Tag Archives: southern cooking

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, 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 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 that 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 Sandy 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.

Cast Iron for the Ages

There are many things that send the signal you are dealing with a real cook.  She, or he, is someone who knows the proper angle at which to sharpen knives, and who can, with those knives dice, julienne, and chiffonade.    

A real cook can spatchcock a chicken.

Real cooks are also about their pots and pans—the tin-lined copper sauciers, the fish poachers, black steel baking pans. But real country cooks, the best cooks of all, don’t need no stinkin’ copper, for they have something more precious than that, and more rare.

They have their grandmothers’ cast iron skillets.

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Apparently, this is now a thing, collecting rare old cast iron skillets.  And why ever not?  They are the most beautiful and, if you are lucky, seasoned with a patina that is  pretty and functional.  Skillets are going for large sums of money, some of them, the same skillets that used to be sold for “two for a quarter” at old barn sales, or so says Julia Moskin in a recent article for the “New York Times” entitled “Fashioning Cast Iron Pans for Today’s Cooks.”

A trend has new artisans crafting 21st  Century cast iron, using the old labor-intensive techniques that created the skillets our great-grandmothers set up housekeeping with. They produce authentic—and expensive—new skillets.

Ronni Lundy, food writer with Appalachian roots says in the article that “the first thing a cook will tell you is the history of her skillets.”    She says her family cooked everything in cast iron, from pork chops to cornbread to cobblers and “even biscuits.”

Even biscuits?  Especially biscuits, I think.

I still can’t replicate my mother’s cornbread, which she made in a cast iron skillet, but I surpassed her in the biscuit-making department once I started baking them in a skillet.  My mother, a precise cook, would pat the biscuit dough out and cut them exactly and then place them on a cookie sheet evenly spaced and lonely looking.

biscuits in skilletThat isn’t how you do it.  The biscuits have to touch, which gives them loft.  They must  bake hot and quick, and then sit a while in the skillet soaking in that little extra butter you added for love.

She gave me my first skillet years ago. 

“It’s Wagner Ware,” she said reverently. 

“And be careful with it, they don’t make them any more.”

As if you can tear up a cast iron skillet.

But you can neglect one. 

The seasoning of a cast iron skillet is a process of much debate, but even the saddest and rustiest skillet can be reclaimed if you are willing to take the time to do it.  I have finally figured out how to clean my skillets properly, steps that include kosher salt, hot water and a little bit of olive oil.

Ronni Lundy is right about knowing the heritage of your skillets.  It feels a bit shameful to

ronni lundy
Ronni Lundy

have to buy your old cast iron at an antique mall, as if your people were pitiful in some way, and now you have to skulk around to purchase culinary respectability.

Most of my cast iron was given me by my mother, cast iron that moved to town from farms in Buford and Bell’s Run. I have two skillets, a dutch oven, and somewhere in my parents’ basement is an old chicken fryer. Lucky for me my sister has no interest in cast iron cookware, what with her smooth surface stove.  She wouldn’t take care of it, anyway.  She puts wooden spoons in the dishwasher.

I think of my pal, Marianne, who called me all upset on day.  She had hidden her grandmother’s skillet in her car after clearing out her mother’s things, hoping her sister, Jane, hadn’t noticed.

“I want Grandmother’s skillet,” Jane hollered from the porch, just as Marianne was leaving.  Marianne gave it to her, but she grieved the loss, the old skillet as ordinary and constant, and therefore as precious, as her grandmother had been.

I also have a tiny skillet, maybe six inches in diameter. It was my father’s, something he used as a boy, after his father died and his mother had to work.  He could fry an egg in it, or bologna. He said it was just the right size and his alone.  It hangs with my other skillets, though I never use it. But every time I see it, I think of that boy, standing at a stove in a long ago kitchen, cooking for one.