Jean Anderson may be the award-winning author of more than 20 respected cookbooks.
But most people wouldn't recognize her if she walked down Raleigh's Fayetteville Street carrying a dish of flaming cherries jubilee.
Anderson, a Raleigh native who lives in Chapel Hill, may finally get some local love.
After decades of writing on a range of cuisines, including Portuguese and German cooking, she returned to her roots and wrote about cooking down home. The book, “A Love Affair with Southern Cooking,” won an award in June from the James Beard Foundation.
“Her book is a masterpiece. It deserved the award,” said James Villas, a Charlotte native whose own cookbook “The Glory of Southern Cooking” lost out to Anderson's.
Adds Sandra Gutierrez, a Cary cooking instructor who counts Anderson as a mentor: “Her body of work is gargantuan. But this book is a labor of love. ... That's why I think it will be a classic.”
Fans for life
Anderson is beloved by experienced and amateur cooks who depend on her cookbooks, including “The American Century Cookbook,” “The Doubleday Cookbook,” and a definitive volume called “The Food of Portugal.” She's in the James Beard Foundation's Cookbook Hall of Fame, among the likes of Julia Child and Jacques Pepin.
“Once a cook discovers her, they become a fan for life,” said Georgia Downard, a former editor at Gourmet magazine and former producer at the Food Network.
What Anderson offers her fans are beautifully written stories and reliable recipes. That reliability sets her apart in today's cookbook world. Many cookbooks, particularly those by food celebrities, are ghostwritten, and the recipes are often developed by someone else and untested.
Anderson, who has a degree in food and nutrition from Cornell University, is one of the few cookbook authors who not only does her own research and writing but also develops and tests her own recipes. She even takes her own photographs.
“Jean does it all herself,” said Sara Moulton, star of “Sara's Secrets” on The Food Network.
Both Villas and Moulton describe Anderson as their “encyclopedia.” In the late 1990s, Moulton did an hourlong live cooking show on the Food Network during which viewers called in with questions. If Moulton couldn't answer the question, she said, Anderson often would call the control room with the answer.
A Southern palate
Anderson's parents moved to Raleigh from the Midwest when her father got a job teaching botany at what was then N.C. State College.
While Anderson's mother was an able cook, she tended to cook leg of lamb rather than fried chicken. So Anderson cleaned her plate at the school cafeteria, wrangled dinner invitations at friends' homes and visited often with a neighbor, Mrs. Franklin, “an old farm woman, newly come to town,” who introduced her to sawmill gravy and cathead biscuits.
Anderson's Southern food education continued after college, when she went to work as an assistant home demonstration agent in Iredell County, helping rural families improve their quality of life. At the 4-H club picnics, she soon learned which women made the best fried chicken and wild persimmon pudding.
Anderson went on to work as the women's editor at The Raleigh Times, got a master's in journalism at Columbia University and landed as an editorial assistant at Ladies' Home Journal. Within seven years, she was the managing editor.
While at Ladies' Home Journal, Anderson oversaw the magazine's cookbooks. So when she left to become a freelance writer, she began writing her own cookbooks.
As a native Southerner, Anderson often was sent south on assignment by magazines such as Bon Appetit and Gourmet. But it wasn't until five years ago that she decided she was ready to write her own Southern cookbook.
Anderson said she needed a lifetime of exploring, eating and traveling throughout the South to do it.
Her recipes expose readers to the Southern food lexicon: mirliton soup, Surry County sonker, chicken bog. (A mirliton, also called chayote, is a squash popular in the Deep South. Sonker is a cobbler unique to Surry County. A bog is a thick chicken-and-rice dish.)
“She doesn't just want to create a recipe,” said Barbara Fairchild, editor-in-chief of Bon Appetit. “She wants to tell a story.”