These days, downtown Nashville is littered with bars named after stars, and most of those names belong to men. Jason Aldean’s Kitchen. Even (bless his heart) Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk Rock ’n’ Roll Steakhouse. But it’s the women of country music who ought to be on those neon signs. Jennifer Justus explores the history.
I’d been married two years and 97 days when I finally got around to making Tammy Wynette’s recipe for “Husband’s Delight.”
It starts with a pound of ground beef and a pile of garlic salt the size of an anthill. Top that with a couple of cans of tomato sauce, and then layer it in a casserole pan with spaghetti noodles, sour cream, and a blanket of melted cheddar. That’s it. It costs about $16 for an entire pan. And not long after I served it, I realized Husband’s Delight lives — at least partly — up to its name.
“This is stoner food,” my husband said scooping up another bite. “And it’s great.”
But that’s not really how I would describe it.
First off, I’m not here to pick on Tammy or her cooking. Yes, I’ve worked as a food writer for many years, and I’ve eaten some pretty fancy dinners. But I’m not even close to a food snob. I grew up with a busy mom who warmed up Krispy Kremes in a toaster oven for our breakfasts. We regularly had fried SPAM with canned white beans and cornbread for dinner. So when I read in Wynette’s cookbook that she liked when her husband dropped Vienna Sausages in the white gravy for breakfast? Didn’t even flinch. I get it.
What I will say about Husband’s Delight, though, goes beyond my husband’s description. It’s bold yet intimate and vulnerable in the same way Wynette delivers a line in “’Til I Can Make It on My Own.”
Looking at the recipe’s footnote, we learn she made the dish not so much to please her husband’s tastes but to create something easy for him to pull out of the fridge and feed the kids when she went on the road. It’s the kind of dish my Georgia grandmother called a “nasty bite,” and I’d venture that many women have them. They’re the quick meals we throw together that somehow work their way into the repertoire like a family secret or inside joke. They get the job done and help us get by, and we love these dishes for it. But while most of us probably wouldn’t think of sharing these recipes, Tammy Wynette did.
I’d been on a tear lately making recipes from cookbooks by women in country music. I made Minnie Pearl’s Chicken Tetrazzini and her Mama’s Corn Pudding. I made Wynette’s Cornbread and Kitty Wells’ Orange Coconut Cake and Mother Maybelle Carter’s Tomato Gravy. As a grand finale, I baked Wynette’s Better Than Sex Cake. Its layers of vanilla pudding, pineapple, and cherries coming in like one of her third-verse key changes — a little dramatic, maybe, and over the top. But I’m okay with that, too. I wanted to make these recipes to the letter with zero tweaks or substitutions. Garlic salt? Fine. Cream of mushroom soup? No problem. Boxed cake mix, Cool Whip, Crisco? You got it. I wanted to do the work in the kitchen and taste the dishes just as these women had before me.
And I wanted to do this — not for, but because of — the men. Here in Nashville, we have at least seven new restaurants with celebrity names like Jason Aldean’s Kitchen and Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk Rock N’ Roll Steakhouse. It occurred to me that while country music and food have long had a special bond, the men are more apt to slap their names in neon on places of business, while the women work it out in the home kitchen sharing their recipes through books and cooking shows.
These days, for example, Martina McBride has a new cookbook (her second) and a Food Network show. Trisha Yearwood has three cookbooks and a show. Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town has a cookbook and show, and these women follow a deep history of country music queens with cookbooks — Naomi Judd, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Kitty Wells, Minnie Pearl, and June Carter Cash, to name a few.
By reading and cooking from these books, I set out to learn more about what the recipes tell us and how they show us the special connection the country music genre — and especially its women – have to food. I’ll also admit a bias upfront: I don’t buy into cooking roles as domestic drudgery or any less important or powerful than a man’s ownership of a restaurant. While I’m also not necessarily calling the woman who co-wrote “Stand By Your Man” a feminist, I agree with chef Nigella Lawson’s notion that cooking provides a self-sustaining act of independence.
Recipes can be portals to our complex makeup — a reflection of our backgrounds, agriculture, traditions, the nostalgia we cling to as well as our aspirations and the way we want to be portrayed. Elizabeth Engelhardt, chair of the department of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food, says women have long had access to kitchens as a channel for expression.
“Why wouldn’t they use that for another tool for a public persona?” she asks.
Cooking is another avenue for storytelling, too, a hallmark of the country music genre. Because if Wynette’s hit “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” tells a story, then so does her “Husband’s Delight.”
“I have collected recipes and cookbooks as far back as I remember. Collecting recipes must be one of women’s oldest hobbies.”
from “Minnie Pearl Cooks”
Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town and author of the cookbook Oh Gussie! Visiting and Cooking in Kimberly’s Southern Kitchen, has her own special copy of that 1970 cookbook by the legendary country satirist.
The photo on the original hardback’s cover shows Minnie Pearl standing by a window seat, but it’s also the same spot where Schlapman and her bandmates wrote their hit song “Boondocks.” The recording studio owner, who found a copy of the book at his place, gave it to Schlapman. It has meaning to her in both her music and food.
Long before the cookbook existed, though, Minnie Pearl printed recipes in a 1940s fan newsletter called the “Grinder’s Switch Gazette.” Brenda Colladay, vice president of museum services at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, says it’s the earliest instance she’s seen of a country star and recipes together. A 1943 issue, for example, includes “Mrs. Roy Acuff’s Favorite Recipes for Hot Rolls.” Minnie Pearl also hawked the foods of Grand Ole Opry sponsors like Goo Goo Clusters. Later, her Minnie Pearl Fried Chicken chain debuted (and bombed). But while her restaurants didn’t last, her recipes still do.
In the pages of Minnie Pearl Cooks, both Pearl and the woman who played her, Sarah Cannon, show up. Despite Pearl’s hillbilly image, Cannon grew up in Centerville, Tennessee, about 50 miles west of Nashville, with a well-to-do lumber magnate father who later lost his fortune in the Depression. She graduated from Ward-Belmont College, Nashville’s most prestigious school for women at the time. In her cookbook, Pearl reinforces her down-home brand with recipes like her mother’s corn pudding, which has few ingredients, easy instructions, and no fancy garnish or serving instructions. Then in other recipes, we can imagine Sarah Cannon serving the hot clam or Roquefort dip to Music City glitterati at parties.
In both recipe types, though, she shows a love for sharing family traditions and entertaining. And those sentiments might be part of why the country music genre has a strong connection to food.
“I cook for people to love on them,” Schlapman says. “Country music at its roots is all about family and friends and taking care of each other. And when you sit down around a table, you’re with family and friends.”
Schlapman and Pearl’s willingness to share is where James Beard Award-winning author Ronni Lundy spots a difference in women with cookbooks and men with restaurants. Lundy has worked as both music and food journalist. Her first acclaimed book, Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken, shares stories and recipes from the likes of Emmylou Harris and Brenda Lee and their mothers and grandmothers.
“Women’s roles traditionally have involved a sharing, communal aspect — creating food and passing it along to another generation,” she says. “When it becomes performative instead of collaborative (as in restaurants), men dominate.”
Sure enough, by reading Minnie Pearl Cooks you get the sense Sarah Cannon doesn’t just want to dazzle us with her trendy, 1970s Chicken Tetrazzini; she really wants us to make it, too. She’s sure to note it comes from a personal, credible source: her husband’s aunt Cynthia Fleming, who told her when she married “this dish would solve my entertaining problems, and she was right.” In shades of beige with cream of mushroom soup, the olives and pecans dress it up, but it comes together quickly and tastes as comfortable as a wood-paneled basement on a chilly January night.
“I’m the happiest when I can be in my kitchen. To me, the most fun in the world is to work for my family.”
from Kitty Wells Country Kitchen Cook Book, Vol. 1
Look at the collection of country music cookbooks, and you’ll notice they come from women who are “powerful and in control of their careers,” says Engelhardt.
Kitty Wells had the first No. 1 hit by a solo female artist with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” a rebuke of Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life,” that resulted in a radio ban.
She also wrote three volumes of cookbooks beginning in 1964.
But the style and delivery of her most famous tune — straight-up and without fanfare — matches the layout of her cookbook. It doesn’t have long intros or cutesy illustrations. No headnotes to set up recipes. Just the titles themselves and bare-bones instructions. In the case of Wells, we can learn about her from what she included — and from what she left out.
Carrie Helms Tippen, a professor at Chatham University who wrote Inventing Authenticity: How Cookbook Writers Reinvent Southern Identity, says the bells and whistles of cookbooks can sometimes be an attempt to manufacture “realness.”
“All these things we add now are about increasing authenticity in a skeptical public,” she says. “But maybe you doth protest too much. The more evidence of authenticity, the less I’m inclined to believe it.”
Wells didn’t need to sell her song with theatrics, and she didn’t need to sell her recipes either. Though some of her dishes have international flair reflecting a love of travel or a well-traveled image (Sopapillas, “German” cornbread), the recipe that appears most often in her collections is Orange Coconut Cake. Her husband’s favorite, she writes, it has been in her family for generations. It involves multiple layers and an icing made by boiling sugar to soft ball stage, a term used in candy making and fondant icing for wedding cakes. It’s a sharing of family tradition, but it’s pretty serious baking, too.
Of course, Wells didn’t strip her books completely of personality and messaging. Her first volume has a gingham cover, for example, the unofficial pattern of “country.” And though women in country music tend to publish cookbooks more often, it should be noted that men have published a few, too.
Men in country music can no doubt come to cooking authentically. John Carter Cash’s new book, The Cash and Carter Family Cookbook: Recollections from Johnny and June’s Table brings together family recipes with his own, for example.
But look closely at the recipes from male stars in many other instances, and you’ll likely find they actually come from women. In Cooking with Country: Favorite Recipes from 32 Top Country Music Artists (1978), “Bill Anderson’s Meat Loaf” comes from his wife Becky. “Chet Atkins’ Black-Eyed Peas” come from a woman whose husband built his guitars. “Buck Owens’s Mother Owens’s Banana Pudding” includes his mom in the recipe title.
In another example, a pamphlet from Merle Haggard called “Famous Recipes From Hag’s Ramblin’ Days” appears to feature the singer’s recipes until you spot the fine print on the back page: “Recipes from the kitchen of Margie Mille, 1981.”
But if these recipes give stars an avenue for connecting with fans or appearing more down-home, maybe the restaurants hope to accomplish this goal in similar ways. Engelhardt says country music has always walked the lines between conservative, family-centric definitions and rebellious, radical notions outside mainstream society.
“It would make sense to me that both men and women look for opportunities that allow them to move closer to one of those poles.”
“When I was a little girl, cooking was what I did to escape the rigors of picking cotton. Today I do it to relax and express my love for others.”
from The Tammy Wynette Southern Cookbook
Tammy Wynette once called the hot dog her favorite food. But she also wowed guests with her ham dumplings and cobblers, stuffed peppers and pot roasts. When she dated Burt Reynolds in 1977, she says her banana pudding caused the heartthrob (who happened to have hypoglycemia) to literally pass out.
Like Minnie Pearl, Wynette shared the country recipes of her upbringing, such as basic vegetable soups to chess pie. But she also shared modern recipes — microwave peanut brittle, barbecue chicken with a cup of Coke and ketchup. A footnote to Shepherd’s Pie says she ate the dish in London when she missed Southern casseroles.
Through her cooking, we get glimpses of all the lives she lived.
For instance, Wynette learned to make cornbread, she writes, at a young age to stay out of the cotton fields. She later lived on bread and beans while trying to make it in Nashville.
Raised on a farm and married at 17, she went on to have 20 No. 1 hits. She also had five husbands and four kids, and according to her biography, Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen by Jimmy McDonough, she kept a tuft of cotton in a $1,500 bowl at her Nashville mansion to remind her of her roots. Though McDonough indicates her downtrodden upbringing might have been exaggerated in places, she sure didn’t waltz through life without trouble either.
So in her cookbooks, published in 1990 just eight years before her death, a sense of gratitude shines through. Rather than head notes, she includes footnotes, every one beginning the same way: “Taught to me by…,” as a humble and respectful nod to the passing of knowledge from the women in her life.
“I think that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said of writing her cookbook in a 1990 interview on the Crook & Chase television show. “I sat up at night and would make these things to make sure ‘well, it’s a cup and a half of this’ because I always just threw it in. … I tried to make it very easy to read.”
And for the most part, it is easy — with plain text, devoid of styled photos to represent the goal we’re supposed to achieve. But still, Wynette leaves a few details out, like the size of sour cream container or can of tomato sauce. It’s like we’re supposed to know — or at least know enough to figure it out.
Overall, Wynette’s book and the others I cooked from demonstrate the quiet power in sharing and knowing how to do things — taking care of yourself and those around you in the ways you choose. Even “Husband’s Delight” shows her running the household and maintaining control from the road.
And though it’s not a competition, cookbooks, which remain a best-selling category in publishing, go beyond the performative nature of restaurants.
“I would argue that a published cookbook is both,” Tippen adds. “It’s a private domestic document packaged through commerce. (Cookbooks) have these ways of crossing boundaries that a restaurant cannot do.”
They come into our homes, and their recipes sometimes become a part of our lives, too.
With a fridge full of country queen leftovers, I texted my husband one night to remind him I’d be home late:
“…but there’s Husband’s Delight in the fridge,” I wrote.
Then we cracked up in a flurry of laughing emojis, because despite my love of food, I’m no domestic goddess, and I had not yet explored what lay behind the simplistic image the dish’s name conjures.
But indeed, I learned later that he did pull the casserole from the fridge. He ate straight from the pan until he’d nearly made himself sick.
“Ok,” he texted later, “never make Husband’s Delight again.”
Duly noted, I thought. But then he knows as well as I do: I’ll be making the call on that.