distinctive flavors of Freetown country cooking to the big city. She cooked with the fresh seasonal ingredients she found at the farmers market. In her kitchen apartment, she still made biscuits the old (and best) way. And she still made cake, listening carefully for the quiet when it was done.

Illustrator Cozbi A. Cabrera had me at the gorgeous cover, which shows an older Edna embracing a table full of Freetown loved ones. In this picture: a love of food, fellowship & heritage, cooking with heart, holding fond memories close. What a perfect way to capture who Edna was and what she stood for! 

Cabrera’s beautiful paintings had me sighing at every page turn – the rich, warm colors, the sublime textures and layers, the bucolic expanses of Freetown vs. the bustling scenes of Uptown, and of course all the mouthwatering depictions of food and Edna cooking. Such a brilliant job of expanding on Noel’s succinct text, breathing life and depth into each milestone!

In the opening spread we see where Edna came from: fresh air, green grass and church, a Holstein, chickens and berries, people working in the fields, Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance, a humble clapboard kitchen. There, little Edna stands on a chair next to Mama Daisy at the sink. There’s no better way to learn than to watch and imitate.

I love seeing an intent Edna mixing biscuit dough in that big red striped bowl, and the illustrated recipe steps on the next page. And Edna listening to see if the cake is done? Charming!

Evocative details and masterfully drawn figures draw the reader into emotive scenes that have a cinematic feel, from the somber beauty of the horse-drawn funeral carriage with its mourners against the blue trees of night, to the glorious intergenerational Revival Sunday feast, to smiling Edna hosting one of her dinner parties, guests holding out their plates for more.

A particular favorite is the spread of Chef Edna just outside the dining room of her restaurant, Café Nicholson. Is that Truman Capote asking for biscuits? I see her business partner, Johnny Nicholson, sitting by himself, watching happy customers – among them, Eleanor Roosevelt, William Faulkner, Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Vanderbilt, Tennessee Williams and Salvador Dali. No, they were not named in the text, but adult readers will enjoy recognizing the bohemian clientele thanks to Cabrera’s wonderful caricatures.

With the final spread we come full circle – for there is Edna in her apartment kitchen making biscuits and cake, just as she did as a little girl. She’s still using an upside down glass to cut out the biscuits, still listening to a cake to check if it’s done.

In her Author’s Note, Noel discusses why she was inspired to write the book, mentions the four cookbooks Edna wrote, and lists some of the many awards she earned during her career (African American Chefs Hall of Fame, James Beard Living Legend Award, Grande Dame of Southern Cooking). And yes, she’s also included a biscuit recipe from Edna’s book, In Pursuit of Flavor (1988).

Edna (center) at an Annual Revival, Bethel Baptist Church, Unionville, Virginia.

Young readers may like knowing how an unassuming country girl became a notable chef at a time when there were few women (let alone black women) in the profession. Edna was also one of the first African American women to publish a cookbook that did not hide her true name, gender, or race. 

Quiet, graceful and elegant, she was not of the celebrity chef ilk, dedicating her efforts instead to celebrating genuine Southern delectables for future generations. Her cookbooks, which include lovingly told childhood stories with contextual recipe references, include tidbits of Southern and African American cultural traditions. Edna inspired countless young chefs, who, thanks to her open hearted dedication, can better appreciate a self sufficient way of life and a time in history when cooking was not only an essential craft, but a prized art. 



After reading, “One. Two. Three cups of flour. A quarter’s worth of baking powder. A dime’s worth of salt. Lard and sweet milk” twice in the book, we simply had to try making Edna’s biscuits.

As she says in the recipe headnote, she used to make biscuits for 5 or 6 people, but once she was living alone she made half the recipe, with no leftovers. As promised, these are quick and easy to make if you measure out the ingredients beforehand.

This is the first time I’ve ever baked with lard (which wasn’t that easy to find), and I think using unsalted butter would have also yielded good results. Lard gives the biscuits a velvety smooth texture, but I confess missing the flavor of butter.

There’s another widely circulated Edna Lewis biscuit recipe that calls for buttermilk which I’ll have to try next time. Still, there’s nothing like a warm biscuit with lots of butter and jam. 🙂

I can see why Truman Capote used to beg Edna for her biscuits. Mmmm!

Edna's 'Biscuits for Two or Three'

  • Servings: 8 to 10 biscuits
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print


  • 1/2 pound unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 teaspoons single-acting baking powder
  • 2 oz chilled lard
  • 2/3 cup milk


  1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
  2. Put the flour, salt, baking powder and lard in a mixing bowl. Blend with your fingertips until the mixture is the texture of cornmeal.
  3. Add the milk all at once and stir the mixture well with a stout spoon.
  4. Scrape the dough out of the bowl onto a lightly floured surface. Sprinkle the dough lightly with a teaspoon of flour to prevent its sticking to your fingers.
  5. Knead the dough for a few seconds and shape it into a round, thick cake. Dust the rolling surface and the rolling pin again lightly with flour and roll the dough from the center outward into a circle. Lift up the dough and turn it as you roll to make a circle 9″ in diameter. Pierce the dough all over with a dinner fork and cut with a biscuit cutter, beginning on the outer edge and cutting in as close as possible to avoid too much leftover dough.
  6. Place on a heavy cookie sheet or baking pan and bake for 12-13 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 3 or 4 minutes before serving. Serve hot.
  1. The recipe calls for 1/2 pound (8 oz) of AP flour (which I diligently weighed out), but I think simply using 1-1/2 cups of flour would be better, as this is a very sticky dough and a tad extra would make it easier to handle.
  2. The recipe also calls for single-acting baking powder, which is hard to find. I used double-acting baking powder with no problem. From what I read online, the two are pretty much interchangeable.
  3. This is a pretty delicate, puffy dough. I don’t think using a rolling pin is really necessary. I gently patted the dough into a flat circle with my hands before using my biscuit cutter.
~ Adapted from “Edna’s Biscuits for Two or Three”/In Pursuit of Flavor by Edna Lewis (University Press of Virginia, 1988), as posted at Jama’s Alphabet Soup.


CHEF EDNA: Queen of Southern Cooking, Edna Lewis
written by Melvina Noel
illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera
published by Cameron Kids, April 18, 2023
Picture Book Biography for ages 4-8, 32 pp.
*Includes Author’s Note, Biscuit Recipe and Bibliography
***On shelves today!!

♥️ More Edna Lewis at Alphabet Soup:

Miss Edna Lewis, My Valentine (includes her gingerbread recipe)

Review: Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie by Robbin Gourley

♥️ Enjoy this wonderful award-winning documentary about Miss Lewis, “Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie,” written, produced and directed by Bailey Barash. You’ll get to hear her voice and feel her essence — it’s spiritual, calming and comforting. As so many others have said, she has a great face — a presence — and was truly a luminous individual. You’ll also get to hear from Scott Peacock about their unusual, abiding friendship. Well worth 20 minutes of your time.


*Interior spreads text copyright © 2023 Melvina Noel, illustrations © 2023 Cozbi A. Cabrera, published by Cameron Kids. All rights reserved.

**Copyright © 2023 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

9 thoughts on “[review + recipe] Chef Edna: Queen of Southern Cooking, Edna Lewis by Melvina Noel and Cozbi A. Cabrera

  1. I grew up with this kind of cooking, couldn’t help notice those tasty-looking tomatoes, too, Jama. You know I love biscuits, will give these a try, especially since it’s not for so many! How thoughtful she was! And what a special life. (My library has it – hooray!)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Perfect for putting homemade preserves on! Thanks for sharing this lovely book and recipe with us. I’ll bet her coconut cake recipe is delicious.


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