Like everyone who grew up in the south, my story is full of food, family, and tradition. Some of my earliest memories are of the smells and tastes from my grandmother’s kitchen. I remember the flavor of corn creamed as soon as it came off the cob, the smell of warm peaches, and the incredible sweetness of her caramel cake. All of them are still my favorites, although the caramel cake is a tough recipe that might take me a lifetime to master.
I come from a long line of cooks. My great grandmother, Mama Ra, lived with my grandparents when my Mom was growing up and taught her how to cook at an early age. Likewise, I was always helping in the kitchen as a young girl and learned all I know from these wonderful women.
Growing up in a small town of less than a thousand people where everyone did some kind of farming or gardening, it was common practice to share your bounty of crops with the neighbors. Thank goodness because our local grocery store was just a plain old IGA, none too exciting.
We were always getting together with family and friends to enjoy meals made of the most classic and delicious Southern food. Fried catfish. Butter beans. Cobblers. Everything fresh and seasonal and made with a great deal of love and skill.
My parents believed in hard work, and they got me started when I was barely old enough to count money. My very first job was selling lemonade, cookies, and boiled peanuts in town. We would sell them in the early fall when the peanuts from daddy’s farm were still “green” and perfect for boiling. Summers were time for peaches and good ole silver queen corn. I will never forget my dad having a peach stand built out of plywood for my brother, sister, and me. We would sit in our stand at the end of our long, winding driveway selling peaches to passersby and fighting like cats and dogs. At the end of a long hot day, we couldn’t wait to run through the hay field, down to the house and jump in the pool.
As an adult, I’ve learned to appreciate all the chores I was given as a little girl. I probably complained a little at the time, but I remember it mostly being fun, like an adventure.
One of my favorite activities was checking the fields with my Dad. After a long day of work he would pick me up at the house in his old Wagoneer, and with the windows rolled down and Willie Nelson playing on the radio, we would drive and check along each row of crops. Although I didn’t really know what to look for, I still enjoyed the ride out in the country with my Daddy. On our way back home, we would usually stop in town and visit with his best friend, Mr. Sydney who would sit on his front steps playing with his turkey call, no matter the time of year.
My parents entertained quite often and I remember the parties and spying scotch glasses and fancy-looking appetizers, my head just level with the tabletop. It all seemed so glamorous with the sterling silver trays and the smell of pecans roasting in the oven. I could not wait to grow up and entertain on my own.
Although I have always been passionate about food, in college I decided to get a degree in landscape architecture. Gardening is one of those things I just can’t get enough of. It has always given me a kind of peaceful solitude, and truth be told, when I’m in the garden, I’m always dreaming up new recipes and ideas.
After I graduated I moved to Colorado, turned straight to my passion for food, and started a fresh salsa company, which I turned into a catering business. Although I enjoyed being out West, home kept calling me back, and I returned to take a job as a landscape architect on the beautiful Georgia coast. If you haven’t been there, go! Us southerners are rightly proud of the gorgeous landscapes we inhabit, and the Georgia coast may be the most lovely the U.S. has to offer, but I’m biased, so come and see for yourself.
With my hands in the dirt, I still had a head for food and after I’d read an article about a method the Native Americans had used for their cooking, I started experimenting with “plank grilling.” The wood gives the food an incredible flavor and moistness… I was hooked. But after a lot of searching I couldn’t find the quality planks I needed, so I figured that I would start a company making ‘em! I was lucky that my husband, Davis, was supportive of my crazy passions, and we were both lucky that the company, Fire and Flavor, took off like it did.
It’s still going strong with Davis at the helm, and we’ve added grilling papers and skewers, salt blends and rubs, brining mixes and more. In 2008 it was listed in Inc. Magazine’s annual ranking of fastest-growing private companies, number 8 in the top 100 Food & Beverage section. And it all happened because I fell in love with a flavor and a cooking method that had been lost. It’s true that when you follow your real passion, great things happen. Fire & Flavor was again listed on Inc. Magazine’s 5000 ranking in 2009 and most recently, 2010.
In the past several years my newest passion is actually one of my oldest – immersing myself in locally grown foods and the Southern cooking I grew up on, but now making it a little more contemporary, sometimes a bit lighter, and almost always easy enough for every day. I’ve found that by sticking with fresh ingredients and great seasonings, you can trim things down a bit and still be blown away by the incredible rich tastes.
Passion is contagious and to share mine, I’ve been on several morning television shows, making some of my favorite dishes. I recently published my second cookbook, Southern My Way: Simple Recipes, Fresh Flavors, which features more than 250 pages of seasonal recipes, streamlined for busy lives and accompanied by full-color photographs that portray a lifelong love affair with Southern food and culture.
I’m so excited about what the future holds, and I hope y’all will come along with me as I explore and share the history, people, places and new flavors of my favorite places throughout the South.