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On 108th birthday, historic marker dedicated to Orange County native daughter and famous chef Edna Lewis

Featured in Parade magazine in February and put on a postage stamp a decade ago, world-renowned Southern chef Edna Lewis is now officially the subject of a Virginia historic highway marker.

Family, friends and officials from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources gathered on a windy Saturday morning to dedicate the maker alongside a country road close to where Lewis was born in 1916 in the Freetown community of Orange County. The dedication on April 13 coincided with her 108th birthday.

Lewis, who died in 2006 after an impressive culinary career, held the people of Freetown dear even after she moved away, said her niece, Nina Williams Mbengue, daughter of Naomi, the youngest of the Lewis siblings.

“Freetown was Ms. Lewis’ North Star,” Mbengue said at the dedication. “It was the place she was born and the place where she learned to cook. Her memories of growing up in Freetown helped to preserve an important historical time period and, through a culinary lens, provides us with insight into their lives, the hopes and dreams of this community so recently freed from chattel slavery.”

Lewis’ grandfather, Chester Lewis, was among the 11 founding families of Freetown, who were formerly enslaved.

“Her memories also established Southern regional cuisine as an American classic and gave us a blueprint for today’s farm-to-table movement,” Mbengue said. “The people of Freetown were always foremost in Ms. Lewis’ thoughts. Their struggles and triumphs guided her thinking about food and the African American community’s relationship to food. The original 11 families planted orchards and gardens and used the skills they’d employed during slavery to fearlessly move forward with their lives."

Local filmmaker and historian Phil Audibert filmed the marker dedication for the Orange County Historical Society “History to Go” YouTube channel. He interviewed and photographed Lewis in the 1980s and, in 2012, released a documentary about the “Grand Dame of Southern Cooking.”

Lewis, in addition to opening a restaurant in New York and being a talented seamstress, authored three best-selling cookbooks, including her most famous, “The Taste of Country Cooking,” published in 1976.

She dedicated it “For Nina,” her niece, who recalled taking a typing class in middle school for a very specific reason.

“I began typing the manuscript for aunt Edna’s classic, ‘The Taste of Country Cooking.’ I didn’t realize at the time what a blessing that would be, to sit at her feet, hear these stories, type them up, put my little two cents in,” said Mbengue.

The book not only provides fabulous recipes, her niece said, but stories, thoughts and traditions.

“You really get a sense of the way of life,” Mbengue said, who recalled living with her aunt in New York City as a child.

Lewis left Freetown at age 16 after her parents died, but she always treasured her upbringing, Mbengue said.

During the April 13 dedication, she read an excerpt from “The Taste of Country Cooking.”

“Over the years since I left home and lived in different cities, I’ve kept thinking about the people that I grew up with and about our way of life. Whenever I go back to visit my sisters and brothers, we relive old times … gathering wild strawberries, canning, rendering lard, finding walnuts, picking persimmons, making fruitcake. I realized how much that bond with us had to do with food.

"Since we were the last of the original families, I decided I wanted to write down just exactly how we did things when I was growing up in Freetown that seemed to make life so rewarding. Although the founders of Freetown have passed away, I am convinced that their ideas do live on for us to learn from, to enlarge upon and to pass on to following generations.

"But above all, I want to share with everyone who may read this, a time and a place that is so very dear to my heart."

Virginia Department of Historic Resources Director Julie Langan, who attended the marker’s unveiling, said Lewis’ marker is one of the rare ones the agency funded itself from a small pot of money set aside to diversify subjects in the program.

“We use it only when a subject rises to a level of extraordinary significance, and with Edna Lewis, we thought that was the case and an appropriate use of these funds. We wanted to pay for it,” she said. “We felt that way because of Ms. Lewis’ importance, not just to Virginia, but on a national stage. She was a trailblazer, a pioneer in the area of the culinary arts — a subject we rarely address in the marker system, so we were eager and excited.”

Her devotion to community is what made Lewis great, said descendant Michael Carter Jr., an Orange County farmer and educator.

“She always wanted to focus on the community first,” he said, relaying a conversation with an uncle about how good of cook Lewis was.

“She was all right. He said she wasn’t as good of a cook as her mother because he understood the culture of Freetown — the mothers and grandmothers taught the daughters.”

Lewis got her strong character from the people of Freetown, Carter said.

“It’s a great day to honor a great woman who created some great meals and changed lives with a knife and a fork, with a recipe, with a devotion to friends, family and the culture,” he said.

Orange County African American Historical Society President Bruce Monroe spoke, saying Lewis’ legacy transcends time and has left an indelible mark on the nation’s culinary history.

“Edna was more than just a chef,” he said. “She was a beacon of inspiration, a testament to resilience and symbol of the triumph of the human spirit.”

Julie Perry, interim director Orange County Tourism & Economic Development, said the marker unveiling has been a long time coming.

“I am excited to be here to honor Edna Lewis, to honor Freetown, to honor her family and her many contributions to our community and to the whole United States. It’s been a group effort to get to this point."


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