When people first meet me, they think it's a novel idea that I'm an actress who cooks. But I've been cooking for longer than I've been acting. Growing up in the small town of Pineville, Louisiana, I was the shy and scrawny kid (even though I ate like a pig) who disappeared into the wall. Since I wasn't particularly outgoing, I guess I found my way to popularity by learning to cook at a young age. People always like someone who bakes a killer brownie, or invites you over for a homemade meal.
I learned how to make my first recipe when I was about eight years old. It was purple hull peas, cooked until they're soft with a little bit of bacon. If you've never had them, purple hull peas are related to black-eyed peas but the pea is greener. My maternal grandparents, Larry and Cora Walker, grew them on their farm, and my grandma Cora and my mother, Pat Ford, made them for me ever since I was a baby. So I loved them from when I was old enough to chew (or even before -- my mother says she craved them when she was pregnant with me!). But there was one thing I always noticed: my grandmother made hers a little bit better than my mother did.
One summer when my sister and I came home after spending a couple of weeks with my grandma Cora, I said, "Mama, I think you need a new stove." When she asked why, I said, "Well, your stove just doesn't cook purple hull peas like Grandma Cora's stove."
My mother laughed. "Well," she said, "I don't think it's the stove. I think it's the way Grandma Cora makes those peas. I tell you what, the next time you go over to Grandma Cora's, I want you to watch her like a hawk. And when you come home you can be in charge of making the peas from now on. So you have to learn how to make them just like she makes them."
And I did.
That's how it started. I discovered that I loved to cook, and that I was good at it, too. As a teenager I would spend hours watching Julia Child and her local Pineville equivalent, Mildred Swift, on television. I was fascinated by the way Julia kind of bumbled around until she came up with something great. I could relate. For me cooking was always about finding my way in the kitchen, trying out new ideas until I found one that worked. Then it became part of my repertoire.
But even before all that, I had learned the basics from my mother and grandmother, like how to assemble your ingredients and do the prep work before you start cooking. My grandmother was an amazing cook and my mother and her sister, my aunt Brenda, still are. Not that they would cook anything fancy, just good, old-fashioned, homey food -- Southern-style, naturally, since we lived in the South. They didn't use written recipes, they simply cooked from their souls.
In addition to giving me their vintage recipes, my mother and grandmother taught me about all the little details and techniques that go not just into making a dish, but into making it special. Even toast could be special. I make toast the way my grandma used to. She never had a pop-up toaster, so she'd use a toaster oven or broiler, toast the bread a little bit, spread butter on it, and put it back in, so that when you took it out it had little pools of butter on the top. It's amazing toast. To this day only a toaster oven or broiler will do for me. That same care and attention makes everything a little more delicious, even if it's as simple as spreading the mayonnaise out to the corners of the crust when you make a sandwich, or standing and stirring, not walking off, when you make brown gravy.
Another thing I learned from my family was how to eat balanced, healthful meals. This may surprise you if you think that all Southern cooking is heavy and fat-and-carbohydrate based. And while we certainly ate plenty of the traditional dishes like chicken and dumplings, roast beef po' boys, gumbo with andouille sausages, and all those heavenly Southern desserts like pecan pie and banana pudding, we also loved vegetables, and made them a large part of every meal.
My grandma and grandpa Walker had a farm and my parents a garden, so we grew our own mustard and turnip greens, squash, cabbage, peas, okra, and tomatoes. There was little we didn't grow. My dad, Charles, and his parents, Grandpa Dewey and Grandma Bernice Ford, grew a special kind of speckled green beans -- Grandpa Ford was so proud of those. We always had fresh corn from my Grandpa Walker's farm -- we helped harvest it each year. And there were so many purple hull peas that my sister and I would stain our fingers lilac having pea-shelling contests. Whoever won got a nickel or an extra dessert, which seemed like a big haul at the time!
In the heart of summer, our meals were based around our home-grown fruits and vegetables. With breakfast biscuits there were homemade fig preserves with figs from Grandma Walker's three huge fig trees, and peaches from her peach trees. At lunch we'd have purple hull peas, of course, and greens simmered until falling-apart tender, creamed corn, fried okra, cornbread, and fresh sliced tomatoes, with peach ice cream for dessert. I never forgot the way those tomatoes tasted. It's the kind of thing you hang on to.
All of it is. Once you know what it's like to eat meals made with love and care, and plenty of homegrown fresh fruits and vegetables, you'll find a way to keep doing it.
I did, even when I moved to New York City at the age of seventeen. I moved there to model for the summer and make money for school, but it didn't work out that way. I ended up taking acting classes and working commercially, and, at the same time, cooking more than ever. Auditioning and running around the city can wear you down, and I would find myself coming home from a stressful day and chopping vegetables. The meditative aspects of cooking helped me relax. It was comforting. So I'd cook up a beef stew or a big vegetable soup or pot of greens. I don't know who I thought was going to eat all that food, and I'd end up feeding all my roommates and inviting friends over. Sharing food is a great way to create bonds with people.
In New York I was exposed to a lot of other influences when I went out to eat. We never really went to restaurants when I was growing up. Sure, there was barbecue and pizza and things like that. But going out to dinner in New York opened my eyes. If I had a dish I liked at a restaurant, I would try to memorize its flavors and re-create it at home. I still do that today.
After four years in New York, I moved to Los Angeles and continued working and taking acting classes, and cooking, of course. I would use my cooking skills to bribe people to come over to my house to rehearse so I didn't have to schlep out to theirs. I also would cater our showcases -- where we would perform for agents, managers, and casting directors. I guess I thought if I didn't get an acting job I could get some kind of cooking job from it. But eventually, I did get an acting job -- the role of Corky on Murphy Brown.
For me, working steadily didn't mean giving up cooking. I'd make food for people on the set all the time. I would prepare my breakfast -- maybe a scooped-out bagel filled with egg white salad and tomatoes -- and when I sat down to read through the script Candice Bergen would say, "Well, that looks really good. Can I have one?" So I would make her one, too. Once on the set of a movie I even found myself in the catering truck, teaching the caterer to make a giant pot of authentic Louisiana gumbo! Food and cooking may not have been part of the script, but they were always on my mind.
It was in Los Angeles that my own cooking style started to develop. That's when I began experimenting, and making the traditional recipes I grew up with a little lighter. As an actress, I had to keep fit. I started using olive oil in things instead of lard or bacon, just to see what would happen. That's how I adapted my mother's Sizzlin' Salad. She always made it with bacon grease, which is delicious. But I thought, what if I try making this with olive oil? And it worked! That was just the beginning.
But always, at the heart of my cooking style are my mother and grandmother's treasured dishes. I never go long without making something of theirs. But I also continue to update and lighten them so they fit into my lifestyle in Los Angeles. It's probably in part because of the culture I live in now, but I find that I care more each day about what I put into my body. Striving to eat healthfully means keeping my cooking really clean, simple, and natural.
I don't go overboard. As with my family's meals during my childhood, balance is what I look for. Let's face it, if I'm going to have fried catfish, I'm going to have fried catfish. Sometimes I'll make oven-fried catfish, which is less messy and a little healthier, but there are times when only deep-fried catfish will do. So I'll serve it on a bed of greens and to me, the vegetables balance the meal. And maybe I'll eat a little less catfish because the greens filled me up. It's a real change from the all-you-can-eat catfish places I went to as a kid, where the fried fish was served with hush puppies and potato logs and then you might have a little bit of coleslaw and some pickles. I do things differently now.
Whenever I can, I make healthy substitutions, and I always try to use fresh ingredients. I don't cook my greens to death anymore like we used to. It takes eight to ten minutes to cook mustard and turnip greens, whereas we used to cook them for hours. And we used salt pork. Now I rely on turkey sausage, turkey bacon, and turkey tasso. Where I can, I cook with olive oil or vegetable oil instead of lard, and add butter as a flavoring at the end of cooking.
All of this keeps my cooking a little bit more healthful, but still fulfilling and delicious.
And that is the philosophy behind Cooking with Faith.
This book is about the way I cook now -- a combination of the homespun, heirloom dishes I grew up with, and my own lighter, healthier, more modern versions and creations. It's also about the relationships in my family, as I've cooked and adapted family recipes. We continue to learn from each other in the kitchen and my mom shares her opinions in the "Mom Says" notes throughout the book. There is food here for anyone, and anytime, whether you feel like making my grandmother's fabulous peach cobbler, my mother's meat loaf with brown mushroom gravy, or my warm chicken salad with field greens and hot-and-sweet pecans. I want to encourage daughters who might not cook to try to with their mom or their mom's mom. I think women have so much to gain from cooking together, especially moms and daughters.
But as much as it's about what I love to cook, Cooking with Faith is also about helping others tap into a way of cooking that is simple yet full of flavor and feeling. This kind of cooking is timely because we've gotten away from the traditions that I learned growing up. Well-made food is an experience. It's about taking pride in what you eat. It's a remedy for an increasingly fast food-reliant society -- I mean, how can you be that much in a hurry?
As I've learned through the years, meals don't need to be extravagant, just made with love. I hope this book shows people that even basic, homey food is excellent if you pay attention to details. Cooking and sharing my recipes is a way of preserving something that was important to me in my formative years, something that I know every cook will understand. It's not the fanciest cooking in the world, but whether it's a steaming bowl of grits, a crisp salmon cake, or a fluffy slice of lemon pie, it tastes so much better -- and means so much more -- when you take the time and the care to do it right.
Text and family photographs copyright © 2004 by Faith Ford