Trisha Yearwood had been a beloved country music superstar for nearly 20 years when she put her music career on hold to craft a pair of best-selling cookbooks (Georgia Cooking in an Oklahoma Kitchen and Home Cooking with Trisha Yearwood) with her mom, Gwen, and sister, Beth. “Miss Gwen,” Trisha’s most ardent supporter, was battling breast cancer [the disease that would ultimately take her life in October 2011] and the project gave the woman the opportunity to spend time together, to preserve treasured family recipes — and to put a healthier spin on some of those tried-and-true favorites to reflect the healthier lifestyle the entire clan was embracing.
“My mom was in her ’70s and she had grown up eating the way these cookbooks talk about — the comfort foods and all the stuff that we grew up on,” Yearwood says. “At that point, she was terminal and she knew it and she said, ‘I know I’m going to die, but I’d really like for the rest of my life to be good and I want to take control of the things I can.’ She changed her eating habits and she taught us to how make some of this comfort food plant-based. And I really hope that what this show will be is a tribute to my mother and my grandmother and all of this stuff that has come before.”
That show is her new Food Network series Trisha’s Southern Kitchen, which premieres Saturday at 10:30am and features the devoted humanitarian gathering family and friends to swap stories and whip up favorite dishes old and new. “I’m in the process of learning how to make these comfort foods so that they won’t kill you!” she laughs.
I talked with Yearwood, who is married to fellow music icon Garth Brooks, about family, food, music (yes, she’s recording!) and making sure that your guests — and your mixer — always come off looking good.
Channel Guide Magazine: The cookbooks are bestsellers — what convinced you to take the next step and bring your recipes and stories to television?
Trisha Yearwood: To be honest, I was approached several times over the last few years since the cookbooks came out to do a show, and I just wasn’t interested. I didn’t think it would be fun, because I thought, “I just don’t see myself standing behind a counter going, ‘Now you add a half a cup of sugar!’ That doesn’t sound fun to me.
But when I was approached by Ellen Rakieten (The Oprah Winfrey Show), who is the executive producer, and she said, “You can do whatever you want” to me. And I said, “Well, I want it to be fun, and I want it to have my friends and my family in it because I feel like I’m more fun if I can interact with somebody else or with a live audience or something. So we opted to try the “friends and family route” and it was very natural — to have my sister in the kitchen with me or to have my niece or to have my uncle or my best friends who come over and we cook together. Or I’m cooking and they’re chopping vegetables or whatever.
So just like the books, it came out of something very real and very natural and I had so much fun. Everybody felt very good about it. We finished the six episodes going, “I think there could be more of these!” And I hope there will be, because it was really fun!
CGM: I’m a breast cancer survivor and my doctor and I also discussed the importance of eating well, in addition to my chemical/medical treatments. Tell me more about how much your mom impacts what we see on Trisha’s Southern Kitchen.
TY: I have to tell you that even though she didn’t survive, her quality of life in the last couple of months was amazing! We were amazed at how good she felt. And we attribute a lot of that to how good she was eating. She didn’t give up on the chemical treatments either until she was sure that it wasn’t going to do anything for her. But she loved this thing we called Chickless Pot Pie — we figured out how to make chicken potpie without any dairy or any meat in it and it’s fantastic. We took it on because we were like, “We want to cook for our mom and we want it to be something she loves.” So we did a show called “Gwen’s Girls” dedicated to my mom, and we make this Chickless Pot Pie.
When I make it now, I don’t tell people that it’s vegan and they just love it. It just tastes good.
So that’s the goal is to find more of those things. I’m hoping we will be able to incorporate that more and more into the show if we go past this first six. We had so much fun that I hope that will happen, and that we can teach people that you can still have comfort food, but that it’s an occasional thing, and that we can teach people to eat healthier more of the time.
I’ll tell you a quick funny story about my mom. My mom and my sister and I were all big readers, and we spent the last couple of months living with my mom — my sister and I did — and she had her Kindle and she would read. She was so cute! She would be lying over there with her little book, reading.
So when she passed, I thought, “I’m going to take her Kindle and read what she was reading.” And every book was some kind of gory, brutal murder! I don’t know what I thought she was reading, but I was just amazed. I called my sister and I was like, “Everybody’s getting murdered in these books she was reading!”
CGM: I totally get it — I developed a serious fondness for zombies, myself. Because cooking is so connected to family and friends for you — and with the family dinner becoming the exception rather than the rule that it was when we were kids — how important is it to you to remind people of the communal pleasures of cooking and dining together?
TY: I think it’s so important for so many reasons. We touched on the health aspect. Any time you’re cooking, if you’re cooking at home with fresh ingredients, it’s going to be better for you and for your body than anything you can buy premade in the store. So even if you’re not cooking the lowest-fat thing, if you’re making it yourself, using fresh ingredients, you’re already doing something better for your family — because you know what’s going into your food. And that’s really the only way to know. But we are in such a face-paced world now!
I think I mentioned this in the first cookbook, but we created something called “Veggie Night” for the girls [Taylor, 19; August, 17 and Allie, 15], because we weren’t getting enough vegetables in our diets at that point, and it was an attempt to have a night where it was just vegetables.
What’s so funny is that I didn’t think that the girls would be excited about it. But it became their favorite meal. And part of it was because it was the night that everyone was sitting around the table together — and that’s rare. We did it when I was a kid every night, but kids today don’t do that. And, especially for families, that’s the important time when sharing your day comes in. Sometimes it’s about nothing, but sometimes something important gets shared at the table — something that needs to be talked about with your children. That’s something that we have to make sure that we don’t lose.
CGM: Do the girls like being in the kitchen, as well?
TY: They’re great at whatever need to be done, especially our youngest. She’s 15 and she really likes to cook. She wants to learn. Our oldest is in college so she’s not around much. The senior in high school — cooking’s not her thing, but if you say, “Hey, can you peel these carrots?” she’s on it. She’ll do whatever needs to be done.
It’s nice to have them in the kitchen to help.
CGM: So many of the television cooks to whom I have spoken have said that no matter how much cooking you do, cooking on TV is a whole different ballgame. Did you find that was the case?
TY: Oh my gosh — yes! I mean, I cook all the time here, but the thing they kept saying to me was, “Smile!” And I’m sure there’s going to be some shots in the show where I look like an axe-murderer because I’m focused! If I’m cooking
something at home and someone comes up and starts talking to me — especially if I’m baking something that has specific ingredients — I might leave something out! I’m like, “Don’t distract me!”
Here, it’s my show, so I’m having to lead the whole thing. And if you have a guest, then your job is to be the quarterback of the show and lead everybody who’s on-set with you to make sure they have a good experience and make sure they do well and get the points across that they need to get across. And then you cook!
And not only that, but you cook so that you make sure that your mixer is at an angle that’s good for camera, and then you come back later and they go, “OK now we’re going to do a close-up of your hand as you add the butter, so what hand was it in?” And I’m like, “I don’t know what hand it was in!”
So it’s been a real learning experience. I told the crew, I said, “Hey look guys, if we go forward I promise I will get better at this!” Because you eventually learn that it’s better for the camera if I add the flour from this side of the mixer rather than this side of the mixer because. There are things you learn that I’m sure people who’ve been cooking on TV for years already know. It’s just by experience and I had none of that experience.
I did say that I was going to go home and practice. I’m going to smile in the kitchen all the time, even when I’m by myself cooking so I get better at it. I’m not uncomfortable in front of the camera, but I’m used to singing, which is a lot easier. This was a challenge!
But the nice thing is that you do have help, so when you come back from commercial break, the two gals that are in the real kitchen have prepared your batter for you and get you to the next stage. You couldn’t possibly do it without help. But then when you get home you’re like, “Where did those gals go?! Where’s my cute little glass bowls full of stuff?!” Somebody washes the dishes for ya. That’s pretty cool!
CGM: With two cookbooks to choose from, how did you go about choosing which recipes would make it onto the show?
TY: I sat down with my day-to-day producer — her name is Juliet D’Annible (Mad Hungry, Everyday Italian). She’s an exec producer and she went to chef school, so she can talk food and she gets it. So if my sister is on or my Uncle Wilson is on, we thought, well, what would we make together? My Uncle Wilson has a baked onion recipe that’s amazing and it was like, “We have to make that if he’s here!” We just sort of came up with recipes that way.
Something else that came out of a real thing — my dad used to make something called Brunswick Stew that’s kind of a Southern thing, but it’s different all over the South. In Georgia where he made it, it was all the meat and all the vegetables ground up so it was almost like a really thick soup. It wasn’t chunky like Brunswick Stew is in a lot of places. It was really unique to him and he’d make it for the whole town. Like, they’d have fundraisers and my dad would make the stew.
I learned to make it from my mom because it was one of the things that she really enjoyed for a while. You know, when you have cancer whatever sounds good at the moment is what you want and you might eat it for two weeks and then you never want to have it again? She went through that period of wanting Brunswick Stew, like, every day. And I’d never made it! I thought, “I don’t know how to make this and my dad made it for 160 people and my mom had reduced the recipe for the cookbook so she had made it, but I never made it!”
To be able to make that for her with what she was going through and have her say, “That tastes like your dads!” — Well, that made me cry.
So the show came out of the idea that my sister has two sons and I want to teach them to make Granddaddy’s Brunswick stew because I want this recipe to be passed down. So we did that for an episode — I taught them to make it — and it was really cool, because it came out of something real and we were able to turn it into a show.
So that’s been the goal and that’s why I’ve had such a good time because it’s all come out of real stuff.
I always clarify that I am a cook. I’m not a chef. I don’t have the training and I don’t have the skills. I have the basic skills that my mother taught me and that’s the kind of cook, I think most people are. So I’m hoping that encourages people to want to cook at home. I’m hoping that we’re going to take the trend back the other way, because people will go “Oh I think I can make that!” I don’t want to make something that people go, “Oh that’s cool, but I could never make it.
CGM: Might we see any famous friends show up in your kitchen?
TY: Right now it’s kind of open to anything. I do have friends in the industry who either can cook or can’t cook — and either way, it would be fun! So it’s a possibility, but I’ll guess we’ll see after these first six.
CGM: How much will music play a part of the show?
TY: When we started talking about this show I said, “I see music being an element if it makes sense.” I didn’t want it to be like, “OK, at the end of every show, Trisha’s going to sing a song!” But if it makes sense to do, then we should do it.
So one episode when my Uncle Wilson was on, we had kind of a family reunion show. And my sister and I used to sing all the time, so I picked up a guitar and we did something we used to do when we were kids. That just made sense.
And another show, one of my best friends is adopting a baby from Russia and so we had a show called “Baby In The Band,” where we had a baby shower for her. A couple of guys in my band were there and I cooked with them, which was fun because one of the guys probably has never been in a kitchen in his life. And then we did a song for her. We recorded a lullaby in the studio for her and then we performed it for her.
So if music makes sense, it’s included. It’s not in every single episode, but I definitely love to tie the two together. Because I’m still that chick singer, so anytime I have an opportunity to sing, I want to!
Trisha’s Southern Kitchen premieres Saturday, April 14, at 10:30am on Food Network.
Images: © 2012, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved Credit: Ray Kachatorian