Trisha Yearwood is someone who needs no introduction. In addition to being a three-time Grammy Award winner, she’s also an Emmy Award winner for her beloved cooking show. The 17th season of “Trisha’s Southern Kitchen” is now airing on Food Network.
Yearwood’s latest project is “Trisha’s Kitchen,” a brand-new cookbook of 125 comfort food recipes that includes family stories and photographs. When I found out that I’d have the honor of interviewing her, I was ready. As a student of her music, I felt as though I’d secretly been prepping my whole life.
I have such fond memories of singing along to 95 WKSJ with my mom from the back of her minivan as she drove me to school each morning. On those otherwise routine trips, we’d escape in songs like Yearwood’s “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl)” and “She’s in Love with the Boy.” After all, Katie and Tommy were the ultimate power couple until Yearwood and (her now husband) Garth Brooks came along. (You better believe we listened to a lot of his music, too.)
When I sat down to prepare my questions, I recalled a time shortly after I got my first car. I had recently turned 16 years old, and I was still living in Alabama. I went to the public library, and I rented a copy of Yearwood’s latest CD, “Inside Out.” (To the kids at home, before Spotify, we listened to music on these things called compact discs.) I eagerly popped that album into my CD player, and I rode around belting the lead single at the top of my lungs. I didn’t yet know the meaning of heartache, but I knew that “I Would’ve Loved You Anyway” was it. It turns out that was only one of the many truths about love that I’d learn from Yearwood.
About 15 years later, I learned the ultimate heartbreak: losing my mom to cancer — to be exact, two types of cancer, leukemia and ovarian — at an all-too-young age. As mom was passing from this earth, I asked her to pen me a hand-written note for me to read when the going got tough. She didn’t have the strength.
Flash forward three more years, and I find myself reading “Trisha’s Kitchen” in my New York City apartment with “Inside Out” streaming in the background. You can take the boy out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the boy. As I lost myself in the deliciousness of new southern classics like Pimento Cheese and Bacon Grits, I wasn’t ready for the profound lesson about the power of love that was tucked away inside.
In a memorable passage about her mom, Yearwood writes, “[My sister] Beth and I have enjoyed going through our mom’s showbox full of recipes over the years. So many of these little gems were handwritten on the backs of napkins in our mom’s perfect penmanship or on faded pages in our Grandma Paulk’s elegant soft cursive.”
Suddenly, I remembered that my mom’s wooden box with the word “recipes” written on it was now sitting on my kitchen counter. I saw it anew for the first time after it went untouched for so long, sealed by a powerful force called grief. I opened the box of recipes, and as I started thumbing through them, I realized that my mom had left me not one but dozens of hand-written notes. Only the format — recipe cards — wasn’t exactly how I had expected to receive them.
Yearwood’s mom, Gwen, also left us after a long battle with cancer. “I’m sorry,” she told me when we finally sat down to talk. “It’s not a good club to be in.” (For the record, the last concert my mom saw before she passed away was Brooks and Yearwood, and we sang “The River” at her funeral mass.)
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“I’m getting ready to go past the date that I lost my mom . . . I really truly believe that my mom and dad are with me,” Yearwood told me. “I don’t believe they’re gone. I believe they are on my shoulder, and I believe they’re looking down and seeing everything that we’re doing. And I believe — well, hopefully not everything that we’re doing — but I believe that they are with us.”
“My dad’s handwriting was terrible. He looked like he should have been a doctor. You can hardly read anything he wrote. My mother had perfect penmanship,” she continued. “And I’ll still come across a little note. My dad was a local banker, and so when I was in college if I needed cash, which was a lot, I would call home and say, ‘Can you put a couple hundred dollars in my account?'”
“And since he was my banker, when he would send me the deposit slip, he would write a note and it would usually just be, ‘I love you dad,’ or something like that. Well, I have those. And so just like you said — just to see those kinds of things in their handwriting keeps them alive. And food evokes such memory because of smell and taste — those senses are so important. And I think you can smell something that your mom and dad made, and it takes you right back to a memory. And the same with taste — it’s everything. And if you’re family-oriented like we are, those are the things that give you comfort.”
Treat your family recipes with reverence. Write them down before it’s too late. These handwritten treasures all use the single most important ingredient in the kitchen — love. They have the power to transport us through time and space to remind us how it feels to be loved and be loved in return.
When Yearwood recently appeared on “Salon Talks,” we talked about her new cookbook, the importance of family, the joys of southern cooking and the secret ingredient that fuels her kitchen. You’re going to want to invite your friends over for brunch next weekend after you hear about these exciting new recipes. To learn more, watch our conversation on Youtube or read our conversation below.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
You write about memories in your book. You talk about watching Julia Child on TV, and your parents were home chefs, as well. What was it like growing up in a culinary family where you were surrounded by food?
It was just kind of the way it was — you know how all of us have our experience, and we think everybody else lives like we do until we get out in the world a little bit and realize that we all have a different experience. My reality was growing up in a family — not a big family, I just had one sister, Beth — but my grandparents and aunts and uncles, everybody cooked. In the South, there’s a family reunion every week, and there’s something at church every Sunday night. So, there were a lot of occasions to get together, and somebody would bring a dish. That was just always what happened.
My dad was really probably more of an entertainer than my mom, as far as cooking for people. He liked to cook for a crowd. He always overcooked because he didn’t want there to be anybody that didn’t get enough, so there was always leftover food. It was a small town, so everybody knew if you needed a wedding cake that was going to be really beautiful and was going to get done and was going to taste great to call Gwen Yearwood — that’s who you wanted to do the cake. It really was a family affair, and food was the center of attention because it’s what brought us all together.
You learned how to come from your parents. Your father passed away just before you wrote your first cookbook, and then sadly, you lost your mother just before your Food Network show debuted. However, you continue to share with their recipes with your audience — those family recipes that they perfected over time. You write in your book that that gives you comfort. Is that the meaning of comfort food?
You don’t know the grief of losing a parent and the memories and how important they’re going to be until they’re gone. When my dad passed, writing the first book with my mother and my sister was a way for us to work through our grief and loss because my dad was a great cook. We got to honor him in that book and make his recipes, and we dedicated the book to him. And I don’t know that we even knew how much it was going to help us get to the next place.
My mom got to be a big part of the cookbook’s success, and then when we lost her. It was right before the show. Beth and I, my sister and I, talk a lot about how the show was such a godsend for us because it really allowed us to keep their memories alive through their food and share that with everybody. Now, for us, when somebody says, “Oh, I make your dad’s biscuits every Saturday morning,” it makes us so happy. Things that are so personal and special to us are now becoming special in other families — and that’s just the ultimate compliment.
I want to read this quote from the book because I think it perfectly highlights what we’re talking about. You write, “Beth and I have enjoyed going through our mom’s shoebox full of recipes over the years. So many of these little gems were handwritten on the backs of napkins in our mom’s perfect penmanship or on faded pages and our grandma’s elegant soft cursive.”
You made me realize something really profound when I read this passage. I also lost my mom a few years back from cancer, as well.
I’m sorry. It’s not a good club to be in.
Thank you. I asked my mom when she was passing if she could write me a handwritten note, so I could have it to pull out when times got tough. She just didn’t have the strength to do it. After reading this passage in your book, I suddenly realized that my mom’s recipe box was sitting right in front of me. I opened it up, and I started to pull out all of these hand-written recipes. In a way, these are letters that my mom wrote to me, right?
One hundred percent — they are.
What do you think is so special about family recipes? How do recipes connect us to our memories?
Well, you just recounted that yourself. The way you feel, as personal as it is to you, is something that we all share. I’m getting ready to go past the date that I lost my mom — and that date, as you know, is not a date that you don’t wait all year and dread the date. And even on that day, now 10 years later, I don’t sit here and — I don’t know, maybe I will wallow in it. I’m not sure yet, but it’s just there. You know that date is just there.
I really truly believe that my mom and dad are with me. I don’t believe they’re gone. I believe they are on my shoulder, and I believe they’re looking down and seeing everything that we’re doing. And I believe — well, hopefully not everything that we’re doing — but I believe that they are with us.
My dad’s handwriting was terrible. He looked like he should have been a doctor. You can hardly read anything he wrote. My mother had perfect penmanship, and I’ll still come across a little note. My dad was a local banker and so when I was in college if I needed cash, which was a lot, I would call home and say, “Can you put a couple hundred dollars in my account?”
Since he was my banker, when he would send me the deposit slip, he would write a note and it would usually just be, “I love you dad,” or something like that. Well, I have those. And so just like you said — just to see those kinds of things in their handwriting keeps them alive. And food evokes such memory because of smell and taste — those senses are so important. And I think you can smell something that your mom and dad made, and it takes you right back to a memory. And the same with taste — it’s everything. And if you’re family-oriented like we are, those are the things that give you comfort.
Garth says your cooking is a tradition that your house and future are built upon. Sometimes, recipes get lost, or we never stop to write them down. In the book, you talk about your mom helped recreate a lost recipe from your dad’s family. What advice do you have for others who find themselves in the same boat and want to try to recreate a family recipe?
We named the recipe that you’re talking about “Jack’s Fried Pies.” We found a handwritten recipe from my grandmother Yearwood, but the amounts — we didn’t really know exactly what amounts of everything, so we had to figure it out.
First of all, if you can’t figure it out, you have to let it go and move on. But, also, there’s probably somebody I could have called in my hometown and said, “I need your fried pie recipe.” Just get as much information — do your research — and then kind of compare and figure it out, and then taste and try for yourself.
My grandmother’s cornbread dressing that we have every Thanksgiving was never written down, and it’s my favorite thing on the table. My mom, when we were doing the first book, she said, “Well, I just put some cornbread and some breadcrumbs.” I’m like, “No. ‘Some’ is not a number. We have to figure this out. You have to measure the next time you make it.” I’m so grateful for that because now I have it in a book, and I make it every year — and it tastes like hers.
So, give yourself a break, but also if it’s a common thing that a lot of people made — you’d be surprised at how many people have a biscuit recipe that’s close to your dad’s or a pie recipe that’s close to your grandma’s. You can figure it out.
Garth writes that cooking is a form of therapy for you, and in one memorable passage you also write that “cooking is working out thoughts in my head while I’m working on a homemade pastry crust.” Is cooking healing for you?
It is because it’s very calming for me. I mentioned the pie crust because when you have your hands in something, you’re focused on that. It really doesn’t allow you to focus on other things, and sometimes it’s almost like taking a walk. You didn’t know you needed a walk, but after a walk, suddenly something that you didn’t even know you needed to think about has fixed itself or you know the solution. I think we need to do more of that because I think we get so busy and we get so focused on other things that distract us, like our cell phones, or computers or TV. I also do all that, but just getting out of your own head for a minute will help you have clarity when you come back to yourself.
And I think that’s one of the reasons actually that I wrote the cookbook during this time was because I was home. The first couple of months I did what everybody did. I sat on the couch with a cup of coffee and went down the rabbit hole of depression. “What is happening? What are we doing?” Then I realized this is what I can do that is really good for me and for my soul and will help me navigate. And it was probably why this was my favorite book is because it felt so focused and it did heal. It did give me a lot of clarity, I guess.
I ask everybody who comes on Salon Talks the same, simple question. Why do you cook?
I don’t think I love myself as much as I love others because cooking is an act of love. For me, it’s kind of like, “Eh, I’ll eat a leftover. I’ll have saltine crackers and cheese. I’m fine.” Sometimes, it’s kind of eat to live, but if there’s somebody else in the house, I want to show that love to them. Whether it’s just myself and Garth or whether I’m having a big Thanksgiving dinner — whatever it is — at the end of the day, I do it because I love it. It’s selfish. I do love it for myself, but I really, really love to cook for other people.
I think I’m the same way. I just love having people over for a dinner party. I think that’s the Southerner in me, right? But there’s just something about cooking that connects me to my most basic being and memories of childhood, whether it’s sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen or cooking with my mom. That’s powerful.
Now that I know you’re in New York — you’re telling me that I have an Alabama connection that I can have a home-cooked meal in New York? You might want to watch out! I could be knocking on your door . . .
Well, you’re always welcome! My door is always open.
In closing, I wanted to ask you about what’s next. We’re in season 17 of the show, which is mind-blowing. How do you continue to reinvent yourself? At this point, you’ve made a lot of your family recipes, right? How do you keep things exciting and new?
I don’t know. It took five years to get this book done. I really started it in the pandemic, so it really didn’t take five years. But I think that this one just feels like such a labor of love in a good way that I just want to enjoy it for a while. And I keep thinking that I sat home and didn’t do anything during the pandemic, but we did write a book. I launched a pet line, and I’m really excited about that because I’m a big pet rescuer. So, that’s going toward hopefully helping rescue animals. We’re getting that up and running, and the new season of the show is fun. We’ve only seen one episode so far, but this might be my favorite season yet. I think it’s because we were all home, so when we all got back together as a crew, we just had so much joy. I think it comes across the screen. It’s a real loose, fun season.
Then I’m going to dial down for the holidays and really just enjoy my family. I always kind of like to not think about the future. I’m not really the five-year plan girl, but in January, I’ll be like, “All right, now what are we going to do?” So it’s going to be good. Looking for the bright side in a hard year for everybody, I’m just grateful. I’m grateful for my health. I’m grateful for my family and getting ready to go into the holidays.
I’m a home chef like you. I work with a team of home chefs here at Salon Food. Is there anything you haven’t mastered yet in the kitchen that you want to work on?
What I really would love to do is go to culinary school. I don’t want to mess up what I know, but I also want to know all the stuff. I would love to know as much as my chef friends know because they can reference a spice, or they can think of something that might be good that wouldn’t even be in my wheelhouse.
I think my biggest thing would be in the first cookbook, my favorite cake is a chocolate cake with a caramel frosting. It’s a cooked caramel frosting. It’s very reliant on humidity, what’s happening outside, how much time, the window on the thermometer and how much you beat it in the mixer to whether it’s going to pour on the cake or not be able to go on the cake at all. It’s very iffy for me every time I make it. It’s always good, but I would love for it to be pretty. So, I would like to master the caramel icing, and I’d like to master decorating those decorated cakes. My cakes taste good, but I don’t think they’re bake-sale worthy. They need to be pretty.
I’m the same way. I can make a good cake, but it’s hard to do the decorating part, right? However, your Mary Berry-inspired cake in the book — that cake is a pretty cake.
I was pretty proud of that one.