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If you’re at all familiar with Brenda Gantt, you’ve probably wondered if the energetic septuagenarian cook ever sits down.
I’m here to tell you that she does, occasionally. I’ve actually seen her sit down for exactly 45 minutes, which was my allotted time for an interview in her home on a recent, rainy morning.
I arrived at her side door as instructed, holding my umbrella overhead after a pretty drive through the outskirts of Andalusia in south Alabama, past tall pines, blooming mimosa trees and ever-present kudzu. Brenda and her grandson, William, who was visiting from Tuscaloosa with his sister Isabella, were sitting at the table in her kitchen – the very kitchen where her fame began in April of 2020. Having already fed and visited with the guests staying at the Cottle House Bed and Breakfast across the street, Brenda was enjoying the leftover biscuits (yes, those famous biscuits, some of which were still sitting in a cast-iron skillet on the chopping block in the center of the kitchen) topped with sawmill gravy, plus local Hilltop sausage, and grits with cream cheese.
If you don’t yet know who she is, Brenda is a grandmother of five with a Southern accent as sweet as her tea who went viral after she shared a video of herself making homemade biscuits at the beginning of the pandemic. Back then, she was trying to help some of the young mothers at her church, Bethany Baptist, learn to cook by sharing videos on her Facebook page demonstrating how to make family-friendly dishes. One morning, she filmed herself making biscuits, one hand holding the phone, the other hand expertly mixing up the dough and turning it out onto a floured surface – and before those biscuits had disappeared from her kitchen, her video was being shared like crazy, with more than a million views. Ms. Brenda had become a social media phenomenon.
Ironically, over the past two years, Brenda – whose happiness is derived from the simple pleasures of cooking for her family and friends, enjoying their company, tending the earth near her home and spreading her love for Jesus – has become a Southern icon through the power of technology. She still uses her iPhone, which stands on top of a large oatmeal container weighted down with rocks, as she talks to her nearly 3 million followers (“a lot from other countries,” she says) like they’re her closest friends.
Helping others learn how to cook has now become a calling in the life of the former science teacher. Her beloved husband George died in 2018, just a month after the couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. He had vascular dementia, and she says she offers advice and counsel to others who are experiencing that disease. “I think that our mission in life is, we have different things we can help people with, or lift them up, or whatever,” she says.
Most everything you need to know about Brenda’s upbringing and the life she and her late husband George created together can be found in her first cookbook, “It’s Gonna Be Good Y’all!” (a phrase Brenda often says enthusiastically as she’s cooking something), which came out in November of 2021. Much more than a collection of recipes, the book serves as a love letter to her children, Dallas and Hannah, and their spouses and children, filled with delightful family photos, memories and stories.
The cookbook, published by 83Press of Birmingham, sold out in its first printing and again when it was reprinted in spring 2022.
And now Brenda’s many fans are looking forward to a second cookbook, “Linger Around the Table Y’all,” due to be released around Thanksgiving. “The second cookbook is basically the same,” she says, “but it’s 100 new recipes, new stories, new scriptures, new pictures, and I also put my artwork in this one. I think they’re gonna love it.”
Like the last one, this cookbook will be made in the USA, with matte pages suitable for writing comments alongside the recipes. Brenda insisted on matte pages as opposed to glossy ones so the ink won’t smear. “I want people to write in the cookbook,” she says. “If they change the recipe, I want them to make notes. There’s some blank pages at the end for them to write their stories, which are so important to hand down to their children.”
In the first cookbook, her daughter Hannah, who lives nearby with her husband, Walt Merrell, the Covington County district attorney, and their daughters, Bay, Cape and Banks, wrote a foreword about her mother’s hands.
“I don’t guess she has ever had a manicure unless it was by one of her grandbabies playing beauty shop,” Hannah wrote. “Instead, her hands are marked by years of service – cuts from butcher knives, stained fingers from shelling peas, and nails packed with dirt from the garden.”
The new cookbook will feature a foreword from Brenda’s son, Dallas, with his wife, Anna, both police officers in Tuscaloosa, and their children, William and Isabella. This time, the focus will be on the kitchen in the house Brenda and George bought in 1975.
Working With What You Have
Her bright, spotless kitchen, where she cooks down-home, Southern comfort food, has become a familiar place to her millions of followers. Recently, when she made beef stew with six basic ingredients – a roast she cut up herself, along with onions, tomatoes, garlic, carrots and potatoes, all seasoned with salt and pepper – to demonstrate how inexpensive it can be to make, her video had 2.3 million views. At the end of the video, she did the math from her grocery store receipt and estimated that the two gallons of stew would make 32 cups for just 65 cents apiece.
“Where can you eat out for 65 cents?” she asks rhetorically. “Nowhere!”
In fact, she says there’s a whole chapter in the new cookbook called “Working With What You Have.” “I’m showing them how to make things out of nothing almost, and how to economically economically,” she says.
She seldom goes anywhere these days without being recognized. Recently, she says, a six-year-old boy spotted her as she loaded groceries into the back of her truck. He ran up to her and told her he’s her biggest fan. “Of course, I reached out and hugged him and everything, and they got a picture,” she says. “But that happens all the time, no matter what town I go in.”
Internet fame hasn’t changed her kitchen much, except there might be more aprons, tea towels and other knick-knacks sent to her as gifts from around the world. Over her sink, a bay window filled with orchids and other plants looks out over her lush back yard that she cuts herself with her zero-turn-radius mower. In the center of the kitchen stands her “chopping block,” where she does all her prep work, wielding a very sharp, ever-present and not fancy knife that does everything from peel an orange to cut up a chicken.
Only three of the eyes on her electric stovetop are working right now, but she refuses to buy a new one because the newer ones automatically shut off if they get too hot. So if, say, you’re deep-fat frying okra and the stove suddenly turns off, “your okra winds up floating in the grease,” she says. In other words, it’s ruined. “They are awful, and I hope you write this in there for whoever is designing stoves, that a real cook needs to be able to control her own temperature, and we don’t want computers doing it.”
She does have a shiny new refrigerator that she bought after her old one stopped working, although it took some looking to find a white one to match her stove and her sink. Everyone seems to want stainless steel these days.
And while she does have a dishwasher, she doesn’t use it. “I wash all my dishes by hand,” she says. “You can’t put black iron in it anyway.”
In addition to cooking with cast iron, Brenda prefers to do many things “the old-time way” – that is, from scratch, and without measuring anything. The recipes in her cookbook tend to have just a few inexpensive ingredients. Over the past couple of years, her fans have learned of her devotion to certain products. She only uses White Lily flour, and she’s partial to Alabama brands like Y’all Sweet Tea, Priester’s Pecans and the aforementioned Hilltop sausage.
In fact, Brenda believes that the old ways of doing things are usually the best ways. She thinks most of our problems could be solved by going back to the dinner table and actually talking to each other face to face. “You’ve got these people with these fancy kitchens, and that’s fine to have a fancy kitchen, there’s nothing wrong with it,” she says. “But they’ve got these long bars… and all the barstools are on one side of that. Therefore you’re not looking into the eyes of the person you’re eating with, and so therefore no bonding takes place.”
Her suggestion is to have a small table in the kitchen, if possible, that seats four to six. And she practices what she preaches. On this morning, that’s where she and William have been eating breakfast, seated together at the table in her kitchen – a table that came from George’s grandmother’s kitchen, according to her first cookbook.
“That should be a special family time,” she says – with no cell phones. “And at least try to do that once a day.”
Despite her online fame, Brenda goes about her days pretty much the way she always has done, rising early, working hard and sleeping well at night. She still finds the most joy in feeding people, waking at 4 am every day so that, three days a week, she can cook a full breakfast for the guests at the Cottle House Bed and Breakfast across the street. On her days off, she still gets up early because “if you get up at 4, even though you might not want to the next day because you ain’t got to cook, you still wake up, so you might as well get up .”
There’s always plenty to do. She tries to post the video she made the day before by 6 o’clock in the morning – she usually films four or five times per week – and she puts on makeup every day because “I think that’s important, to look the best you can ,” she says. “And when you get my age, you’ve got to powder and paint a little bit.”
She starts dinner – “I call it dinner and supper,” she says. “I don’t say lunch and dinner, I say dinner and supper” – and has coffee in the afternoon as she works on a project, which most recently has been proofreading her new cookbook. While she usually goes to a line-dancing class twice a week, she has had to skip it recently because she’s so busy finishing her work on “Linger around the Table Y’all.”
Both cookbooks have followed the same production process, with a crew from the Birmingham publisher traveling to Andalusia and spending long days as Brenda cooks, smiles for the camera and cooks some more. Food stylists use her collection of casserole dishes, utensils, tablecloths and other items to make it all look good in photographs. “Every pot and pan and dish and everything that’s in the cookbook are actually mine,” she says. “This isn’t somebody else’s stuff.”
While Brenda hasn’t changed much in the past two years, she believes her followers have. “They are making biscuits,” she says. “They are making fried pies and dumplings. They’re mastering their kitchen, and that’s a really great thing.”
She is also encouraged by the number of young people who are learning to cook under her tutelage, as her own grandchildren have done. “They’re watching me, and they’re doing what I say, and they’re cooking!” she says. “And I’m so excited! So maybe the next generation will be cooks.”
After 45 minutes of talking to me, Brenda cuts our conversation short. “I’ve got to go, darlin’,” she says, jumping up and rushing out the door to pick up one of her granddaughters. She has lingered long enough, y’all. It’s time to get busy again.
While presales for “Linger Around the Table Y’all” have already ended, the publisher is printing extra copies and is still accepting orders at brendagenttbook.com or 1-833-839-6871. Those orders will ship out after the presales ship this fall. All orders should be shipped by Thanksgiving.