In the age of cooking TikToks, Instagram foodies and meal delivery kits, a Surry County native is harking back to a simpler time with a new cookbook, “Cooking with Love Just Like My Mama Taught Me.”
Sandra Paulette Pierce Mathis was born and raised in Surry, and, with her mother’s guidance, started baking and preparing meals at 9 years old.
“My mother and father raised nine children,” Mathis said. “Surry County is farming country, and we lived off the land. My father farmed crops and grew large gardens. He grew corn, tomatoes, string beans, garden peas, squash, butterbeans, potatoes, cucumbers, collards, cabbage, watermelons, turnips, etc., and all of that food had to be processed. My mother canned, preserved, cooked, and baked on a daily basis. It was a way of life for us.”
Preparing and cooking meals was a responsibility shared by the whole family, Mathis said.
“All of us as children participated in food preparation of some sort -- my older brothers helping to harvest the crops, all of us checking for ripe vegetables on a daily basis, helping with the shelling of beans, shucking the corn, etc.,” she said. “We also had a cow, chickens and pigs, so we made our own butter and ice cream. We had annual hog killings and my father prepared and cured his own meat.”
Although Mathis grew up to become an educator, she never lost her love for food, and over the years collected recipes and jotted down her memories of the foods that she, as a child, had watched her mother prepare. Last March, when Virginia began urging residents to stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mathis decided to make developing a cookbook a priority, and it was published in July.
Her life in Surry made a big impact on her culinary skills. “Growing up in Surry, everyone cooked,” she said. “There were no fast food restaurants. All of the mothers cooked full-course meals for their families every day.”
Those meals were based on regional ingredients and relatively easy to prepare. “The recipes are very simple and very much what we were accustomed to. Sweet potatoes, white potatoes and apples would be real staple products -- lots of recipes are prepared from them. These are simple, country, home-cooked foods.”
Many of the cookbook’s recipes spark warm thoughts of happy times together as a family, Mathis said. “Fried apples, homemade ice cream, fried sweet potatoes, homemade applesauce, fried cornbread all stand out as some of my favorites in the book,” she said.
“Snow cream is another one. When I was a child, Surry got a lot of snow, and I have such fond memories of Mama making snow cream for us on those snowy nights. Daddy would go outside and bring in a big white metal pan full of snow, and Mama would have made the custard and cooled it and then put the snow in -- what wonderful memories!”
Along with learning about cooking, Mathis said her mother used that time to teach her larger lessons about life.
“In our conversations in the kitchen, she would impart wisdom, good values, Christian virtues, how to treat people, and most importantly about faith,” Mathis said. “At that time, I didn't fully understand all that she was teaching me, but as I grew older I realized that I learned a lot about life just by being in the kitchen cooking with her.”
The title of the book — “Cooking With Love” — has a dual meaning. “My mother loved to cook and share meals with her family, church, neighbors, or anyone who came by. She always offered food to everyone and wanted you to take food with you when you left -- no matter who you were. The other meaning references that she shared her love for me by teaching me all the important things that I needed to know about life — how to handle situations, to be a person of faith, etc., while we cooked. Each chapter of my cookbook begins with one of her quotes.”
Mathis utilized her skills as a researcher and teacher to develop the cookbook. She wanted to make it accessible to people who had no previous cooking experience.
“So often, many people create cookbooks with recipes that are so complicated that someone who doesn't know how to cook wouldn't even attempt to try to cook anything,” she said. “They might really admire the cookbook but would be turned off from trying to use it. My cookbook is also written in a step-by-step format. That's the teacher in me.”
Mathis said that preparing meals brings many benefits, including better health, saving money and time with loved ones.
“I hope that people who have never cooked will recognize that learning to cook is a real gift to your family,” she said. “Food preparation takes time, but it's worth every bit of the time. The smell of good food and baking creates a loving and warm atmosphere to any home. That's the type of home that I grew up in and the same type of atmosphere that I have created for my own family.”