Off the Page: ‘Cooking with MeMe’

When Kathryn Middleton Bankston Smith spotted the small box of hand-written recipes at the garage sale, she immediately snatched it up. Not because she wanted to purchase the cards or hoard their secrets for herself, but because she needed a word with the seller, a woman she eventually found presiding over the driveway of household curios. Smith held the cards up to her, asking who had written them.

“My mother,” said the woman. 

Smith couldn’t believe her ears. “Oh, girl,” she said, the treasure still clutched in her hands, “there is no amount of money you need that would be worth selling these.”

The woman ended up keeping the box, and Smith, fresh off the publication of her second cookbook, Cooking with MeMe: A Collection of Southern Recipes, reaffirmed once more the philosophy behind her chronicle of culinary adventures—that family recipes are more than measurements on a page. They’re archives for posterity. 

“I’ve always been the one unofficially tasked with recording our family history, and so many of the best stories come from time we spend together around food,” says Smith, who last published a cookbook 20 years ago—the same amount of time she spent perfecting the Christmas seafood gumbo recipe readers can find in her more recent pages. “Now, if children ever want to look up a recipe by their grandmother or great-grandmother or cousin or aunt, it’s here.”

Not every recipe comes from the annals of Smith’s family history, however—especially since Smith created many of the dishes herself, inspired by a childhood spent in her grandmother’s kitchen. Others she gathered from friends, acquaintances or even strangers met on vacation. However they merged into Smith’s collection, their unique flavor tingles before they even touch the tongue, with recipes like “Depression Soup,” “Two Hundred Year Old Spice Cake Recipe,” and “Fish—Roll Around the Floor Screaming It’s So Good” practically begging for the short anecdotes Smith includes about the whos, wheres, whys and hows of their origins. 

Also included in the book, which is available at Calvin’s Bocage Market, are small biographies of family members, inspirational messages, and notes from “God’s Pharmacy”—tidbits about the health benefits of certain ingredients—that give readers a sense of home before they even light up a stove. 

“I consider cooking to be a form of art, but it’s also my love language,” says Smith. “In the end, I hope that readers can look in this book to understand that cooking is creative, and to get themselves into the kitchen.”