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'Blue Ribbon Kitchen': Recipes for one Appalachian grandmother's award-winning dishes

Buttermilk biscuits. (Courtesy of 83 Press)
Buttermilk biscuits. (Courtesy of 83 Press)

Hear this interview on our podcast, Here & Now Anytime.

Who is Linda Skeens? That became last year’s question of the summer as word spread that someone at the Virginia-Kentucky District Fair had won 25 blue ribbons: Best Cake, Best Pie, Best Brownies, Best Jelly, Best Jam, Best Applesauce, Best Apple Butter, Best Pumpkin Butter, Best Sauerkraut, Best Spaghetti Sauce.

Her strawberry fudge won Best Overall Baked Good. And even more unbelievable? Her entries won first, second, and third in the cookies, cakes and brownies categories. She went viral on the internet, though she didn’t know because she had no social media.

The cover of Blue Ribbon Kitchen. (Courtesy of 83 Press)

A local reporter finally tracked her down and found a warm, down-to-earth, 74-year-old Appalachian grandmother. The daughter and wife of coal miners was tickled to get so much attention. Now, Skeens has released her “Blue Ribbon Kitchen” cookbook, filled with recipes, tips and descriptions of her life in Appalachia.

Before flying to New York and California for interviews, Skeens had never been on a plane before. Recognition like Taste of the South magazine featuring her recipes means a lot to her as someone who didn’t always know how to cook, she says.

“I got married when I was 16, and my mom was a great cook and my mother-in-law, too. I just never was interested in it,” she says. “But I was determined I was going to be a good cook someday.”

Skeens’ father, brothers and husband all worked in coal mines for mere dollars a day. Her brother Andrew was killed in the mines at age 21, a hard loss for the family.

Skeens’ son Frank Jr. was killed in a work accident driving a tanker truck.

“I miss him terrible every day. He would be real proud of me right now because he was the one got me started entering the fair and he loved my cooking,” she says. “If he was here, he would be proud of me.”

Skeens knows the importance of comfort food in hard times.

“I put love in it,” she says. “I really do. I love doing it.”

Recipes from ‘Blue Ribbon Kitchen’

By Linda Skeens

FOR MOST OF THE INTERNET, my story begins on June 13, 2022, when the Virginia-Kentucky District Fair posted the winners for their Home Economic Exhibits. I won dozens of ribbons, including seven Best Overall for my baked goods, canning, and crafts. I’m not on social media, so I didn’t see that post. I found out when I went to collect my goods at the end of the fair. I hoped to pick up a few ribbons, but I walked away with a lot more. I learned I had gone “viral.”

Soon, my name was everywhere I turned. They were talking about me on the news, and my kids and grandkids kept sharing posts and videos of people talking about me. Still, I didn’t reach out to anyone. I thought it would blow over. After all, this is what I do every year. I enter the fairs. I win a few ribbons, and then I go home to start prepping for next year’s fairs. Except, that didn’t go exactly as I imagined. The news stations struggled to find me, but one radio DJ in Dallas, Texas, did. Mason Moussette (Mason on the Mic) called me one afternoon on my home phone, and I did my first interview that day.

I thought that would be the end of it, but people became even more interested after that call. I visited tv shows and did radio interviews, even one based out of Europe!I thought flying on my first airplane and going on the Today Show would be the biggest highlight from last year; then one afternoon in August, I got a call from Hoffman Media in Birmingham, Alabama. Not only did they want to put me in a magazine (Taste of the South), but also, they wanted to publish my cookbook. I spent some time talking on the phone with Anna in their book division, 83 Press, and I knew I wanted them to help me tell my story and share my recipes. I invited her to come visit, and the next week, Anna was knocking on my door with two executives from the company, Brian and Greg. As I sat around my table, laughing with the team from 83 Press, I signed my first cookbook contract. In a few short months, I went from my regular, annual county fair entry to a cookbook author. Some days, I still can’t believe the gift this journey has been.

I have been incredibly blessed with a good life. I was born in Dante, a coal mining town in Virginia. At its peak in the 1930s, it was a bustling town of over 4,000 people. When I was growing up, the mines were the central focus of our town. Everyone had family who worked in or for the mines. It was just part of how life was back then. My daddy was a coal miner, and my mommy took care of us kids. I still remember how we didn’t always have running water in the house back then, so Mommy would have to get pots of it to warm up on the stove for everyone to wash with. Even though we didn’t have a lot, she always made sure we were cared for.

Mommy was a good cook. People would pay her to make fudge every year, but I was not a natural like her. When Frank and I got married, I was terrible at cooking, but I learned along the way. Mommy and Celia, Frank’s mom, taught me a lot, and I got better. I stayed home and raised our three children, Frank Jr., Cathy, and Elizabeth. They were my joy. Eventually, they grew up, and I needed something to fill my time. With my love of cooking, it was only natural I got a job up the road at the school cooking for the kids there. I loved working with those ladies and cooking for those kids.

Now, I’m retired, and it’s just Frank and me at home, but I can’t seem to stop cooking. I love making food for church or for family gatherings, but I really love entering fairs. It’s been forty years since I entered my first fair. I got a blue ribbon for my pillowcases back in 1983, and I was hooked. I’ve entered every year since. Now, I enter dozens of categories and spend the whole year prepping for the next year. Entering fairs is one of my favorite things, and I hope to keep doing it for many more years. Fairs have been a lifeline through a few hard years. We lost our son, Frank Jr., nine years ago, which devastated our family. Just as we began to heal, COVID-19 hit and my daughter Cathy lost her husband, and we lost my brother, sister-in-law, and nephew. Being creative and cooking has allowed me an outlet during our grieving. Crafts and cooking helped me to bring joy to those I love, which has been a huge blessing. When I was diagnosed with Leukemia in 2021, I turned to my crafts and cooking yet again. It’s been a hard journey, but the doctors say I’m doing great. There’s no cure, but they’ve said with treatment, I could live another 10 to 20 years. I’m 74 now, and I’ve had a good, long life. Over the last few years, I have learned to take every day as a gift that wasn’t promised, and I try to celebrate every happiness that has been sent my way.

To my new friends and supporters: Thank you for giving me even more moments to celebrate this year. It feels real good knowing people appreciate something you love doing. This book is filled with recipes I’ve gathered over my lifetime that have brought me joy (and some blue ribbons). Some are family staples, and others have been passed down from friends and loved ones over the years. Cooking has always been a way for me to show love to my family and community. My food isn’t fancy, but it fed my children and helped them grow into loving adults. I hope you enjoy these recipes and use them to continue feeding your families for years to come. Maybe you’ll even be inspired to enter a few fairs along the way—I hope to see you there.

Zucchini cornbread. (Courtesy of 83 Press)

Zucchini Cornbread

Makes 1 (9-inch) loaf

Ingredients

  • 1½ cups shredded zucchini
  • 1¼ cups self-rising cornmeal
  • ¾ cup cottage cheese
  • ¾ stick butter, melted
  • ¼ cup self-rising flour
  • ¼ cup oil
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 3 large eggs, beaten
  • 1 tablespoon sugar


Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 425°. Grease a 9-inch square baking pan.
  2. Mix all ingredients together, and place in prepared pan.
  3. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes

Buttermilk Biscuits

I have been making these ever since I got married at age 16. I wasn’t a very good cook at first, but as they say, practice makes perfect. I used to fry tenderloin or sausage to put on a biscuit for Frank to take to lunch when he worked in the coal mines. Makes about 14.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon table salt
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • 6 tablespoons cold salted butter
  • 1 cup whole buttermilk, plus more for brushing
  • Serve with butter, Sausage Gravy, Slow Cooker Apple Butter, or Pumpkin Butter


Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 450°.
  2. In a mixing bowl, mix together flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda. Cut in butter until it looks like coarse crumbs. Stir in buttermilk and continue stirring until dough clings together and makes a ball. Knead dough 10 times on a lightly floured surface. Roll into a rectangle about ½-inch thick. Cut out with a 2-inch biscuit cutter, rerolling scraps as necessary. Place 1 inch apart on a baking sheet. Brush tops with buttermilk.
  3. Bake until golden brown, about 14 to 17 minutes.

Hornet’s nest cake. (Courtesy 83 Press)

Hornet’s Nest Cake

This cake is good enough on its own — no icing needed. It was my son-in-law’s favorite. We miss him a lot and wish he was still here with us. Makes 1 (13×9-inch) cake.

Ingredients

  • 1 (3.5-ounce) box butterscotch cook and serve pudding (not instant)
  • 1 (15.5-ounce) box yellow cake mix*
  • 1 (12-ounce) package butterscotch chips
  • 1 cup chopped pecans


*I use Betty Crocker Super Moist Butter Yellow Cake Mix.

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°. Grease a 13×9-inch cake pan.
  2. In a large saucepan, prepare pudding according to directions on box. Add dry cake mix. Mix just until moistened. Pour into prepared pan. Sprinkle butterscotch chips and nuts on top.
  3. Bake until a wooden pick inserted into cake comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes.


Recipe reprinted with permission from “Blue Ribbon Kitchen” By Linda Skeens (‎83 Press, 2023). Photography credit 83 Press.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.