The Cookbook Ladies

Food, Hometown Cooking, Odd Jobs, People
on April 15, 2007

For more than 20 years, Gwen McKee and Barbara Moseley traveled from Maine to Hawaii in search of great recipes for their popular Best of the Best State Cookbook series. Along the way the two Brandon, Miss., grandmothers, known as “the cookbook ladies,” have chatted with cooks, book publishers, restaurant owners, church women and Junior League members to find the true flavor of each state. In the process, they uncovered thousands of recipes and discovered that people across the nation share their passion for food.

McKee, 66, fondly recalls a trip to rural Maine in 1993 where the pair found themselves at a gas station along a dark, two-lane road, surrounded by burly, leather-clad bikers. “We were somewhat unnerved,” she says.

The curious bikers asked the two women what they were doing all alone in such an unlikely place. “We’re looking for cookbooks,” they replied. “Soon we were carrying on a conversation about food with some very nice people who happened to ride bikes,” recalls Moseley, 69. “When we told them about the cookbooks we publish, they all laughed, said they loved to cook, and invited us to their campsite for dinner.”

Cooking up an idea
The genesis of the cookbook ladies’ adventures began with a suggestion from Gwen’s husband, Barney, then director of the University of Mississippi Press.

“In 1978, a little manuscript called The Twelve Days of Christmas Cookbook came to him, and he couldn’t do anything with a cookbook at a scholarly press,” McKee recalls. “But I thought it was too clever to pass up. He said, ‘Why don’t you publish it?’ So I did.”

At age 37, she created Quail Ridge Press, named after the street where she lives in Brandon (pop. 16,436), and each year since she has published at least one themed cookbook, such as The Little Gumbo Book (1986), The Complete Venison Cookbook (1996) and Beyond Grits and Gravy (2004). Friends and family started asking Gwen to recommend her favorite cookbooks and, again, Barney smelled a publishing opportunity. “You ought to do a book on the best of the best cookbooks,” he said. So McKee pulled some cookbooks from her shelves, picked out her favorite recipes, and printed 4,000 copies of the Best of the Best from Mississippi Cookbook in 1982. Three weeks later, they went into a second printing, and McKee realized she was on to something. “After Mississippi, I knew how much work was involved, so I asked Barbara, my longtime friend and golf partner, to help,” McKee says. “I told her I couldn’t pay her at first, but we are so much alike, and she loves to travel, so she said, ‘When do we leave?’ ”

On the road
In the beginning, the pair packed a van with drinks and sandwiches because they couldn’t afford to eat out. McKee usually drove, while Moseley navigated with a map in her lap. On and off from 1982 to 2004, they stopped at bookstores in Texas, chambers of commerce in Kansas, tourist bureaus in New York, drugstores in Ohio, and any other place that might stock a treasured local cookbook or offer a lead to great recipes. They discovered Kentucky baked pork chops in Kuttaway, Ky., moose kabobs in Palmer, Alaska, and curried corn soup in Manhattan, N.Y. At night in their motel rooms, they flipped through telephone directories and pored over maps to determine where to drive next. Sometimes they headed to bed-and-breakfast inns, while other days they visited local restaurants. In Punaluu, Oahu, Hawaii, they met Irene Theofanis in 2003 at her Shrimp Shack restaurant. After tasting her delectable pan-fried shrimp, they included the recipe in their Best of the Best of Hawaii Cookbook. “They were warm and fun and friendly, and truly interested in getting the best recipes they could,” Theofanis says. “I was very happy to be in their Hawaii cookbook . . . I’m getting a lot of business from it, too.”

McKee and Moseley spoke with Ann Berg of Nikiski, Alaska (pop. 4,327), after discovering her Grannie Annie cookbooks in 2002 in a gift shop in Kenai (pop. 6,942). “They used 33 of my recipes in the Best of the Best of Alaska Cookbook, including one for Alaskan enchiladas, called Alaskaladas, that’s made with moose burgers,” Berg says. “Oh, wow, what a compliment to me. They are the friendliest people.”

The ladies’ adventures weren’t always trouble-free. Flat tires, overheated radiators and unsanitary restrooms were among their misadventures—usually a result of getting lost. A wrong turn in Miami routed them into an area where a group of ruffians pounded McKee’s van with their fists. When they got lost in the Florida Everglades after dark, they sang hymns to quell their fears. “Some of our getting lost on the road led us to more interesting things, more cookbooks, and people who taught us about what they eat and what they grow,” Moseley says.

Through the years, the pair has learned to embrace the unexpected—especially on promotional tours for their cookbooks, which often involve television appearances. For instance, some shows don’t have a kitchen on site, which requires innovative cooking prior to the show. “We made a fish salad in a motel room in Florida,” Moseley says. “We had to chop the onions on a little table, and we boiled the fish in the coffeepot. Our room smelled awful.”

Then there was the time that McKee turned over an upside-down pie on live television, and it failed to leave its pan. “It was a tee-total mess,” she says, “but everybody identified with us, and we sold lots of cookbooks.”

Another time, they refrigerated a roast at the TV station to use for a next-day appearance. The following day, it was gone. They eventually found their beautiful roast in a garbage can, washed it off, covered it with barbecue sauce, garnished it with small potatoes and tomatoes, and presented it on the show. “We told the host, ‘Don’t you dare taste it,’” says McKee, who makes frequent appearances on the QVC home shopping network.

Today, the Best of the Best State Cookbook series includes 41 books (some states are grouped together) and continues to grow as McKee, Moseley and the 11-member staff at Quail Ridge Press update each volume with new recipes. The new editions, like the originals, will include photos from the road and snippets of information on points of interest in each state.

There’s always one more
With their success, McKee and Moseley travel mostly by airplane these days, and do initial research for new books via the Internet.

“We wouldn’t take anything for having gone to each state, though,” Moseley says. “We learned so much about the people, the produce and the culture behind the cuisine during our travels. We also got to sample signature dishes like clam chowder in Boston, hot browns in Louisville and crab Louis in California.”

With a roster of three to four cookbooks per year, you’d think they would run out of ideas.

“Oh, no,” Moseley says. “There’s always one more book.”

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