A Southern Food Expert (and Martha Alum!) Visits the Test Kitchen
Find out what's been happening in the world of 42 Burners, aka our test kitchen, with our weekly series.
Our latest test kitchen guest, Virginia Willis, had the 42 Burners team excited for two reasons: she's a Martha alum, and she promised to bake the biscuits from her new cookbook "Secrets of the Southern Table." A French-trained chef born and raised in Georgia, Willis was the kitchen director for Martha's eponymous television show nearly two decades ago (where she worked with our food director Sarah Carey!). She has since become one of the most respected voices on Southern food, writing six cookbooks on the subject (one won a James Beard award!).
It was a warm reunion for her and Sarah, with behind-the-scenes anecdotes galore. For example, Willis was the resident biscuit expert during her time at Martha: she not only did a demo on how to make biscuits for the show, but she would also whip up a big batch as an end-of-the-week treat for the studio test kitchen (along with grits and fried chicken if it was a particularly hard week).
But it turns out her history with what she calls "the bread of my people" goes even further back: one of her favorite childhood memories is being in the kitchen with her grandmother baking biscuits. "Food is such an important way for people to connect," says Willis. "It can be so simple-biscuits are something you can make with five ingredients in less than 30 minutes-but me doing that at three years old with my grandmother is why I do what I do today. That connection between food and people was made."
One of her goals with "Secrets of the Southern Table" was to explore the ever-evolving connection between Southern food and the people behind it. "I travel a lot for different work projects, and the more I traveled, the more I realized that people don't really understand the South and its foodways," says Willis. "I've never had bacon-wrapped deep-fried macaroni and cheese in my life, and yet, there's this stereotype that that's how Southerners eat, so I started digging deeper into what Southern food really is and sharing it with people." She journeyed to all 11 states in the South over the course of eight months, interviewing the chefs, farmers, and makers who are shaping Southern food culture today, from a tortilla producer in Lexington, Kentucky to a Vietnamese shrimper in Texas.
Willis tells their stories in thoughtful essays that kick off each chapter of the book. Among these profiles are recipes for Southern classics like biscuits and gumbo, but also for dishes that reflect the region's rich cultural diversity, such as Venezuelan shredded beef arepas and West African chicken stew. Willis says, "I wanted to include recipes that people can do at home and actually want to cook, and hopefully while they're flipping past this or that, they will see these inspiring stories. I truly believe the most opportunity we have to come together with different cultures and races is at the table...with biscuits. If people ate more biscuits, life would be better."
They definitely made life better in the test kitchen that day. Anticipation was high among the food editors as the biscuits were baking, and even Martha stopped by for a taste. Once they were cool enough to handle, the biscuits disappeared in record time. Lucky for the 42 Burners team, Shira also believes that life is better with biscuits-she baked a batch of Virginia's Cathead Biscuits the next day.
Watch this throwback video of Virginia baking biscuits for Martha's show: