Celery slathered with pimiento cheese was weird. So was okra—and collards, too. And why would my grandmother write her name on the bottom of a squash casserole—who would steal that from a church supper?I was a fifth-generation California kid who bodysurfed, liked to eat abalone sandwiches on the Monterey pier, and drink smoothies blended with local strawberries and freshly squeezed juice from a nearby grove. I wasn’t a food snob, but that was what I knew—and the regional foods that awaited me when I visited my grandmother in North Carolina were as foreign to me as if I’d landed in China.
I ate what was served, but my grandmother Willmana Noyes, a former teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, knew she had a challenge ahead. She drove me to a meat-and-three diner by the French Broad River on the way home from the Asheville airport. Sticky red-checkered plastic covered the table as we slid into a booth. Vinegary chopped pork, butter beans, stewed tomatoes with okra, collard greens with country ham, and slices of pecan pie quickly arrived—and the biggest surprise was that the whole meal was less than four bucks. And it was delicious. I was hooked.
“Go grab that mixing bowl, and let’s make some biscuits,” she’d say later in her kitchen as she reached for the bag of White Lily flour and a bottle of buttermilk that had arrived on her doorstep that morning. She taught me that the lighter the handling, the lighter the biscuit—and her calm folding of the dough created pockets of butter that sent those rolls to new heights.
Her white-and-green enameled mixing bowl, peppered with dents, scrapes, and worn metal spots, was my textbook for a Southern cooking education. With each recipe, we hand-scraped a gentle patina into the bottom. Into the bowl we whisked sugar and melted butter before making peanut brittle in a skillet on the stove. We took a knife to a corncob sitting upright in that bowl, removing the kernels for Brunswick stew and scraping it again for the milky corn liquid. That bowl held sliced crookneck squash while we prepped her prized casserole.
I grew to love the South: the tobacco barns, bottle trees, pottery shacks, and the neighbors who dropped by every now and then with something tasty from their kitchen. Thirty years ago, I moved across the country to work in the nation’s capital as the Washington Post’s art director. I married a North Carolinian who took me on road trips to visit relatives and roadhouses, and ten years ago I left publishing to launch my own Southern-focused Red Truck Bakery from our farm in the Virginia Piedmont. I pull out my grandmother’s mixing bowl each time I play with a new recipe, wishing that somehow she could know that her patience, and her bowl, pushed a California boy to reinvent his life and embrace her beloved tastes of the South.