Virginia Willis, author of Bon Appétit, Y'all, Basic to Brilliant, Y'all, and most recently, Lighten Up, Y'all, says she grew up in the kitchen. "There are photos of me as young as three making biscuits with my grandmother," she says.
Her first professional cooking job was as an apprentice on a cooking show from Nathalie Dupree, "the grande dame of Southern cooking... Nathalie took me out of my mother's kitchen and exposed me to things I had never seen or tasted," recalls Willis, who attended a French culinary school on Dupree's advice, and then moved to France to work with Anne Willan, director of Ecole de Cuisine LaVarenne and author of The Country Cooking of France. "That's where I really learned to write and test recipes."
She returned from France to serve as the Kitchen Director for a Bobby Flay TV show and then for Martha Stewart. Willis currently divides her time between Atlanta and New England, keeping a vast cookbook collection in both places. "I personally own maybe 1,200 cookbooks, but my partner has nearly 8,000! We're a good match," she says. "I am always looking for a great find at thrift stores and used bookstores. The bulk of my collection is French and Southern, which should come as no surprise."
I asked Willis about the cookbooks she believes deserve a little more love, plus Southern cooking essentials and what she thinks people get wrong about Southern food. Here's what she had to say.
What do you think makes a great cookbook? The most important criteria in a cookbook for me are well-written and well-tested recipes. Photographs are wonderful, beautiful design is enticing, paper stock is important, and trim size are all integral parts of the overall package, but when it boils down to it, the most important aspect to a cookbook is do the recipes work and do they taste good.
The cookbook market is pretty crazy in that the best-selling cookbooks are driven by television—last year it was Ina Garten, Ree Drummond, Miss Kay from Duck Dynasty, plus a a smattering of Paleo, skinny, and gluten free cookbooks, and the anomaly of Thug Kitchen. To make things even more complicated, there's a disparity between what sells best and what food magazines and food blogs often promote, which are primarily restaurant chef cookbooks. There are so many more cookbooks that are published each and every season! I encourage folks to go to a bookstore and pull up a chair. Spend some time with the book before you take it home. Search beyond the obvious.
What was the first cookbook you really loved? My first cookbook was the Betty Crocker Cook Book for Boys and Girls. My aunt gave it to me, I think I was about eight, and I still have it. It's tattered and falling apart, but it's very special to me—and I still think that the chocolate chip cookie recipe is one of the absolute best!
What lesser-known cookbooks do you think deserve more attention? I know I am desperately biased, but I've always thought the general public has underappreciated Anne Willan. Her body of work is astonishing. Her books have been published in two dozen countries and translated into 18 languages. She's trained or taught an astonishing number of award-winning chefs, writers, and culinary professionals: Steve Raichlen, Ana Sortun, Amanda Hesser, Alex Guarnaschelli, Molly Stevens, Martha Holmberg, Gale Gand, Kate Krader, and many, many more. Pause for a moment and think about how many home cooks are reached by these alumni.
What cookbooks do you think are essential for Southern cooking? Oh dear, there are so many! Essentials include The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis, The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, Southern Cakes by Nancie McDermott, Southern Memories by Nathalie Dupree, The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook, and I'm afraid I'll have to be little vain and suggest my first book, Bon Appétit, Y'all!
I also love the spiral bound Junior League cookbooks like Charleston Receipts by the Junior League of Charleston or Talk About Good! by the Lafayette Junior League. Finally, books like Pigs, Pickles, and Whiskey from John Currence, Kevin Gillespie's Fire in My Belly, Sean Brock's Heritage, and Summerland from Anne Quatrano are timely books about what's happening in the restaurant scene in the South.
What do you think people get wrong about Southern food? Across the country there's been a renaissance of all things Southern, and chefs everywhere from San Francisco to New York City are offering Southern cuisine in their restaurants. Some are more successful than others. Topping nachos with bacon and pimento cheese doesn't make something Southern food! Southern food is about more than just fried chicken and fatback. To say otherwise would be the same as saying Chinese food is just eggrolls or Italian food is just spaghetti.
All Southern food is perceived as unhealthy, and it's not. I'll put it this way: I've never had bacon-wrapped-deep-fried macaroni and cheese in my life. Traditionally, Southern cooking was actually a vegetable-based cuisine. We have nearly a 12-month growing season in most of the South. This is the fertile land of okra, green beans, tomatoes, and corn. That's the part most folks miss.
What cookbook do you turn to for dinner party inspiration? When I have a dinner party, I often will chef it up a bit. I've been cooking a great deal of Middle Eastern food lately. I love exploring new tastes and cultures. I like to read and research, then take my own twist on things. So, the Ottolenghi books, but also the older classics by Paula Wolfert and Claudia Roden.
What book do you love to give as a gift? It's not a cookbook, but it's a food book. I read a lot of food-related non-fiction. Four Fish by Paul Greenberg is very clear about what's going on in our oceans and I am a champion of sustainable seafood. I am on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Blue Ribbon Task Force. I give this book to inform people about what we are doing to our oceans and what we can do to help. It's not too late, and every bite can make a difference.