6 Black Chefs (and 1 Inventor) Who Changed the History of Food

6 Black Chefs (and 1 Inventor) Who Changed the History of Food


Born in 1916 in Freetown, Va., Edna Lewis grew up on a farm, where she learned to cook. After her father died when she was 16, she moved to Washington, D.C., living there briefly before finally settling in New York. She worked a series of different jobs until she began cooking at Café Nicholson in Midtown Manhattan, offering a simple menu of dishes like biscuits and herbed roast chicken. She soon became a local legend, and cooked for the likes of Salvador Dalí and Eleanor Roosevelt.

She left Café Nicholson in 1954, and started catering and teaching cooking classes in the American Museum of Natural History. About 20 years later, she wrote “The Edna Lewis Cookbook.” She began working with the renowned editor Judith Jones on a second book. After Jones pushed Lewis to find a more distinctive voice, “The Taste of Country Cooking” was born, which would become Lewis’s most significant cookbook, expanding on her Southern roots and how she would grow, harvest and cook what they planted in Freetown. It is celebrated for its focus on the simplicity of Southern food and emphasis of farm-to-table eating.

She went on to publish “In Pursuit of Flavor” in 1988, and “The Gift of Southern Cooking,” written with Scott Peacock, in 2003. Lewis died in 2006, but she is still recognized today for being a leading food voice in America.

  • Their restaurant, Brenda’s Bar-B-Que Pit, became a center for civil rights in Montgomery, Ala.

  • The oldest barbecue restaurant in Montgomery that’s still in operation

  • Their efforts contributed to the success of the bus boycotts

In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery. Shortly after, bus boycotts began around the city. The Brenda’s Bar-B-Que Pit staff helped organize parts of the boycott, which soon propelled the civil rights movement into the national conversation.

Jereline and Larry Bethune first opened the restaurant in 1942; back then it was a nightclub, the Siesta Club, that sold food. It later became Brenda’s, named for one of their daughters. The restaurant became an unofficial center for the local civil rights movement, holding N.A.A.C.P. meetings, printing fliers and planning protests.

But even after the bus boycotts, Ms. Bethune quietly held lessons to teach other African-Americans to read so they could pass the literacy test, which functioned as a way to suppress the black vote during the height of the Jim Crow era. Donetta Bethune, the Bethunes’ granddaughter, described it as: “Let’s learn how to read. Let’s learn how to vote. Let’s go after our own rights so we never have to be treated in a way that we’re not equal to again. In the black community, that’s how they lived back then. Everyone helped each other, or else how could you get by or how could you make it through.”

Brenda’s is family-run to this day, and it still feeds locals its popular ribs, pig ears and chopped pork.



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