Author Interview: A Conversation with John T. Hill about Edna Lewis

Edna LewisAcclaimed photographer and designer John T. Hill talks with UNC Press Publicity Director Gina Mahalek about one of his most celebrated subjects, Edna Lewis. Hill’s photographs of Lewis, who was often heralded as the “Grand Dame” of southern cooking, are included in Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original. Many more will be exhibited—some for the first time—at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, N.C. from April 7th to May 7th.

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Gina Mahalek: When did you meet Edna Lewis?

John T. Hill: I met Edna Lewis in early 1971 when I was asked to make a portrait for the cover of her first cookbook, The Edna Lewis Cookbook.

GM: What was she like as a subject?

JTH: In spite of a natural shyness, Edna’s body language and soft voice projected a confidence and composure that could not be denied.

GM:  If you had a to sum up her presence in a single phrase, how would you describe her?

Garden behind Ellerslie Plantation, Lahore, Virginia, 1975, © John T. Hill

Garden behind Ellerslie Plantation, Lahore, Virginia, 1975, © John T. Hill

JTH:  As foretold by her middle name, Regina, she possessed a truly royal presence.

GM: Over what period of time did you take these photographs?

JTH: From 1971 to around 1986 I attempted to capture on film something of her warmth and her wit.

GM: Where were the photos taken?

JTH:  In the kitchen of Evangeline Peterson Rugoff; in my 14th Street studio in New York City; Condé Nast studios in New York City; Edna’s birthplace in Unionville, Orange County Virginia; Horseradish Grill in Atlanta; Dean & DeLuca; and Central Park in New York City.

GM: Tell us about some of the places that these photos have appeared.

JTH: On jackets of Edna’s first three books, plus jackets for 2nd printings, Sphere Magazine, Kinfolk Magazine, and various other magazine publications. One was used to create a U.S. postage stamp.

GM: How well did you know Edna Lewis? Do you have a favorite anecdote about her?

JTH: It was my good fortune, and my family’s, to know her as a friend. We were invited to many opening nights at numerous restaurants where she was a guest chef. We picnicked together in Central Park. A favorite anecdote might be the day she was leaving for Atlanta to support Scott Peacock in producing a banquet for the governor of Georgia.  She came to my studio in New York which was less than fifty yards from David Bouley’s celebrated restaurant. When we arrived without notice David Bouley immediately came out to greet Edna and give her a tour of his kitchen, which was followed by Edna’s habit of a small glass of bourbon before every meal, when possible. After she and I finished lunch she took the train to Atlanta and never returned to New York.

GM: There will be an exhibition of your photos of Edna Lewis at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, N.C. beginning in April, 2018, presented by Ann Stewart Fine Art. How many photos will be included in the show?

JTH: Approximately twenty-five, some never before seen.

GM: What can you tell us about the technical specs for these photos?

JTH: Cameras and techniques varied widely from 35mm black and white and color as well as mid-format and 4×5 color transparencies.

GM: Are prints of these photos available for purchase?

JTH: Select Images will be available through Ann Stewart Fine Art of Chapel Hill.

Button for Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American OriginalGM: In addition to the publication of Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original, Edna Lewis has also been featured, as you noted, on a U.S. stamp and a “Top Chef” tribute to her in January of 2017 made her cookbook number 5 on the Amazon cookbook bestseller list. Why do you think her star continues to rise?

JTH: Edna’s career and her life are a fascinating story. Her beauty and her grace and her talent as a chef have made her an iconic figure. It is a pleasure to see that she continues to receive appreciation as a chef and as an inspiration.

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Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original is available now in both print and ebook editions.

You can read an earlier blog post about Edna Lewis and the book, here.