In this Q&A, UNC Press Publicity Director Gina Mahalek talks with Jean Anderson, James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame member and author of Kiln to Kitchen: Favorite Recipes from Beloved North Carolina Potters, about her lifelong passion for pottery, her earliest influences, and her gift for harmonizing text and design.
Jean Anderson’s new cookbook deliciously brings together two of her lifelong passions—great food and North Carolina pottery. Fans of both will celebrate. While always meant for one another, pottery and cooking are enjoying a new romance—many potters have introduced designs, glazes, and techniques that make pottery more versatile, while others continue making the traditional pie plates, casseroles, jugs, and mugs that made this state’s pottery famous. Potters now routinely tuck recipes into everything from stoneware angel-food cake pans to salt-glazed bean pots, and Anderson has selected a treasury of favorite recipes contributed by the twenty-four gifted North Carolina potters featured in this book.
Kiln to Kitchen is now available in both print and ebook editions. If you’re in North Carolina, there will be books for sale, food samples, and a signing with Jean Anderson at the W. M. Hewitt Pottery Holiday Kiln Opening on Sunday, 12/8 at 2PM. Read more event details here.
Author Q&A with Jean Anderson
Gina: What was the inspiration for Kiln to Kitchen?
Jean: My mother taught me to cook before I could read and couldn’t keep me out of the kitchen. She baked pies in Jugtown pie plates and bubbled stews in Jugtown casseroles. To show me how these pots were made as well as to pick up a few pieces, we’d pile into the old Ford on Saturdays and drive from Raleigh to Jugtown.
GM: Tell me about the organization for the book.
JA: There are three major pottery areas in North Carolina—Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill Triangle, Seagrove, and Mountains. So I featured eight of the best potters in each of these areas.
GM: How did you get such a good balance of sweet and savory recipes?
JA: I asked each potter to send me their favorite recipes—two to three savories (meat/fish/fowl/vegetables) and two to three desserts. That way I had a variety of choices from which to choose.
GM: Have the recipes been tested?
JA: No recipe ever appears in any of my cookbooks until it’s been thoroughly tested. I’m one of the few cookbook authors who insists upon this—a “must” learned when I was a young food editor at The Ladies’ Home Journal.
GM: Kiln to Kitchen includes 24 color photos of recipes included in the book. What was the process of styling and shooting the photos like?
JA: I hired a digital camera wizard who said she had never photographed food. I told her not to worry, that I knew how to prep and style food for photographs thanks to my years as a food editor at The Ladies’ Home Journal and a contributing editor at Family Circle both writing and shooting food. Her camera was tethered to a TV-like screen so I could see the “set” and adjust the position of the food and pottery as needed. We kept each photograph as simple as possible to showcase both food and pottery. I didn’t “doctor” the book’s recipes but did add a few “highlights” by brushing food here and there with a vegetable-oil-dipped pastry brush (for unsweet recipes) and with a 50-50 mix of light corn syrup and water for fruit desserts—just a dab on a ripe strawberry makes it pick-me-up-and-eat-me luscious.
GM: How would you define functional pottery?
JA: Functional in the kitchen is the point. That would mean a piece of pottery that’s oven-proof and can be used for baking OR it’s NOT oven-proof but can be used for serving food—i.e. platters, dinner plates, salad bowls, etc. In my kitchen, I have also used pottery storage jars for sugar, flour, meals, etc. to keep them bug-free. Moreover, they’re ever-so-pretty on my kitchen counter.
GM: In your opinion, what is the most versatile type of functional pottery? What kind of piece do you find yourself using most?
JA: A pie plate (Jugtown, but other potters also make them). It’s perfect for all manner of pies, quiches, scalloped potatoes, crisps, cobblers, even shallow “casseroles,” fricasseed chicken, and smothered pork chops. Immensely versatile. Moreover, I’m constantly discovering new uses.
GM: What was your first piece of pottery? Do you still have it?
JA: Yes, a Jugtown coffee mug in a greenish glaze called “frogskin” made by master potter Ben Owen, grandfather of today’s Ben Owen III. I was about 10, blew my allowance on it (about $10) and still have it. Because it’s a signed piece, it’s now worth plenty—one sold recently at an auction in Charlotte for about $250.00.
GM: What a beautiful piece! Even at this early age, you seemed to have an unusually keen eye for beauty as well as an ability to present it with your photos.
JA: Thanks, Gina. I studied art for five years with NC artist Mabel Pugh, head of art at Peace College in Raleigh. She lived in a little cottage on campus and her upstairs studio was where she gave private Saturday morning lessons to teenage Raleigh girls. She taught me so much—both technique and art history. Those classes helped me more than I can say as a newspaper and magazine editor because there is often a divide between editors and art directors—the former is usually focused on text, and the latter is usually concerned with design. When I worked for The Raleigh Times and the N&O, I remember Jonathan Daniels saying, “There’s a hall between our editorial and art departments, NOT a wall.”
Thanks to Miss Pugh, I was able to work effectively with both editors and art directors at a variety of New York publications at which I worked.
GM: Have you ever tried creating pottery yourself?
JA: Yes. As a little girl, I made patty cakes out of red clay, then tried to shape them into little bowls. I’d sun-dry them, but they crumbled. As a teen, Jugtown’s master potter Ben Owen let me sit at his wheel. I failed miserably, didn’t have “the hands,” and so became a pottery collector.
GM: Do you have any advice for someone who’s never gone on a pottery tour?
JA: Keep it simple! Anyone living in Piedmont NC should go to Jugtown, then Westmoore, then Ben Owen, then Bulldog. They’ll see a variety of work by top NC potters. Equally important, these potters don’t require appointments; just open the door and walk in. All are closed on Sunday and many on Monday as well.
GM: Do you have any tips for parents wanting to make the experience of visiting potteries enjoyable for kids?
JA: In this age of smartphones and video games, pick a potter that kids can watch shaping a blob of clay into a pot of perfect symmetry—Ben Owen III, for example, near Seagrove. Many summer camps offer pottery courses and if a child shows an interest in pottery, sign him up for those classes.
GM: How can I tell whether I can cook and serve using a piece from my collection?
JA: Contact the potter or manufacturer if possible. Otherwise, use only for serving.
GM: Is there a way to tell whether a glaze is safe?
JA: Half fill the piece with white vinegar and let stand on the counter for several days. Pour out the vinegar, wipe the pot dry, and if there’s a significant difference in the color and texture of the glaze above and below the vinegar line, the glaze is toxic, Using a Sharpie, write “toxic” on the bottom of the piece and never use for prepping or serving food.
GM: What’s the best way to prepare clay casseroles, pie plates, and tube pans for baking?
JA: Experienced cooks spritz pottery tube pans well with nonstick cooking spray just before adding the batter because if it’s done earlier, the spray will merely puddle in the bottom of the pan and lose its effectiveness. Food pros find that greasing pottery tube and Bundt pans with vegetable shortening (Crisco) is even better. Then to make sure these cakes, breads, and other loaves unmold neatly, they line the bottom of the pan with a circle of baking parchment or nonstick aluminum foil and grease that, too.
GM: Have you explored the pottery and food culture of other countries? Do you have any favorite pieces of pottery or recipes from outside the United States?
JA: Friends joke that I can’t get on a plane that doesn’t land in Lisbon. I fell in love with Portugal on my first trip years ago. There was hand-crafted pottery in the airport’s arrival lounge, and a pottery shop in my hotel lobby. And once I headed my rental VW out of town, I was in red clay country. São Pedro de Corval is Portugal’s major pottery town, like North Carolina’s Seagrove.
There are dozens of olarias (potteries) in this white-washed village of open doorways framed with colorful plates. Potters set up stands in the weekly markets at Estremoz and Barcelos. I’ve bought myself silly and shipped dozens of functional pots home including those staples in every Portuguese kitchen—tachos de barro (terra cotta baking “pans”). I even included a few potter’s recipes in my cookbook The Food of Portugal (winner of the R.T. French Tastemaker Award and still selling briskly after 30 years) though I didn’t identify the potters as I did in my new UNC Press cookbook Kiln to Kitchen.
Jean Anderson, winner of six best-cookbook awards and a member of the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame, is the author of more than a dozen cookbooks, most recently Crisps, Cobblers, Custards & Creams. After many years working in the New York City publishing world, she came home to North Carolina, bought an old house, and filled it with cookbooks and pottery.