Kathleen Purvis: The Test Kitchen Summers

Pecans: A Savor the South(R) Cookbook, by Kathleen PurvisIn Pecans: A Savor the South® Cookbook, one of the first two books that kick off our new southern ingredient-focused cookbook series, Kathleen Purvis teaches readers how to find, store, cook, and enjoy pecans, the great American nut. Pecans includes 52 recipes, ranging from traditional to inventive, from uniquely southern to distinctly international, including Bourbon-Orange Pecans, Buttermilk-Pecan Chicken, Pecan Pralines, and Leche Quemada. In addition to the recipes, Purvis delights readers with the pecan’s culinary history and its intimate connections with southern culture and foodways.

Today we welcome a guest post from Kathleen Purvis, who tells us about her summers spent coming up with recipes in her home kitchen.


I hear that there are food writers out there with actual, professional test kitchens. Fancy, clinical spaces with multiple ovens and assistants bustling around with white lab coats.

My test kitchen? Don’t have one. What I have is my home kitchen, with one oven, one ridiculously packed refrigerator and one greedy terrier underfoot. If I’m wearing a white coat, it’s probably a bath robe. The only people bustling around with me are my husband and son, trying to grab counter space to fix lunch.

I’ve been a newspaper food editor for almost 30 years, and I decided a long time ago that the whole “test kitchen” idea was overrated. If you have a test kitchen at a newspaper, you’ll just have to clean it and chase reporters out of it. Besides, I figure I’m getting results closer to what my readers will experience. If a recipe works on my nothing-special stove with my beaten-up Calphalon, it will probably work for you.

When I got the job of writing Pecans, one of the first two entries in UNC Press’s new cookbook series, I knew my home kitchen was about to get a major workout. I tried to get organized: figure the number of weeks I had until deadline (roughly 16), and the number of recipes I’d need to write, test, tweak, and retest (60 or so). That meant roughly 4 recipes a week throughout summer 2011.

Pretty soon, my co-workers were being inundated. Pecan pralines, pecan cheesecakes, pecan pies. During one marathon in July, when I took a week off just to cook, I called a co-worker and asked him to make an emergency food lift. He arrived at the office loaded with cookies, candies and cakes and said he’d never felt so popular in his life.

I still had my regular food-writing duties, so sometimes I juggled two cooking jobs at once. When I did a story on international potato salads, I brought big bowls of leftovers after we did the photo shoot at my house.

One co-worker dished up a helping and then paused, fork in the air. “Are there pecans in this?” she asked suspiciously. No, but it would have been a good idea. I still regret that I didn’t come up with a sweet potato and pecan salad.

Pecans made the deadline and it comes out Sept. 10. And for summer 2012, I had a contract for a second book in the series, on bourbon. Some things have become routine, although I’m more hesitant to hit my co-workers with bourbon balls and chocolate bourbon pies at work.

My son is a college student now, and he apparently got a lot of attention in his dorm when his dad and I stopped by on the way back from a research trip in Kentucky. He says we pulled up, ready to pick up his extra boxes, and announced: “They’ll have to go in the back seat. The trunk is full of bourbon.”

That’s the kind of moment a young man will always remember.

By mid-summer, life had come full circle. One night at dinner, my son started to take a bite of a vegetable stew when he paused, fork in the air, and looked at me with suspicion: “Is there bourbon in this?”

No, son. But it’s not for lack of trying.


Kathleen Purvis is food editor of the Charlotte Observer and a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, the Association of Food Journalists, and the James Beard Foundation. You can read her Observer food blog I’ll Bite and follow her on Twitter @KathleenPurvis.