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What Southern Folks Eat: A Valentine for the encouragers

Stephanie Hill-Frazier Special to The Star
The Star

When someone sees some spark of talent or curiosity in you and does their best to encourage you in it, that’s an act of love. If you’re lucky, it begins in your childhood with your parents and grandparents.

My mom did that for me, and I was reminded of it when I saw a picture of a 1960s Easy Bake Oven recently. It was the exact one that I had as a child, and I enjoyed baking with it so much.

I remember the day I got the little oven, my first very own kitchen appliance. My mom had always let me watch her cook, and sometimes even let me help her. She knew I loved it, so she wanted to get me an Easy Bake, as we called it. It was about 1971, and I had seen commercials about them as I watched Saturday morning cartoons. “Mommy, can I have an Easy Bake? I’ll make you dessert!”

Now, I have never told anyone this before. I didn’t want mom to know, because she wanted to surprise me. I was outside playing with my neighbor and best friend Angie, which we did a lot back then. We lived on a cul-de-sac at the time, and we spent most of the daylight hours riding our little bikes or Big Wheels or playing with our Barbies outside in the yard or sitting on the curb. One day when we were outside playing, a car I didn’t recognize drove past Angie and me and pulled into my family’s driveway. A lady I didn’t recognize stepped out, and mama came out to meet her. They spoke quietly for a few moments, then they got something out of the car. I caught a glimpse of something in a turquoise blue, the same blue of the Easy Bake that I so greatly desired. Hmm. What was going on? Could it be?

It was! Mom and Dad had bought something that they knew I wanted so much. Little did they know that encouraging my love of baking at that young age would become part of my career as an adult. Looking back, I so appreciate that they took the time to track down that special gift for me to let me have fun, of course, but also to encourage a love they saw that I had. That love continued throughout my childhood, when I would head straight to the kitchen section of any department store to look at the dishes, small appliances, and beautiful knives as mom waited patiently for me. It continued in my teenage years, when I would stand beside mom or dad and learn how to make whatever delicious meal they were preparing. It certainly continued into my adulthood, when I got married and had three sons who happily ate all of their mom’s good cooking. And now, I cook on television and I write this column to share my passion for preserving our Southern cooking heritage, and for sharing what we make with others.

I hope that you had someone in your life to encourage you in whatever your interests and passions might have been. Whether you loved to dance, play ball, write poetry, play music, cook, fish, or learn how to fix an engine, I hope that there was an adult in your life who was behind you saying, “Yes, we will definitely help you do that!”

If you didn’t have that, make a decision to be that kind of encourager for someone in your life. It doesn’t have to be a child. It may be an adult friend or family member; it may be you. That’s great! Many writers and artists don’t begin learning their craft until they’re over 40. Scared? Do it anyway. Take a class, write a song, cook a meal. And encourage someone else to do the same. This is a lovely part of loving each other, and it’s not just on Valentine’s Day, although a beautiful card with lovely sentiments is a great gift. But investing in someone’s passion is even bigger, and likely more long lasting, than cards and candy. Watch for opportunities to do that for people in your life this week. You’ll likely find that when you encourage others, you are also encouraged.

Simple childhood recipes came to mind for me as I pondered my youthful baking adventures. I thought I’d share a recipe my oldest son Justin learned to make when he was in elementary school: his favorite, chewy peanut butter cookies!

Justin’s Chewy White Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookies

1/2 cup butter

1/2 cup white chocolate peanut butter (or regular peanut butter, if you have it on hand.)

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar, tightly packed

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/4 cup plain flour

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

Thoroughly cream butter, peanut butter, sugars, eggs, and vanilla. Sift together dry ingredients; blend into butter mixture. Shape into one inch balls; roll in granulated sugar. Place two inches apart on ungreased cookie sheet. Use a fork to make crisscross marks on each cookie. Bake at 375 degrees for 9-12 minutes. Cool slightly on cookie sheet, about two minutes, and then transfer to cooling rack. Makes about four dozen.

These cookies end up being light and crispy around the edges, and a bit chewy in the middle. They’re great, and Justin made them especially well.

Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is "Mama Steph." She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.

She is married and has three sons who are substantially taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com.