New Orleans-based food writer and self-described "culinary anthropologist" Sarah Baird's cookbook Kentucky Sweets: Bourbon Balls, Spoonbread & Mile High Pie (American Palate) is released this week. The book is an adventure through the cultural and culinary history of her native Kentucky, with recipes, detailed cooking techniques and "tricks," information about ingredients and how they are cultivated, interviews with a variety of folks, recommendations (including a playlist for a Kentucky Derby party), cocktail recipes, photos and illustrations by artist Chase Chauffe. Baird and her book are featured at an event at the Maple Street Bookshop from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Feb. 13. She talked with Gambit about Kentucky Sweets.
What is the main thing you want to get across to readers in and outside Kentucky?
Growing up in Kentucky, you're confronted pretty early on with stereotypes ... and I feel like those are perpetuated nationally a lot. That conversation has been happening recently about how ... poverty is rampant. But no one ever really talks about all the wonderful things that are in Kentucky and the fantastic culture and the rich history and how much people love their communities and love their traditions. I really wanted that to come through in the book.
You included a lot of fun elements: interviews, song lyrics, interesting tidbits. Were those tools to put the recipes in a cultural context?
B: Way too often with cookbooks, you have a lot of beautiful images ... and you have these recipes, but you don't have a lot of context or history or information behind them. Knowing a little bit more about where (the dishes) come from, the history, the pop culture even, the people who make the products or grow the products that make the desserts, just adds to the experience of eating them.
The detailed tips and techniques are unusual in a cookbook and are what you would learn cooking at your mother's side. Is that where you learned?
B: I actually learned more from my dad ... and my grandmother. ... I made a ton of messes, and really learning that way — kind of hands-on in the kitchen with your family — is how things are primarily passed on, but also through communities. In Kentucky and across the South in most small towns, it's all about bringing everyone together to cook and have the celebration around whatever it is — churches or women's groups — which is why community cookbooks are such a big deal in the South. ... Across most of the country, recipes have gone through a lot of changes. In New Orleans and Kentucky both, a lot of the traditional old-line recipes for baked goods and sweets ... are pretty much the same. It's two places where tradition really holds in a way that it doesn't in other parts of the country. Kentuckians and New Orleanians are also very proud, and I think that plays a part.