A natural-born storyteller and instinctive cook, Sheri Castle poses a classic chicken-and-the-egg conundrum: Which came first, the pencil or the whisk?
|Chapel Hill food writer and teacher Sheri Castle|
The award-winning food writer and teacher grew up on the fringe of Appalachia in the western mountains of North Carolina, where she tended her grandmother’s garden and learned to cook the seasonal foods it produced in her kitchen. A precocious child, she entered her first recipe in a national contest at age 4. She didn’t win, but it was the start of a journey that led to an appreciation of the strong bond between Southern food and storytelling.
“Because Southern food is so evocative, particularly for a Southerner, it is practically impossible for us to tell you about a food without telling about its context,” she says. “When we tell about a recipe, it’s almost never about the ingredients. It’s about how you found the ingredients, how it works and doesn’t, and who it reminds you of.”
Not surprisingly, many of Castle’s fondest cooking memories track straight up steep mountain roads to her grandmother’s home.
“I am a hardcore hillbilly, and I use the term with the deepest affection,” says Castle, who arrived in Chapel Hill 34 years ago as the first in her family to attend college. “Even as a very, very small child, I understood that there was a connection between who people were and what they ate. I knew I was part of something special.”
As a “mountain kid” eager for adventure, Castle wrote stories and devoured books that fueled her imagination. She also spent quality time sitting on the front porch stringing beans and apples while talking and sharing stories.
“There is a very defined sense of place deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains,” she says, drawing comparisons to distinct rituals of the South Carolina Low Country or New Orleans. “Place defines what you eat, and who you are. I am very thankful today that I grew up with those traditions.”
Her appreciation of the links between Southern food and storytelling was well expressed in her 2011 The New Southern Garden Cookbook (UNC Press) An in-demand cooking teacher known as much for her wit as her carefully tested recipes, she was featured this month at the prestigious Hilton Head Food and Wine Festival.
Like O. Henry, another North Carolina native, Castle deploys quirky, well-drawn characters to pull you in for an unexpected twist; in her case, a dollop of culinary anthropology. Her smart humor and astounding baking skills were on full display last summer when she preached to the choir at a decadent breakfast gathering of the Southern Foodways Alliance’s (SFA) “field trip” to New Bern. SFA director and culinary legend John T. Edge watched Castle from the edge of a church community center, where he tried to balance a plate of pie on his knees while laughing with the audience.
|John T. Edge|
“I admire the heck out of Sheri,” says Edge, who offered a ringing endorsement last week. “She tells honest stories about her people and her place with humility and humor. She's smart, but she's no show off.”
Edge says Castle “reveals truths” with her takes on classics like leather britches, Appalachian-style beans dried on string, and biscuits with chocolate gravy, the latter of which was posted on the upscale Gilt Taste blog. Her contributions to Gilt Taste’s “Eats Shoots and Leaves” column earned her a writing award last year from the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
Growing up in a remote place with brutal winters gave Castle enough indoor time to imagine herself elsewhere, like the stylish city homes of characters in soap operas that her grandmother enjoyed.
“That’s how I discovered there were people who ate dinner as opposed to supper,” she says. “Even though I knew it wasn’t very accurate, I could see a big difference between what those fancy rich people were eating for dinner and what I saw on my plate.”
Castle’s comment is no reflection of poverty. Rather it was one of a series of incremental discoveries that both beckoned experimentation – as an increasingly worldly eighth grader, she begged for and received The Joy of Cooking for Christmas – and reinforced her appreciation of the plenty at her grandmother’s farm.
When she was old enough to drive down the mountain, she often returned with food stuffs her curious teacher had never seen: tofu and duck, and broccoli, asparagus and okra. “None of that was agreeable to our growing season, which was more like New England,” she says. “It made me feel good to share things with the woman who taught me to cook.”
Castle trained as a journalist but worked writing technical manuals and advertising. While on maternity leave with her daughter Lily, who will leave the nest for college in the fall, she decided against going back. Her generous employer offered a career transition package that allowed her to attend the Culinary Institute of America.
“I talked them into letting me take cooking classes for a couple of years without doing the whole program,” she laughs. “I cannot image what sort of yarn I spun for them to let me get away with that.”
After taking additional classes in San Francisco, Castle returned home determined to teach people to cook. True to form, she marched into the Raleigh Williams-Sonoma and stated that she wanted to teach there. That was on a Tuesday; four days later, she led the first of countless Saturday classes.
She loved instructing home cooks but the itch to write returned. A satisfied student was an editor at The Spectator, a now-defunct local weekly where Castle was invited to write a food column. She soon was published nationally and carved a career as a recipe tester and ghost writer for big names in the food world.
Recipe testing is more complex than simply trying one and saying whether it’s good or bad, Castle explains. “If you are developing recipes for someone, you have to cook like them, not me. And if the recipe doesn’t work, you fix it.”
While taught to be polite at home, Castle has mastered unimagined levels of tact working with clients – none of whom she can identify due to contractual obligations. She has worked on about 20 book projects, including 13 complete works published under other people’s names.
“I’ve learned how to write not only in the style of my client but in the voice and style of their publishers,” she says. “However, if I knew then what I know now, I’d be a with-er, not a ghoster. It’s hard because I can’t use any of that experience to market myself.”
Castle says writing her own book was the most taxing of all her projects. She has accumulated enough stories and recipes to fill another collection, but she’s not sure when she’ll start.
“I have never been more proud of anything or done something that utterly sucked my brain out of my nose,” she says. “It really is exhausting. I have some ideas, but it’s the one thing I just can’t talk about.”