Edna Regina Lewis was born on April 16, 1913 in Freetown, a small farming community in Orange County, Virginia. Freetown was founded by three men, one of who was her grandfather, and its name was homage to their newly-attained emancipation. Her grandfather also founded the community’s first school; its classes were held in the living room of his home.
The family of Edna lived on a farm gifted to them by her grandfather. As one of eight children, Edna Lewis worked alongside her parents and siblings in farming the land. The Lewis family was involved in all aspects of farming food, from growing, foraging and harvesting to preserving, cooking and selling. Because they lacked modern amenities with which to store, cook and bake, the Lewis family, like many families who farm, had to be creative and resourceful.
Edna Lewis did not formally attend a professional school of culinary arts but learned a great deal of her skills from an aunt named Jenny. According to the biography of Lewis published by the Edna Lewis Foundation, “They used a wood-fired stove for all their cooking and didn’t have to measure spoons or scales, so instead, they used coins, piling baking powder on pennies, salt on dimes, and baking soda on nickels. Lewis is said to have been able to tell when a cake was done just by listening.”