The first cookbook Anne Byrn of Nashville, Tennessee, ever published bears these words on its cover:
“The Cake Mix Doctor doctors cake mix to create 150 luscious desserts with honest-to-goodness, from-scratch taste.”
When that book was published — and instantly became a bestseller — 22 years ago, cake mix and other store-bought goods were not exactly chic in the food world. The 1980s and ’90s had been dominated by figures like Martha Stewart, whose every dish had to be made completely from scratch. Stewart and others like her presented lifestyles that were so far out of reach of regular folks that attempting to reach them just left us all feeling … well … bad.
Anne Byrn began to change all that for regular folks, and God bless her for it. We’ve been friends for several years now. I’ve had the privilege of editing her work and interviewing her for my own. And it’s become clear to me over the course of our friendship that her ability to make her cookbooks so accessible to all comes from the love and closeness of family that so many Southerners — all the regular folks included — grew up with.
“I was raised in a Southern family with a mother who loved to cook and taught herself how to cook. She said she could taste a recipe just by looking at it,” Anne says. “It was a big extended family in Nashville. We grew up in that wonderful way with a lot of people around the table and a lot of good cooking and a lot of talk about food.”
A Writer by Trade
Despite all those memories around the family table, Anne didn’t grow up dreaming of a career spent writing about food. She just wanted to write.
“I was the editor of my high school newspaper and was just into newspapers and interned at the afternoon paper here in Nashville, the Nashville Banner, when I was in high school and all through college,” she says. “I went to the University of Georgia because I wanted to study journalism. I would come home Christmas and work at the Banner, and every summer I had a job [at the Banner].”
But amid her journalism studies at UGA, her fascination with food returned. Because of her steady work with the Banner, she had been able to get exemptions from several classes in the journalism school. So, she ventured to the southern end of the campus and its Division of Home Economics, now known as the College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
“I found the Home Ec school and went over there and was fascinated by all of these classes about cooking and equipment and nutrition or whatever,” Anne says. “I asked my advisor at the time,’Can I take these?’ They said, 'Yeah, you can take them, but be aware you may not graduate with your Bachelor of Arts.’”
She wound up taking so many classes in both schools that she graduated with two degrees: a Bachelor of Science in Home Economics, and a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism.
When she graduated, she got a tip from a county agricultural extension agent she knew that the Atlanta Journal, the city’s afternoon newspaper, was looking for a new food editor. A legendary pioneer in food journalism, Grace Hartley, had held the job for almost four decades. After Hartley’s retirement, another writer briefly held the position, but she left at almost the exact time Anne was leaving college. She got an interview with the Journal’s managing editor, Jim Minter, and landed the job.
“It really did not matter that I hadn't been writing about food,” Anne remembers. “They just wanted somebody to be able to write and make deadlines. That began my career of food writing. I was fortunate with the timing because newspapers were in good shape, and the circulations were good. As I grew that food section, I also got the benefits of that, which were travel, going to conferences, learning, and also taking a leave of absence in the early ’80s and going to France and studying both food and pastry in Paris.”
She wound up staying in the job for 15 years until she “married an old sweetheart” and moved to England. They lived there for a year until the fates brought them back to Anne’s hometown of Nashville.
“It was bittersweet,” she says. “I didn't really want to come back to the States. I didn't want to come back to Nashville. But at the time, my parents were older, and they were not well, we would find out later. We didn't know until after we had moved back. My dad had a stroke, and then my mother was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. So we came back, set up, started raising a family here in Nashville, looking after older parents.”
The Cake Mix Doctor Miracle
Anne wanted to keep her hand in journalism while she built a new life in Nashville, so she began writing a weekly food column for the Nashville Tennesseean. And one of those columns changed her life forever. She was preparing her family for a vacation and had to come up with one more column before they left.
“We were trying to get everybody out of town and go up to Monteagle for the week for vacation,” she says. “I just dashed off a column on how you could take a box of cake mix and add ingredients from your kitchen. And in the true style of the Journal-Constitution, at the end of the piece, I said, ‘And what are your thoughts? Send me your favorite recipes.’”
When she returned to the Tennesseean’s newsroom after the vacation, she found a pile of more than 500 letters waiting on her.
“It was unbelievable, and that became the story of the summer,” Anne says. “Then, I ended up turning it into a book, which was The Cake Mix Doctor, which became a bestseller, and that's how I got into writing cookbooks. I think it resonated with a population that had grown weary of Martha Stewart telling us that we had to be perfect at everything.”
We do not have to be perfect at everything. All we have to do is to bring love into our kitchens, using what we have at hand. In the 15 or so cookbooks Byrn has written since that first bestseller, she has imbued every word with that simple love of food shared with family.
Before the pandemic hit, Anne’s life was filled with tours around the nation to promote her books, like her latest, Skillet Love: From Steak to Cake: More Than 150 Recipes in One Cast-Iron Pan. But in the past year, Anne’s life has centered on her own kitchen and the garden she tends at her place in Nashville.
“In the pandemic, I think if you have a hobby that involves cooking and food, I think it's made this time at home a little easier to bear,” she says. “If you're focusing your energies into growing really nice tomatoes, or trying your hand at growing yellow squash for the first time, or you had a really great big year of cucumbers, it evolved into cooking good food, sharing it with other people, handing off a sack of squash, or making pickles for the first time. I think having hobbies that involve food really helps knit a family together, and it really does increase your enjoyment of what is on the table.”
In the backyard of the little house where Stacy and I live in Clarkston, Georgia, there are a few raised beds, and as spring approaches, I find myself anxious to get to the tilling and the planting. I hope I’ll get a better crop of cucumbers this year. I pray that the growing season will also be a season of the pandemic’s retreat. I look forward to sharing a jar of homemade pickles with a friend, in person, maybe even with a hug.
The love of food, made simply and shared with family and friends, is something Anne and I both grew up with. And I’m grateful to her for how her books, her words, and her friendship always remind me that the best place to look for solace is probably right there in your own kitchen.