Handmade & Heartfelt - Interview with Sheri Castle, Author of Cookbooks & Curator of Casseroles

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Nestled in North Carolina’s culturally rich, socially isolated Blue Ridge Mountains, Sheri Castle was inspired to write her first original recipe at 4 years old and mailed it to a television show. One could say this initiated a lifelong relationship with both writing and food. The writing portion of her career began as a student at UNC where she studied English and, subsequently worked as a writer in numerous industries. The food portion of her career began in the 1990s when she switched careers and became a cooking instructor. Soon after, opportunities to write about food began popping up. After sticking her toe in the pool of food writing, it took about 11 years for Sheri to turn her infatuation into a profession. It was in 2001 when she, “finally wised up enough to realize that I am lucky to be able to combine my two passions.” Sheri’s two publications, The Southern Living Community Cookbook and The New Southern Garden Cookbook celebrate southern culinary aesthetics, much like her appearance on the “Casserole Says Plenty” episode of A CHEF’S LIFE, which will air this month in many locations. (S3 Ep.7 –  Check your local listings).

Where are you from?

I am from Boone, North Carolina. My family has lived in Watauga County for more than 150 years. I am proud to be from the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Can you talk about your food journey? 
Two things conspired to turn me into a storytelling southern cook: my mama and Italy.

My mama was my grandmother, Madge Marie Reece Castle. She lived all her days way up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but she never turned down a chance to travel and get a look at what was out there. She was curious. She loved to laugh. She was my sanctuary.

Mama was one of the storybook southern women who could flat out cook and keep a garden. When she tied on her apron in the morning, it was like Superman tying on his cape. Her huge garden was bordered by fruit trees, grapevines, and berry patches. The slap of the screen door as she headed out there was the starter pistol for her day. Like many rural families of the time, the garden fed us. We ate all we could hold while it was fresh and she put up the rest to eat through the winter. She pickled, preserved, and canned. Many summer days she didn’t sit down once until she heard the last bright ping of a sealing Mason jar, her vesper bells. I didn’t know that Mama was raising me on food rich with cultural heritage. I just thought it was supper.

I have always cooked. I wrote my first recipe when I was four years old. It was for a far-flung beverage concoction made in the avocado green blender that Mama got with Green Stamps. I called it something like Hawaiian Sunset Delight. I mailed my recipe to one of those daytime homemaker shows popular in the 1960s. The show came on between two of Mama’s stories: Search for Tomorrow and The Guiding Light. I’d sit under the kitchen table and watch with her. I saw enough of those stories to conclude that fancy people ate dinner at night, when my people ate supper. My recipe revealed my intentions. I planned to rise into the world of those who ate dinner every night, not just after church on Sunday. Hawaiian Sunset Delight was my first step away from my family’s table.

I eventually feel deeply back in love with the food I grew up with, but as they say in the mountains, I had to go around my elbow to get from finger to thumb.

About ten years ago, I was at a joyful table in a farmhouse kitchen perched on a steep hillside. From the windows I could look over at mountaintops in ten shades of blue and look down at tobacco fields and orchards. We were sharing laughter, telling stories, and passing plates. We were eating greens cooked in pork stock, fresh shell beans, stewed apples, homemade sausage, and hearth bread for sopping. I was in Umbertide, Italy, and I had an epiphany. If this food mattered in Italy, it mattered back home. If this food told a story of these people in this place, it told a story of my people in our place. Sometimes the obvious isn’t obvious until something points it out. 

I went to Italy to become a better Mediterranean cook and came home a better southern cook, too. I found strong similarity between traditional, authentic Italian cooking and traditional, authentic southern cooking. Both rely on the freshest locally grown produce harvested at the peak of seasonal ripeness. Both are masterful as using a little meat, often pork, as a seasoning condiment. Both Italian and southern cooks have strong loyalties to the way a dish is made in their home or their town, a method clearly superior to how it’s done up the road. And in both Italy and the South, the best examples of cuisine pay homage to storied home cooking. And mamas. So I got myself down off my high horse and got back into my Southern kitchen.

What characteristic most attracts you to casseroles?
The thing that fascinates me most about casseroles is how not how to make one, but how it feels to give or receive one. This is a short piece I wrote for a magazine about the Southern practice of taking a casserole to someone who really needs it.

Comfort and Joy
A new baby is born. 

A loved one passes on. A family is forever reshaped. It is possible to take comfort. You can carry it in your hands, in a casserole dish.

In times of upheaval, a casserole is reassuringly familiar. This meal asks no more of the beleaguered than to peel back the foil on a serving dish. When welcoming a new baby, a casserole gives the joyous yet exhausted parents a glimpse of family meals yet to come. During bereavement, a comforting casserole offers a moment of respite and a chance to recall easier days.

The day of my adored Grandmother’s funeral was filled with equal parts of immeasurable love and unspeakable loss. The family returned home to find the kitchen brimming with homemade food brought by scores of friends and neighbors. When I found my favorite casserole, I spooned some up and found a quiet spot where I could sit with my toddler in my lap. One bowl and one spoon for the two of us. It was the only moment all day that made any sense. 

A reliable casserole can deliver comfort and joy, but it's not the food so much as the gesture of genuine compassion. Casserole unto others as you would have them casserole unto you.

What is your fondest memory of your A CHEF'S LIFE appearance?
I loved the pure joy and ease of hanging out with Vivian. Although we come from opposite ends of North Carolina, we share a lot of common ground when it comes to how we think about food, writing, and home.


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