In the world I was born into, biscuit dough is the best toy, and children
teethe on oxtail bones: soul food runs through my family tree like kudzu
vines in the South. On my blog and YouTube channel, I Heart Recipes, and
now in this book, I bring those Southern roots into my Seattle kitchen and
share everything my mom taught me, everything my grandmother taught
her, and all of my inherited, long-nurtured love of soul food with the world.
I was just three or four years old when my aunt Frances first brought
me into the kitchen, plopped me on a stool, and let my chubby little baby
fingers dig into the flour, salt, and spices while she cooked. I patted the pork
chops through the breading, following her on how much I needed of each
ingredient, then handed them over to her to deep-fry. It was the first time
I cooked soul food, but it certainly wasn’t the first time I ate it, and it was
only the beginning of my lifelong love of making the kind of food that sticks
to your ribs and warms your heart.
From the moment I could walk, I followed my mom along with her mom
and sisters to the Parkside Nursing Home in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood,
where they whipped up grand batches of macaroni and cheese,
meatloaf, and gumbo for the residents, and I took the scraps they handed
me and mimicked their actions, building my own pretend dishes in a corner
of the commercial kitchen. It was probably illegal, and I know they wouldn’t
let you do that kind of thing today, but there was nowhere else for me to go
while they worked—and nowhere I loved to be more than making trouble at
their feet as the smells of soul food wafted around us.
By the time I was five, I stepped up to the stove to make real food, cooking
up a big ol’ batch of my favorite spaghetti, and that became my dish.
Everyone in the family has something they’re known for—my mom’s is her
potato salad—that they always have to bring to family picnics and holiday
parties. I still make my spaghetti just the same way, and it still brings the
same Southern mentality to my Pacific Northwest kitchen, just like it did
when I wasn’t even tall enough to stir the sauce without a little bit of help.
Because even though I was born and raised in Seattle, my cooking is
firmly rooted in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. My grandma—my mom’s mom—and
her husband, my grandfather, left Baton Rouge during the Great Migration
and headed north for a better life, pregnant with the first of what would
be eighteen children. (Yeah, you read that right—eighteen kids. That’s why
I’ve got so many aunts that made sure I knew how to cook!) My grandma
found that better life in Seattle, where my mom was born the youngest of
the six girls, along with twelve brothers, and my grandmother took over as
the queen bee of an always-busy kitchen. When those kids grew up, they all
had a few kids of their own—that’s why I’m always known as Cousin Rosie—
and she fed them too. She never lost her role as a Southern belle, whipping
out Creole and Cajun cooking that fed her family’s heart and soul (and a lot
of the neighbors too) and kept them remembering where they came from.
With a giant family like that, every gathering was an event. Sunday
supper always drew a crowd, and there was never any shortage of hungry
mouths, so anyone who wanted to cook a dish was always welcome to
step into the kitchen. But there was one day of the year that took even our
family’s big appetites beyond their wildest dreams.
Christmas with my family was the biggest, most delicious celebration
you’ve ever seen. We would have a turkey, a ham, and a giant pot of gumbo
on the table. There were collard greens, candied yams, and my mom’s
famous potato salad, which might be the best ever—except for mine! There
were cornbread rolls and my grandma’s special fried chicken made with
waffle batter. But the best part was dessert. Or, rather, all the desserts.
See, my grandparents didn’t have much money, and they couldn’t possibly
afford gifts for all those children, so the present was the Christmas dessert
table. By the time the next generation rolled in—my cousins and me—the
tradition had solidified, and anything less than every dessert imaginable
would have let the crowd down. Buttermilk chocolate cake, sweet potato
pie, peach cobbler, pineapple upside-down cake, and tea cakes (those were
my great-grandmother’s recipe—she wasn’t a great cook, but she made
these so well that nothing else mattered) all spilled over the top of a table
in the living room. It was a sweet feast that seemed to have no end.
My beloved grandma died when I was only two, but I carry on her legacy
as a cook in my kitchen and in my name: she was Rosa Mae, and I was named
Rosemary after her. Funny, the name Mayes actually came from my husband,
though! I grew up eating the recipes she’d passed on to her daughters and
was somehow the only kid in my generation that dared to step into the
kitchen (though you better believe my cousins call me up when they need
a taste of home). Her husband, my grandfather, cared for me and raised me
on photos and stories of my namesake and the wonders that came from her
oven and stove. There was never any question that I would follow in her
footsteps, right into the kitchen.
The recipes were never written down, though, so by the time I grew up
and tried to make all the dishes I’d heard of, I had only tidbits and lessons
passed on by aunts and tastes nabbed at family reunions back in Baton
Rouge. So I started recording them, recreating each recipe, making them
over and over in the kitchen until they matched my memory of them—and
the uncles and aunts all gave them the thumbs-up. Then I would share
them with my online audience.
See, I was lucky that pieces of all of these delicious Southern, Creole, and
Cajun recipes trickled down to me. You name it—gumbo, smothered chicken,
collard greens, sweet cornbread—I make it all. But at some point, I noticed
that a lot of my friends didn’t know their way around the kitchen. They never
patted biscuit dough on the corner of the counter at the Parkside. They
weren’t fortunate enough to get their grandmother’s oxtail recipes from
their mom or to learn to fry pork chops with their aunt Frances. So I became
the friend and cousin that everyone called for help—the Butterball-turkey
helpline for year-round soul food assistance, Cousin Rosie here to help.
Meanwhile, around 2009, I was getting a bit burnt out with my work as a
patient care technician and certified nursing assistant. I’d been at the same
place, doing end-of-life care for five years, and I was emotionally wrung out.
I worked twelve hours a day, had a young son, and didn’t do much for myself.
“You need a hobby,” my husband suggested. (He was right.) On my birthday,
I was bored and he had to work. And so, in a move I had no idea how much
would change my life, I turned a camera on myself and started a video blog.
At first it was a mishmash of all things I was good at—an online diary peppered
with makeup tips and tutorials or long monologues about whatever
was on my mind. Then one day, I decided to record myself making dinner.
I made fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and peas. My brother came
over (he’s always over if there’s fried chicken around) and recorded it on his
girlfriend’s brand-new camera. When I posted it on my video channel at the
time, it went nuts.
It all made perfect sense. There weren’t a lot of soul food blogs out
there—it was almost like soul food didn’t exist online. There were baking
blogs everywhere, seventeen million different diet blogs, and all sorts of
niches that were filled, but not this one. I knew that there had to be an
audience for authentic soul food recipes—and that first video proved it.
I just needed to call on the lessons that my mom, her sisters, and—indirectly—
my grandma had taught me, and I could put that all to good use.
I created my blog and YouTube channel and focused on Southern and
soul food. The first five years that I had them, I was juggling the blog and
channel with my full-time job. But then big companies started looking for
my videos, and people wanted to pay me for what I had created out of
my love for my food roots. They saw what I was doing and knew it was a
worthwhile investment. It was all a bit of fate mixed with luck, kind of a total
accident that changed my life.
Still, I wasn’t going to complain about it—I was going to jump in with
both feet. In 2014 I decided to take a leap of faith and quit my full-time job
to start blogging as a career. Since then I’ve gained a lot of online family
members via YouTube, my blog at IHeartRecipes.com, Facebook, Pinterest,
and even Instagram. My family was big to start with, but my following
makes even my seventeen aunts and uncles and their families look small
And that’s why I’m always Cousin Rosie—online and in person—and
I’m still sharing old-fashioned, authentic soul food like my grandma made,
along with anything else that I can cook up. I find recipe inspiration everywhere
and anywhere I go.
I love to eat, so if I have something at a restaurant that I like, I want to
re-create it at home—you’ll see favorites from places I grew up on, like the
Blueberry Cornbread Waffles on page 23. Or when I’ve got a craving, I have
to figure out what’s going to satisfy it (usually it involves one of my many
variations on macaroni and cheese). I come up with a lot of ideas on my
own, but also my subscribers and fans constantly email me or write to me
on social media asking for recipes. I’m eager to please and want to make
sure that everybody is fed, just like my grandma did, so if there’s something
I don’t have a recipe for yet, I just play around in the kitchen until I come up
with the perfect one. But I always put my Cousin Rosie spin on it—whether
that’s adding a Cajun or Creole touch to it, making it easier with modern
appliances, or adding a totally unexpected ingredient, because I heart
Copyright © 2020 by Rosie Mayes. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.