Lexington, KY – Long before it was hip to have a small garden plot in your backyard, before phrases like “all organic” and “no preservatives” were la mode du jour, before wood-burning stoves became chic furniture Ö before being country was cool, local food personality and author Benita McCoy-Lyons was a Martha Stewart for the down home, poised to be a zeitgeist for the coming rural revolution.
For many, rustic sensibilities, like cooking from scratch or cultivating heirloom tomatoes, especially in urban settings, are in vogue. For Benita, it’s a way of life she’s lived, learned and perfected, and while it may taste good, it’s also a way of persevering if things get rough.
“If these generations that follow us don’t learn how to do some of this, they’re just going to be left out in the cold, because our earth is changing and our technology isn’t going to feed us,” she said. “We have to go back to where we started from, and going green is the real deal. It’s not just a log, it’s not just a phase -
it’s the truth. You’re going to have to go back to the garden plot.”
Benita, a Pike County native and fourth generation descendant from the McCoy family -
the one with the notorious feud with the Hatfield family (though she’d rather feed a Hatfield than shoot one) -
is the author of “Scratch Cooking,” a cookbook she wrote and compiled back in 1989 after tirelessly fielding requests from friends and family for recipes. The only problem was the recipes were ingrained after years of being in the kitchen back in remote Eastern Kentucky, where food is the centerpiece for any occasion and is cooked, well, from scratch, given the long distance some families had to travel just for a small grocery store. All of the ingredients, proportions and preparations were second nature -
she couldn’t tell you how much butter went into her corn pudding, she just had a way with dollops, glugs, dashes and pinches. Per request, Benita had to cook the items again and measure as she went; finally the suggestion came to just pen a cookbook. She decided to take it one step further by incorporating her rich cultural heritage into the entries, which often pay tribute to the people who made them their staple, like “Florene’s Fresh Apple Cake.”
“Scratch cooking is an art of the mountains and Appalachia. It’s a lost and dying art, and I wanted to preserve it,” she said.
From the cookbook spawned a line of products Benita grew, harvested and canned on her farm off of Ironworks Pike -
sauces, relishes, jams, jellies -
a line that was endorsed by Kentucky Proud (called Pride of Kentucky at that time). But after three years in the field, the venture was eventually abandoned because it wasn’t cost effective given the intensity of the labor -
and that’s coming from somebody who isn’t a stranger to hard work.
“It was too expensive, too time consuming, too hard. My goodness, I broke my back. It took me 19 days to can 3,000 jars of salsa,” she said.
While most of her experience with food, at first, was countrified, her appetite for culinary knowledge was ravenous. With books like “Joy of Cooking,” her favorite in a room stacked with various volumes, she learned how to prepare her victuals with a gourmet slant.
“It’s the book where I learned to finesse. I learned how to take brown skillet gravy and turn it into a delectable sauce,” she said.
During a Culinary Arts Association contest in the early ’90s, which was judged by Julia Child and Jeff Smith, Benita took first place in her category, ethnic and regional, and second place overall. Her entry was soup beans and corn bread with a side of her corn relish. In fact, she’s got quite a few awards, but the validation that comes from winning cooking contests was never anything Benita sought, a clean plate is just as good as a blue ribbon.
“I know how good I can cook,” she said. “The people that eat my food know how good I can cook.”
In 2005, Benita released “Scratch Cooking 2,” with added recipes, and a revised edition of that version was released in 2007 for national publication. For the past four years, Benita has been a regular fixture on WKTY-TV’s “Newsfirst @ Noon,” showing off her recipes and discussing different cooking techniques. It’s an opportunity that affords her to showcase something she can’t in her books, her larger than life personality.
“It’s a blast. I’m a ham,” she said. “I love people, I feed from them and they feed from me. I eat it up.”
Benita McCoy-Lyons will be signing copies of her recipe book, “Scratch Cooking 2,” and doing an onstage cooking presentation at The Incredible Food Show at Rupp Arena (Oct. 3 – 4). For tickets, presenter times and a list of exhibitors, visit www.theincrediblefoodshow.com.
On Nov. 5, she will be a participant of the March of Dimes Signature Chefs Auction, where guests get to sample gourmet foods from Lexington’s most elite chefs’ signature dishes and participate in unique auction opportunities. For tickets or more information, visit the March of Dimes Kentucky Chapter at www.marchofdimes.com/Kentucky.
For list of other appearances, workshop or class schedules, various recipes, or to order a copy of “Scratch Cooking 2,” visit www.kentuckyscratchcooking.com.
Mango Peach Tart
1 package (3 oz.) cream cheese, softened
1 stick butter, softened
1 c. all-purpose flour
Combine cream cheese and butter; cream until smooth. Add flour; mix well. Refrigerate dough one hour. Press dough against bottom and sides of a tart pan.
2 c. fresh diced peaches
1c. peeled and diced mangos
2 sleeves Knox gelatin
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. allspice
1 tsp. cloves
1/2 stick of butter, cut into parts
Mix together and pour into crust. Bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes.
Ginger Peach Chicken
1 small jar of peach preserves
1 envelope Lipton’s onion soup mix
1/3 c. of honey
1 small bottle of French dressing
2 Tbs. ground ginger
2 lbs. chicken (cut to your preference)
Stir together sauce ingredients and pour over washed and skinned chicken. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour. You can use this sauce over pork as well.
“Little Greasy” Beans
(Little Greasy is the seed name for a specific type of bean.)
2 lbs. fresh beans, covered with water
1 tsp. seasoned salt
1 tsp. seasoned pepper
2 Tbs. canola oil
3 Tbs. olive oil
3 strips of bacon
salt and pepper to taste
Cook on high to rolling boil; reduce heat and simmer for two hours.
Yukon Gold Fries
8 potatoes, scrubbed and sliced
1/2 c. olive oil
Fry potato slices in olive oil. Drain well on paper towels. Add sea salt and pepper to taste.