How a Brooklyn girl became a legendary Southern baker
March 6th, 2013
10:00 AM ET
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This year, the Southern Foodways Alliance celebrates women, work, and food. Today's subject is Karen Barker, who was happily co-proprietor and pastry chef of the Magnolia Grill in Durham, North Carolina (1986–2012). Now, happily, she is not.

I grew up in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, where there was a very strong corner-bakery culture but little actual home baking. People tended to purchase their breads and desserts rather than produce them out of cramped urban kitchens.

I was lucky that my maternal grandmother, an exception to this rule, lived upstairs. She was a Russian immigrant who barely spoke English, had no written recipes, and never used standardized measures. Bubby Fanny turned out an amazing array of Eastern European specialties and taught me that homemade sweets were a tribute to one's family and always included the ingredients of time and love.

When Ben, my North Carolina–born husband, brought me south after culinary school, I was a stranger in a strange land. Eventually, I transitioned from bagels to biscuits, from cheesecake to chess pie, and discovered that what I always thought was cornbread was actually corn cake. I married into a family of legendary bakers. To me, the young professional baker, the Barker family prowess set the bar stratospherically high, and the expectations associated with my training only amplified my intimidation.

My husband's people were originally tobacco-growing subsistence farmers from the Union Ridge community of northern Alamance County, in the North Carolina Piedmont. The women of the household produced three meals every day, passing on cooking skills and knowledge to their daughters. Ben's grandmother Louise and her sister Ruth became known throughout the area for their fine hand with breads and sweets. Working a cast-iron, wood-fired oven with no thermostat or controls, in a kitchen without electricity or plumbing, they honed an extensive repertoire.

My father-in-law recalls that "they baked every day; they made biscuits every day; and that can lead to darn good biscuits—every day." Ruth was a talented farm cook who gloriously made do with ingredients that were on hand. My husband swears that his chubby conformation as a child was due in large part to his summers on the farm, with unlimited molasses-and-butter-slathered biscuits and a never-ending parade of pies.

When Louise moved off the farm into town, her style became a it more modernized and refined. Cake baking was a highly competitive sport among homemakers, with each woman having a particular specialty. Louise was considered an all-around champion, but her pound cakes garnered the greatest admiration. She was detailed and exacting and made sure that her daughter-in-law—Ben's mom, Jeanette—was able to recreate family recipes to her standards.

Feeling the pressure, I quickly tried to perfect my crust skills when I moved to North Carolina. I learned that a smile and a well-crafted pastry go a long way in conquering any social situation. After bringing a couple of blueberry-blackberry pies to my first Barker family reunion, I was deemed "all right." When persnickety Gran Louise told me I had "the gift" for baking, I felt as though it was I who had received the greatest gift—to pass muster with her was no small feat. (Little did she know that my only domestic talent was in the culinary arena.)

Jeanette, Louise, and Ruth were my role models for rich pound cakes, delicate cheese straws, and billowy lemon meringues. I'm a tinkerer, but I never messed with my baking angels' recipes: They were simple, exceptional, and lovingly passed down. Their time-tested methods, explanations, and memories associated with each recipe were as valuable as the recipes themselves.

I learned that fresh, hand-grated coconut was the secret to Gran's famous holiday coconut cake; and how Aunt Ruth's impeccably fried pies depended on apples that were home grown, picked, and dried, encased by a flaky lard dough. It was impressed upon me that the family's definitive cornbread recipe relies not only on full-throttle buttermilk, farm eggs, and fresh stoneground meal, but on a well-seasoned skillet and a generous amount of bacon grease.

The next generation is in training. My niece Lee has spent the last two Christmas day mornings at Jeanette's elbow, learning how to replicate her biscuits. My son Gabriel has shown a strong interest in scratch baking, and my granddaughter Kayla has recently asked me to show her how to make bread pudding. I have come to believe that you are, in fact, what you eat, in that a family's history resides in those passed-down recipes.

My Bubby had little in common with Ben's kinfolk other than the nurturing secret of home baking and how important it is to create a set of food memories for your family. It is not lost on me that the phrase "give me a little sugar" means "show me some love" in the Southern lexicon. Remarkably, I can hear my grandmother saying the same thing in Yiddish: gib mir a bissel tsuker. Perhaps, at their hearts, Flatbush and Union Ridge aren't so different after all.

Previously - Meet Alzina Toups, Cajun food hero

Read more at the Southern Foodways Alliance's blog

soundoff (29 Responses)
  1. tawna

    I am Applacian by culture and Yankee ( northern Ohio) by birth. I have the best of both and can navigate both culinary cultures with ease. :)

    March 8, 2013 at 10:09 am |
  2. SJones

    Homemade biscuits, hot water cornbread, pickles, jelly, peach ice cream and dewberry cobbler. Gawd, I miss my grandmother. Best cook in Texas.

    March 8, 2013 at 9:17 am |
  3. Steve Dykstra

    With all due respect, this isn't about South vesus North. It isn't even about city versus rural. It's about people being surprised that those people over there can cook and have food traditions worth learning. Folks in the country are sure there's no good food in the city, until they get there. And folks down south are sure they avhe the franchise on home cookin', until they come north, or west, or east. Southern biscuits versus a NY deli, versus a cowboy chuckwagon versus a Scandanavian breakfast, versus a dozen different ethnic feasts.

    People need to stop being so surprised that those people over there aren't all a bunch of food deprived morons who don't know very much. Yes, folks down south love their food. So does everyone else, everywhere else.

    March 7, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
    • Dorothy

      Well stated Steve.

      March 8, 2013 at 8:54 am |
  4. Frances

    This is a great article. What I liked most about it is that Karen has learned why we in the south are so wild about good cooking and baking. They express our love to our families and friend in such a special way. The generation that came before the baby boomers suffered so in the depression (not that the whole country didn't, I just know about the south) that good food was often the only way they could provide for their loved ones. Not with material things, but with fresh food grown and prepared with LOVE!

    March 7, 2013 at 9:44 pm |
  5. Hadenuffyet

    Headcheese sammich!!!

    March 7, 2013 at 8:44 pm |
  6. Anne

    For several years I was afraid the South I grew up in would lose all it's uniqueness while I lived north of the Mason Dixon line. When at last I had the chance to move back I was absolutely delighted to find that it had not lost any bit of it's Southern-ness! Red velvet cake, pecan pie, real cheese girts, cheese straws, home made pound cake, black eye peas, collards, green beans with bacon....UMMM! So many recipes that are unique to each family make it impossible for the South to change. Here's to you, Karen Barker!

    March 7, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
  7. Roy C.

    Cornbread, biscuits, stacked apple cake... Folks who have never experienced such delicacies have no clue...

    March 7, 2013 at 7:21 am |
  8. Fam5will

    Great! Keep it that way. We'd prefer ignorant Yankees stay north of the Mason-Dixon.

    March 7, 2013 at 1:01 am |
    • Vic

      Actually, you don't speak for me. As a Southerner, I can do that for myself, thank you.

      March 9, 2013 at 9:07 am |
  9. duane hague

    I grew up thinking that mexican food was Taco Bell. I also thought that BBQ was some Heinz 57 sauce that my dad slathered on some burgers in the summertime. Then I move to West Texas. God, I thought that I died and went to heaven. Real Mexican food and real BBQ, there is truly nothing quite like it. I've since moved back to the Pacific Northwest but the thoughts of brisket and cabrito still haunt my memories.

    March 7, 2013 at 12:17 am |
  10. Amy

    I'm a PA Yankee married to a NC native. I have devoured endless "Southern Bible" cookbooks to learn all I could about a food culture so different from my own. I'm always more willing to bring a side of slaw or butter beans rather than a dessert to a family event -baking here is an art – not in the design, but in the flavor, the mix, the time, the love. Thank you for an article which captures an aspect of Southern life often mocked and never understood.

    March 6, 2013 at 7:10 pm |
  11. gateway

    "the family's definitive cornbread recipe relies not only on full-throttle buttermilk, farm eggs, and fresh stoneground meal, but on a well-seasoned skillet and a generous amount of bacon grease."
    Heart attack anyone?

    March 6, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
  12. palintwit

    I'm leery of anything south of the Mason-Dixon line. Teabillies, trailer parks, Chick-fil-A, etc. etc.

    March 6, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
    • Liam

      Go whine somewhere else, pansy.

      March 6, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
    • Robert

      I'm leery of anyone who is so ignorant that they actually believe such bogus regional stereotypes! Oh well!...

      March 6, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
    • Sassy Grace

      New to Durham, I had only one opportunity to eat at Magnolia Grill. Glad I at least had one!!

      March 6, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
    • Bill in the Desert

      Do you have any idea where the Mason Dixon Line is located. It might be a surprise that you do not have to travel very far from Manhattan to cross it.

      March 6, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
    • Southern Celt

      Just as we are leery of anything North of it. Problem solved; you stay there, we'll stay here. We'll both be happy.

      March 6, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
      • d slocum

        The mixing of cultures from various parts of our country is to be treasured, not discouraged. You are missing an important and most enjoyable part of life. Every region has it's own identity, sayings, foods, and wonderful people. Open your heart and educate yourself on the wonders of good folks everywhere.

        March 6, 2013 at 9:53 pm |
    • RichardHead

      I redneckignize what your trying to say.

      March 6, 2013 at 3:26 pm |
    • Pat D.

      @palintwit, that is ridiculous. Our freakin' country practically started down there... respect the culture. everyone is so quick to cruelly dismiss everything online.

      March 6, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
      • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

        Nope. Don't associate me with the South.


        March 7, 2013 at 9:19 am |
    • VladT

      You're still hung up with the southern stereotypes while espousing your hatred of the Palins? You're borderline stalker with how you still hold them up in every conversation with your meme.

      That being said, as a Los Angeles native who travels quite a bit, I have had nothing but great meals and great encounters with "the locals" in what I am sure your pompousness would refer to as "flyover country." However, I now must plan a trip to Tarheel country, as the description of cornbread alone makes me want to visit

      March 7, 2013 at 8:59 am |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

      Most of you bit hard on this bait.

      Palintwit wins this round. LOL

      March 7, 2013 at 9:19 am |
      • Liam

        You need a hobby.

        March 7, 2013 at 11:35 am |
    • Julie

      I'm an Atlanta native and I've never heard of "teabillies"...

      March 7, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
  13. Arthur in the Garden!

    Miss that place!

    Arthur in the Garden
    Raleigh, North Carolina

    March 6, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
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