cooking with brenda

So far I have managed to get through Covid without watching a single TikTok video, and I am fairly proud of that. On the other hand, I have spent time every day mindlessly scrolling through Leslie Jordan videos on Instagram, watching stand up comics and Allbirds ads on Facebook, avoiding, if I can, anything political, which is hard.

Then, on Facebook one day a cooking video popped up, and there was just something about it. A smiling woman was standing in her red kitchen with the big round Coca-Cola sign on the wall, in front of a large butcher block, her hair pulled back with a wide band that looked a little like a winter ear warmer. She was videoing with her phone, which kept moving around on her. She charmed me no end.

She had been working in the yard, she told us, and she had just popped in to whip up a casserole, explaining she had her old work jeans on because when you are having a hectic day, what else can you do? She was making squash casserole Alabama. With her soft and distinctive Alabama accent, I wanted to visit her every day, I wanted to spend as much time with her in her kitchen as I could.

And I have.

She has let me hang while she has made fried chicken, biscuits, pot roast, marinaded salad, cheese balls, potato salad, barbecued baked beans, anything you could find on a southern Sunday table or at a Wednesday night church pot luck. She does breakfast, too, with locally smoked sausages and grits she cooks for an hour to velvety perfection, and this is how I got to talk to her, in person, and it was a thrill.

I had to get me some of those sausages.

She hails from Andalusia, Alabama, down in the southern part of the state, not all that far from the Alabama and Florida beaches. You may have driven by Andalusia, as it is one of the two “best” routes to the beach that people argue about. She also runs a B&B, the Cottle House, and those sausages are local—smoked right there at the Hill Top Restaurant and Meat Market.

In a few weeks I’m heading that way and I thought, why not stay at the Cottle House, toddle over for dinner at the restaurant and procure a bunch of sausage while I’m there, then head on down south? I figured it was a long shot, since Brenda’s videos, “Cooking with Brenda Gantt,” have become some popular, but it was worth a try.

I phoned the number for the B&B, and guess who answered the phone? Brenda! There, down the line, was that soft, distinctive accent, she was a little breathless, as if she had just run in from somewhere else, which is familiar, if you watch her videos. She usually has. Of course the rooms are booked until February, which I figured they might be, and then she asked about where in Florida we were going. She thought we would be okay after Hurricane Sally in our particular spot.

I gushed a little about how exciting it was to talk to her in person, and she was as gracious and kind as can be. Warm, loving, even. I think that is why I tune in for my daily dose of Brenda. She reminds me of my own grandmothers — kind and in command of the kitchen like one, bustling and busy and energetic like the other.

She has that great accent, yes, but she has an even better smile. She welcomes us into her kitchen and demystifies the cooking process. If you don’t like something, leave it out, if you don’t have something, add something else. Except for when you shouldn’t.

Her grandchildren stop by on occasion, and she leaves us sitting alone in the kitchen while she lets them in and whispers, “I’m videoing.” Then she brings them over to meet us. We often catch her in the middle of things—all dressed and ready to go out or fixing breakfast before church. Or with make-up on and awaiting friends for lunch, or just in from mowing the grass.

It doesn’t matter, she is never too far from the enterprise of feeding her family, which now includes us. She shops at the Piggly Wiggly. She uses old beloved knives and spatulas, cast iron and chipped enamel bowls.

And love. Lots and lots of love.

Old Homestead, new home

It is never easy to dismantle your family home, the sorting through forgotten boxes stuffed in the backs of closets and in dark corners of basements and attics. Harder still to sell the house you grew up in, hard, even when you don’t want it, nor do your siblings, but you don’t want someone else to have it, either. Not really.

After my mother died we debated what to do with our childhood home. It had sat uncared for except for the most basic of repairs during our parents’ illnesses. They couldn’t cope with much renovation, and neither could we. We decided to sell it “as is,” in the hope a nice family would see the potential there, the late Victorian charm. Would recognize the solid, open-armed aspect of the place. We didn’t count on it, but it was what we hoped for.

We got our wish.

It turns out we knew the couple who wanted to come look at it, my sister and brother-in-law knew them, my niece and their son were big buddies from school. They, or maybe, she, had been looking for a house to restore. I wasn’t there the day they toured our old house, but apparently she was a goner as soon as she saw it, and his heart sank when he saw the enthusiasm on her face.

It is daunting, the idea of tackling such a project. But she had done it before, and he agreed to take on the project, as you do.

Two years have passed, and they are ready to move in, but not before offering us a chance to see our old home and what they have done to it. She is a sentimental sort with a deep respect for tradition, and she said, in almost every room, that they worked to honor the history of the house, they wanted to change some things but didn’t want to veer too much from the original.

They kept the wall colors my sister had chosen years ago, because, really, if she doesn’t know anything else, Kathy is a genius at color. They stripped banisters and redid floors, added a better bathroom than the little afterthought one just off the kitchen — and really, who wants a bathroom attached to a kitchen? Added a utility room downstairs, added a nice big addition, reclaimed an old kitchen sink they found in the basement, installed A/C.

I think she might have been a bit anxious about how we would take the changes. She need not have worried. My sister, Kathy, brother, Geoff, and I love this stuff and we had wanted our parents to consider making changes, too. We couldn’t get over what a great job they had done, improving the flow — something Mother always complained about—and making it more livable.

They swear our parents are in the house still. They have heard them. Growing up, we wanted our house to be haunted, but we never heard a peep. They say Mother and Daddy are companionable, and throughout the renovations, they often chat with them, asking how they like the new cabinets, and what about the color in the hall.

I love that. Love that they are restoring our home and are in communion with my parents and with us, too, as they make the house their own. Love that they are students of architecture and know where to find the old mantel pieces that would have been original to the house. I love that we could be plopped down in any room, and regardless of the changes, we would know exactly where we are.

They have left the walls going down to the basement alone. Really, it looks awful, the paint now a dingy green, made dingier by all the penciled names and statements and initials there. The grandkids had written all over it, their names, statements about 9/11, secret messages to my mother “We love you Nana” written on a post, just at her eye level when she came up with a load of clothes.

I found my initials there, too, big ones, full of the ego and frustration of a ten year old girl.
She said they couldn’t bring themselves to paint over it, not just yet. We reassured them, it would be fine, but even so, I like knowing she won’t for a while. Let us stay with them a little bit longer, this new family, while Mother and Daddy rattle around upstairs.