Like all pieces of cultural ephemera, some cookbooks earn coveted status while others fade into the annals of time, their of-the-era recipes and charming anecdotes all but forgotten. But that doesn’t mean that these books aren’t still chock-full of essential food knowledge, and the 1986 classic Cooking With Country Music Stars is proof.
I came across this book about a year ago, after a friend tagged me in an Instagram post from New York City cookbook store Kitchen Arts and Letters; I purchased it immediately. Published in 1986 as a fundraiser for its work of preserving country music history, the book features recipes from legends like Reba McEntire, Kitty Wells, Tanya Tucker, and of course, Dolly Parton. And it’s a relic in its own right.
Divided into the classic cookbook sections, like “soups and salads” and “main dishes,” the book includes dozens of down-home recipes that range from the classic (sweet potato casserole, jambalaya shrimp) to the slightly bizarre (barbecued deer bites, creamed tuna, slumgullion). Mostly though, the book is replete with tried-and-true classics that you can trust, like an absolutely perfect banana pudding from Dolly Parton, along with the method for preparing the cowboy beans served at Dollywood. Reba McEntire submitted a recipe for poke salad delight, a dish made with pokeweed, which grows wild throughout the south and is poisonous if not prepared correctly. I was immediately transplanted back to my childhood, when my grandmother would prepare poke salad with eggs for my dad, a dish I always refused to eat before sneaking a few bites out of the bowl after dinner.
Most of the book’s recipes are paired with essays about their deeply personal origins, and endearingly, a slew of extremely ’80s photos of the artists and their incredible hairdos. You learn that legendary crooner Conway Twitty got the idea to put pineapple rings on top of his namesake Twitty Burgers after visiting Hawai’i, and that Dolly Parton adds pickle juice to her coleslaw, a tip that I brought to my own version of the classic summer side. And while I expected to see burgers and coleslaw in a book like this, dishes with origins outside of Appalachia or the American South — George Strait’s carne guisada, Bobby Bare’s pasta carbonara, and Yorkshire puddings served with warmed beef consomme from a member of the Oak Ridge Boys — were a little more surprising.
Reading a book like this is, essentially, a peek into the private lives of these stars, many of whom are now dead and gone. No one reads a celebrity cookbook looking for haute cuisine, instead they’re looking to connect with the histories behind these recipes, and the personal connection between the artist and the dish. It’s a good reminder that, just like us, cooking is deeply personal for even the most famous and revered of celebrities. In cooking the same foods that they cook, there’s essentially a deeper level of intimacy with the people behind your favorite songs.
And sure, there are plenty of these recipes that probably should be left to history, not to be recreated in contemporary kitchens. Minnie Pearl’s cheese-stuffed pickles sound especially strange, and Tammy Wynette’s creamed tuna, studded with canned LeSueur peas, is not my idea of a good side dish. Others, like cabbage soup and Barbara Mandrell’s low-calorie Chinese pepper steak, are artifacts of 1980s diet culture preserved in ink. Even the book itself doesn’t make any promises about whether or not you should cook any of these recipes: “The publishers and editors accept no responsibility for recipes that seem to be unsatisfactory,” reads a disclaimer on the book’s title page.
But fortunately, most of the recipes that I’ve tried have been deeply nostalgic reminders of dishes that my mom or other relatives used to make around the holidays. As it turns out, George Strait’s recipe for King Ranch chicken is pretty damn solid, and so is eggplant a la Tammy, a dish from Tammy Wynette that makes liberal use of nutmeg in a way that actually works. Tanya Tucker makes a damn fine Italian cream cake, and her chicken fried steak is, as should be expected from any honorable Texan, excellent.
It’s impossible to know whether these are actually the handcrafted, family recipes of some of country music’s biggest stars or just ripped out of the back of an old issue of Ladies Home Journal, but the association with someone like Dolly Parton or Reba McEntire just adds a whole new layer of gravitas, one that deepens your connection with the recipe — so long as it’s a good one. And when you’re complimented on your sweet potato casserole or three-bean salad, there’s something just particularly charming about being able to say “Oh, this? This is Tanya Tucker’s recipe!”