Guest Essay: Roberta Stephens On Learning to Cook the Memorably Good Foods of Appalachia

Black Skillet Cornbread

Black Skillet Cornbread

Note: Today we publish another of the six finalists’ essays from our 2012 writing competition, “How did you learn to cook?

Roberta Stephens of Carter County, Kentucky, wrote an essay so richly descriptive I can virtually taste the flavors she describes. Food—homegrown and home-cooked—surrounds and shelters her from earliest memory. Her writing places the food of Appalachia in the kitchen and in the community, where its meaning is, as she says, "comfort and love and friendship." She had me completely when she described food as a balm for grief over losing a loved one: "I can remember the taste of cinnamon mingling with the salt of my own tears." Enjoy Roberta's beautiful story about learning to cook.


How I Learned To Cook

By Roberta Stephens

Last night I found a question, "How did you learn to cook?" And that question immediately sent my mind wandering back across the years. Let me tell you about it.....

I was born in the hills and hollers of eastern Kentucky, a daughter of Appalachia...the child of a coal miner and a stay-at-home mother. And my earliest memories revolve around food. And not just the taste of food....but all the things that go with it.

My earliest memory is of my father feeding me mashed potatoes from his plate. Potatoes that he grew and dug and stored in a big hole dug deep into the earth, and covered with straw and topped with Kentucky soil to protect them from freezing in the harshness of winter. I remember drinking tall glasses of cold buttermilk on our front porch on a summer day...buttermilk that my Mother had made in an old stone churn that had belonged to her father.

I remember how my Mother always started the preparations for our evening meal about an hour or so before my Dad came home from work. I can still remember standing with my face pressed against the kitchen window in the early darkness of the evening...watching for the carbide light on my Dad's hat move slowly and silently across the hills as he made his way home from the mines. And I remember the aroma that filled our little kitchen....pots of soup beans and hot cornbread. Pork chops browning, and wild greens simmering on a back burner.

I remember homemade sausage frying in an old iron skillet for breakfast. Sausage and gravy, biscuits rising high in the oven, and eggs that I had gathered the evening before. I remember our summer garden with piles of red-ripe tomatoes, half-runner beans, and ears of the sweetest corn that ever grew in Appalachia. There were apple pies, and apple butter, and stack cakes with a dozen layers made from the apples that we dried ourselves.

There were church picnics and family reunions and Fourth-of-July celebrations...all made more festive with huge bowls of creamy banana pudding, and slices of icy-cold watermelon. Then someone would always bring out the old ice-cream freezer....the kind that the kids took turns in cranking until they swore that their arms would fall off...then another child would anxiously step forward to take his turn. There were platters of crispy fried chicken, and deep bowls of chicken-and-dumplings. There were plates that held meatloaf and deviled eggs and the deepest-burgundy pickled beets. And endless bowls of potato salad. We devoured blackberry jam cakes with buttercream frosting. We stuffed ourselves with fresh-peach cobblers, and we still saved room for strawberry shortcake.

When there was word of a death in our small community.....people would start arriving with boxes of food that they had prepared. Food enough for an for the family who grieved, and for the neighbors who grieved along side them. I can still smell the strong coffee brewing and the aroma mixing with the sweet smell of pastries. I can remember the taste of cinnamon mingling with the salt of my own tears.

Everything was celebrated with was our way. It was how the people in eastern Kentucky expressed their gratitude. It was how we rejoiced, and it was how we grieved. It was how we comforted each other, and most was how we loved.

So how do those memories account for my learning to cook? Well, I guess that I learned a lot of the basics just by spending so much time in the kitchen watching and helping my mother as she cooked. But I truly believe that it was the memories of the love and laughter, the tears and the sorrow, and the gratitude for the way I was raised that eventually led me to what has been a lifelong passion.

When I first left home many years ago, and was on my own for the very first time....I had but one goal....I wanted to stock my kitchen.I dreamed of shelves lined with spices. I was curious about those tiny exotic jars of spices that I had never heard of before. I wanted to taste the things that I had only read about in fancy magazines. But more than anything else....I longed to taste my own mother's food. The memory of it danced through my mind and across my taste buds. The memory of those childhood dishes that I had enjoyed endured in my mind and on my palate.

And so, by trial and error , I started my journey into the wonderful culinary world. I boiled, broiled, fried, baked, sauteed, and grilled. I tossed, chopped, diced, and julienned. I peeled, shucked, hulled, and plucked. I was learning to cook...and it was becoming my passion.

There were days when I was living far from the hills and hollers where I was born....but there was never a day when I didn't think of home. And I was never quite able to leave those Appalachian flavors behind. I firmly believe that I have the mouth-watering foods of Kentucky ingrained in my DNA. Those foods and the wonderful women who cooked them are forever etched in my heart.

I have now been cooking for more years than I care to count. It comes as naturally to me as breathing. And I know that my love of cooking is much more that just my love of good food. I can honestly say that I learned to cook because of my yearning for the foods my mother made. And for the feeling of comfort and love and friendship that goes along with it. It's the feeling of Appalachia.

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