CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago cook and restaurant owner Edna Stewart, whose west side soul food establishment was almost as famous for its political clientele as it was for its claim to have "The Best Biscuits on Earth," died Friday morning, according to family members. She was 72.
Stewart's brother, Sam Mitchell Jr., said his sister was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in November and died at Rush Oak Park Hospital just five days after her 72nd birthday, which was Sunday.
"She wanted to make her birthday," Mitchell said.
Although those vaunted biscuits and fried chicken were the big sellers at Edna's Restaurant, Mitchell said his sister was also known for her sweet potatoes, ham hocks and greens, as well as more old-school fare, such as brains and eggs.
The Chicago native, who learned to cook from her father, opened Edna's in 1966 with her father, Sam Mitchell Sr., and her then-husband, Johnny Stewart. Her early patrons included The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was then staying in a Chicago apartment, and other civil rights workers, whom she fed free of charge.
One of those activists who got free food from Stewart is now Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill.
"I was one of the countless young people in the 1960s who flocked to her restaurant for down home cooking, wonderful fellowship and sage advice," Rush said Friday. "Few people understand how small business owners, like Edna Stewart, were the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement. She not only provided food to hungry civil rights workers and their leaders, like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but her restaurant served as an unofficial meeting organizing ground for the community."
Edna's was soon a magnet for black west side political leaders, and later drew citywide figures such as Mayor Richard M. Daley, who became a regular diner there.
This year, Gov. Pat Quinn declared Feb. 19 Edna Stewart Day.
"Today, I join the people of Illinois in mourning the loss of Edna Stewart, who was renowned nationwide for her legendary soul food cooking and landmark restaurant," Quinn said in a written statement.
"Throughout her life, Edna Stewart proved, in the words of one philosopher, that 'No mean woman can cook. It calls for a generous spirit, a light hand, and a large heart.'"
Stewart is survived by her brother, a son and daughter, and two sisters.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.