On the Edna Lewis Menu Trail, a toast to an iconic chef and her hometown

Edna Lewis's apple brown Betty, served at Gordonsville Ice House in Gordonsville, Va.

Brunswick stew with cornbread at The Barbeque Exchange in Gordonsville.

Chef Zachary Andrews preparing “quail Lewis” at Spoon and Spindle in Orange, Va.

The Market at Grelen, a stop on the Edna Lewis Menu Trail, in Somerset, Va.

ORANGE, VA. — It was late afternoon when I checked into my hotel perched on the top of a hill in Virginia’s Piedmont region. The front-desk attendant mentioned the lovely view from my room as he handed me the keys. I was still full from a lunch of sauteed rib pork chops with whipped sweet potatoes, and with time to kill before my dinner reservation, I decided to rest. As I lay on the bed gazing out the window at the sun setting over the Blue Ridge Mountains, I was struck by the beauty of this majestic setting — and I began to understand why Edna Lewis loved her birthplace so much.

“I grew up in Freetown, Virginia, a community of farming people,” Lewis wrote in her 1976 memoir/cookbook, “The Taste of Country Cooking.” “It wasn’t really a town. The name was adopted because the first residents had all been freed from chattel slavery and they wanted to be known as a town of Free People.”

Throughout her career, Lewis’s work served as a means of preserving the memory of Freetown and its people, and to share that with the world through cooking. About 10 miles from the town of Orange, there isn’t much of Freetown still standing save for the remnants of a couple of buildings, but through the creation of the Edna Lewis Menu Trail, its legacy in this region lives on.

Organized by the Orange County Office of Tourism, the menu trail launched on Thanksgiving in 2022 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of “The Edna Lewis Cookbook,” and it runs through Memorial Day. It includes seven restaurants within 33 miles of one another, whose menus are featuring recipes from Lewis’s cookbooks or dishes inspired by her.

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Often described as the “grande dame of Southern cooking,” Lewis was an accomplished chef and cookbook author who helped increase America’s understanding of the breadth and elegance of Southern cuisine. “It’s not all fried chicken and greasy greens,” she said in a 1990 Washington Post interview. Beyond that, Lewis inspired the now-ubiquitous farm-to-table movement by championing the virtues of growing one’s own food and cooking with local, seasonal ingredients. When she died in 2006, she had been honored by just about every American culinary group, including the Southern Foodways Alliance and the James Beard Foundation, and now her impact is resonating again.

The menu trail was created to celebrate the place that shaped Lewis’s culinary philosophy and educate visitors and locals alike about what she stood for. “She always insisted this is the area where it all started,” said her son Afeworki Paulos from his home in Georgia, and I was ready to explore this nurturing ground.

My first stop was ClearWater Fire Grill in Locust Grove, where the whipped sweet potatoes with brandy, brown sugar and freshly grated nutmeg were a lovely match for the simply seasoned pork chops draped with a pan sauce. My server’s bubbly warmth put me at ease after the 90-minute drive from D.C. And with every interaction along the trail, I began to realize I was on the receiving end of the Southern hospitality Lewis embodied.

“The memories of that community that she grew up in and the care they took of each other and the hope they had for their future left an indelible mark on her,” Lewis’s niece Nina Williams-Mbengue said over the phone from her home in Colorado.

Lewis was born in 1916, one of eight children, and she learned to cook from the people in Freetown, who lived an agrarian lifestyle. After her father died, she moved North at age 16, first to Washington and then New York, where she found work as a seamstress. In 1949, she partnered with a friend who knew of her cooking prowess to open Cafe Nicholson, a French-inspired restaurant frequented by artists and celebrities, and served as its head chef. “The Edna Lewis Cookbook,” her first book, was published in 1972 and explored a variety of cuisines while tying recipes to her focus on seasonality.

Chef Andrew Eppley was drawn to that tendency when skimming through Lewis’s work to find a dish for his menu at Vintage Restaurant at The Inn at Willow Grove in Orange — the site of that evening’s dinner.

ClearWater Fire Grill in Locust Grove.

ClearWater Fire Grill's sauteed rib pork chops with whipped sweet potatoes.

Downtown Orange, Va.

He settled on a rabbit dish from Lewis’s second book, “The Taste of Country Cooking,” then put his own creative spin on it. The result: smothered rabbit toast with bacon lardons, shallot soubise, mushrooms, collards and mustard. My server said she pushes it for trail visitors and regular customers alike because it’s just that good. It also serves as an opening to share Lewis’s story.

“Some people come down and they don’t know who Edna Lewis is,” Eppley said. “It creates a really great talking point and experience for our guests, giving them a little bit of history of culinary arts in the region, and everything she did not just for Southern cooking but cooking in general.”

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In the early ’80s, Lewis was the chef at the Fearrington House in Pittsboro, N.C., where she helped create a chocolate souffle that remains on the menu today. Eppley sees participating in the trail as “kind of a funny full-circle moment” — he did an externship in 2010 after culinary school at that very spot. Now, Eppley is at The Inn at Willow Grove, where Lewis inspired then-owner Angela Mulloy to hold a chestnut festival for years.

Vintage Restaurant chef Andrew Eppley drew inspiration from Lewis's work to create this smothered rabbit toast with bacon lardons, shallot soubise, mushrooms, collards and mustard in her honor.

One of the dining rooms at Vintage Restaurant.

Vintage Restaurant is in The Inn at Willow Grove, which for years held a chestnut festival, at Lewis's suggestion.

Eppley said what most stood out about Lewis’s cooking was the love. “It wasn’t like, ‘I’m trying to be the best in the world,’” he said. “She was trying to cook food that she loves for the people and the community she loves.”

[Edna Lewis on Christmas in Freetown]

The next morning, I headed down a country road to The Market at Grelen in Somerset to start the day with a hot biscuit, split, buttered and sugared, with fresh strawberries and whipped cream. Both the setting, surrounded by nature, and the dish were divine.

An employee said he had heard of Lewis, but he came to truly appreciate her when doing research for the trail. I could relate — I learned of her only about a decade ago. I can credit the U.S. Postal Service’s 2014 release of culinary icon stamps, which featured Lewis alongside Julia Child, James Beard, Joyce Chen and Edward (Felipe) Rojas-Lombardi. Then in 2015, she was featured in the New York Times Magazine in an article titled “Edna Lewis and the Black Roots of American Cooking,” which gave me a deeper understanding. “Top Chef” fans will recall a 2017 episode dedicated to her.

Though Lewis has long been heralded in culinary circles for her influence, she’s still catching up to her peers among the broader public. It makes me think of the other Black cooks and chefs who aren’t household names like Child or Beard but have had similar impacts. James Hemings is among them. As Thomas Jefferson’s chef who, among other things, is largely credited with giving us macaroni and cheese, Hemings worked in the kitchen at Jefferson’s home at Monticello, about a 30-minute drive from Orange.

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Lewis “was very driven to let people know the contributions of African Americans to cooking,” her niece Williams-Mbengue said.

LEFT: Downtown Orange. RIGHT: Bethel Baptist Church, in Unionville, was Edna Lewis’s home church.

In an attempt to spread out my eating for the day, I took a short detour to Bethel Baptist Church in Unionville. In front of the small white building, there’s a landmark celebrating the church’s 90th anniversary in 1982. Engraved in stone are its founding members, including Lewis’s grandfather, Chester Lewis. Next to the building, under a canopy of trees, there’s a group of picnic tables where I imagine Edna Lewis may have sat when she made her annual pilgrimage for the church’s summer revival.

“Her and my mother would serve food outside the church for revival,” said family friend Mary Freeman, whose father farmed with Lewis’s brother. “She wasn’t a Southern cook who had all the awards when I was a kid. She was just Miss Edna.” On top of the delicious pies, cakes and tarts Lewis prepared, Freeman remembers her as “a very quiet-spirited lady” who was “very self-assured, very confident.”

Craig Hartman, chef and owner of Gordonsville Ice House (formerly Champion Ice House) and The Barbeque Exchange in Gordonsville — where I sampled hoppin’ John and apple brown Betty, and then Brunswick stew and coconut cake, respectively — said Lewis’s accomplishments are even more remarkable in the context of her era. Take for instance a 1951 New York Herald Tribune review that described her soufflé as “light as a dandelion seed in a wind” when she was the chef at Cafe Nicholson, in Midtown Manhattan. “We’re not talking the ’70s, we’re talking the ’40s and ’50s,” Hartman said. “I mean, this is huge.”

I’d posit Lewis would agree. She was also dedicated to social justice, which is sometimes left out of her story, her family members said. She spent “years as a political radical,” Francis Lam wrote in the New York Times Magazine article, adding that she marched “for the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers accused of raping two white women, who escaped being lynched in Alabama in 1931 only to be railroaded into shoddy convictions,” and was later involved in the civil rights movement.

[Reviving Body & Soul: Church and Cooking Prevail For Freetown's Descendants]

“The fact that she was African American, that she broke barriers, that she moved in circles that we hadn’t before, did it very quietly and very elegantly and gracefully with a laugh — I think is amazing,” Williams-Mbengue said.

Hoppin' John at Gordonsville Ice House.

The dining room of Gordonsville Ice House.

Gordonsville Ice House is one of two establishments in Gordonsville that are part of the menu trail.

As a chef in the area, Hartman has long researched the food of central Virginia, which is how he got to know the story of Lewis. “We need to get people to understand that Orange County is the home of the mother of Southern cuisine,” he said — and he’s starting with his staff.

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When the menu trail began in November, Hartman shared Lewis’s story with his teams and explained why his restaurants were participating: “I feel like I would be doing my guests a disservice if I did not highlight Edna Lewis and what she brought to Southern cuisine,” he said. “Imagine if it was James Beard? She is James Beard to us.”

Now, Lewis will have a permanent spot in the staff orientation at Hartman’s establishments.

Brunswick stew with cornbread at The Barbeque Exchange.

“The coconut cake I’ll probably keep at [The Barbeque Exchange] forever." --chef and owner Craig Hartman

The Barbeque Exchange in Gordonsville.

On my third and final day on the trail, I headed to Coopers Cookin and Catering in Orange. Co-owner Denise Thompson was born and raised in Gordonsville. Like Lewis’s, her restaurant’s recipes have been passed down from one generation to the next.

Thompson decided to open her restaurant to honor her mother and the other matriarchs in her family, whose pictures are displayed on the dining room wall. She recalls hearing stories from her mother and grandmother about how they sold food at the railroad tracks. “Gordonsville is the fried chicken capital of the world,” Thompson said. “The guys from the [Civil] War used to come through, and they used to feed them. And I remember them telling us stories about when they were babies going with the older ladies down there, and that’s how they got their recipes, from them, and they tweaked it over the years.”

LEFT: Coopers Cookin and Catering in Orange. RIGHT: Curry chicken served at Coopers.

Those recipes will remain family secrets, but looking through Lewis’s cookbooks, Thompson found dishes that echo her family’s food. Coopers is serving quiche Lorraine, deep-dish apple pie with nutmeg sauce, and curry chicken or curry shrimp depending on the day. “We make our apple pie exactly like her,” Thompson said. Her co-owner and cousin has been making his own version of curried chicken for years that “tastes the same” as Lewis’s.

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The apple pie was still in the oven when I stopped by the restaurant, but I couldn’t resist getting a platter of fried chicken to go.

Finally, I made the two-mile drive down the road to Spoon and Spindle, inside an old silk mill in Orange. On the menu: quail stuffed with wild rice and white grapes. The recipe comes from “The Edna Lewis Cookbook.” (The original calls for pheasant, but quail are easier to source.) In the headnote, Lewis writes: “While many people seem to think of pheasant, quail, and partridge as sophisticated fare, it has been my experience that people living in the country are far more familiar with the special and delicious taste of game birds than are most city dwellers.” But with the blueberry soubise and crispy Brussels sprouts added to the plate by chef Zachary Andrews, I couldn’t help but think of how sophisticated the bird looked.

Blueberry soubise and Brussels sprouts being plated for the “quail Lewis” at Spoon and Spindle.

Spoon and Spindle is housed inside an old silk mill in Orange.

Spoon and Spindle chef Zachary Andrews.

“There isn’t much of a draw to Orange,” my server tells me. But the menu trail has been bringing people to the area. “People are happy to participate, and they feel like it’s driving traffic,” said Julie Perry, assistant director of economic development and tourism for Orange County. This quail is definitely worth the journey.

The menu trail will end next month (some offerings have changed with the seasons, such as Vintage Restaurant’s rabbit toast, which was recently replaced by fried veal sweetbreads with a grit cake, preserved lemon, mustard greens, parsley and radish), but aspects of it will live on. “The coconut cake I’ll probably keep at [The Barbeque Exchange] forever,” Hartman said. A new historical marker is in the works that will provide a physical representation of Lewis’s legacy — and that of Freetown. And for visitors like me, the setting, community and dishes feel like a nudge to explore the food stories of my own family.

“It’s just amazing to me,” Williams-Mbengue said of the trail. “And I know it would be amazing to Aunt Edna, and I know it would be amazing to the people of Freetown that people are wanting to hear her story and thereby hear their story.”