Food & Drink
The Southern culinary powerhouse on teaching, using the good silver, and what she’s learned from catering over one thousand weddings
By Cora Schipa
March 16, 2023
photo: Peter Frank Edwards
Vera Stewart’s productivity could span multiple lifetimes. Among the long list of titles she’s earned are caterer, mentor, café owner, teacher, mail-order aficionado, cooking-show host, and mother three times over. Yet she remains spritely as ever. “VeryVera, everything I’ve done, is the daughter I never had,” she says of her brand. “VeryVera is my little girl. And I’m still raising her. I just turned seventy years old at the end of February, and I don’t know that you could get much more enthusiastic.”
Her new cookbook, The VeryVera Cookbook: Occasions, arrives nearing the five-year publication anniversary of her first cookbook and focuses on seasonal recipes for every celebration. Below, we traced the ups and downs of her exciting career, talking origins, inspirations, and what keeps her wheels rolling after years of hard work.
What’s your favorite part of your work?
I was so encouraged by my grandmother and my mother to go into hosting and making beautiful food and presenting it beautifully, but I go back to my roots as a Home Economics teacher for much of my inspiration, especially when I started my summer camp. Fast forward to this summer, and that camp will be twenty years old. The people that are involved in it are all former campers, so they come in when they’re eight years old and they’re wide-eyed and they just love everything, and when they’re fourteen, they graduate from the camp and can come to interview with us to work here, to be a junior counselor. That keeps me young at heart. That’s my passion. It engages the constant interest in my career. It all started with Home Ec, you know, and then you look at what the food industry has done over these last forty years—I never dreamed that there would be something like food television, for heaven sakes. [Laughs.] But I think this book really comes from my heart—it’s authentic.
How does the South inspire you?
I get a really strong dose of how much people celebrate when they come from all over the country to Augusta, Georgia, for the Masters golf tournament. Back in the day, my clients in New York wanted us to serve French food and wear white gloves. And I kept saying, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. You’re coming to the South, so you’re supposed to eat fried chicken! I said, we’ll give them the cabbage gratin, but we should introduce them to grits; they should taste collard greens, cowboy pork chops. I just love sharing the taste of the South. Our mail-order company even shipped red velvet cake all the way to California; they were in the top five of states that bought from us.
Many of your career choices branch off of special occasions, and in your new book you hone in on this interest, taking us back in time. Could you tell us a bit about that?
I don’t go into detail in the book about this, but my dad died when I was seven. So there’s a picture of me in the book in front of a spread of sterling silver, and that was just a few years prior to my dad dying at forty and leaving my mother to raise five children by herself. But when a new friend invited me over from school, I knew how to use my silverware, and I knew to say, ‘Can I help you clear the table?’ Or, ‘Can I help you do the dishes?’ I turned into the friend that moms wanted their children to invite more often, and it had nothing to do with the income level of my house. Nothing. If you’re confident in those areas, so many other things can be camouflaged. If you’ve got a smile on your face and a nice attitude and you know how to act and behave appropriately, then nobody’s wondering where you live. They’re not gonna even ask that question.
It comes back to the kids at my camp, just seeing these little sparks of interest in somebody whose family probably doesn’t even have most of what I’ve set the table with. But they can set that table with what they do have, and they can say, ‘Mom, can I set the table tonight?’ And they know about napkin folding and silverware placement and how to clear properly, and we see a whole world opened up for them. I think those things really do matter. The way these things were taught to me was so loving. My mom had limited income but grew up in a family that had some wealth, so her wedding gifts were this beautiful silver. At that point in time, she couldn’t go out and buy that stuff, but she had it, and we polished it and we took care of it, so I just have a very special place in my heart for these types of things.
The book is separated into sections: Spring Flings, Summer Celebrations, Fall Gatherings, and Winter Socials. How do the recipes change between them?
Mainly we gave consideration to what’s in season—when you think about the fall, what are those smells and tastes that you look forward to? Apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, pumpkin. So you may be looking for a particular dish to make for an occasion in the spring, like Easter or Mother’s Day, but then as you’re thumbing through that chapter, you may see a pie that would be great to serve during the Christmas holidays. It doesn’t mean that it’s not appropriate at that time.
And I believe in the power of presentation, too. Even if it’s a casual meal, you can get a little creative about how you throw it on the table. Instead of just just dumping it on a plate, is there a different vessel that you could put a casserole in? Even if it means you have to remove it from the Pyrex dish into the cast iron skillet and fluff it up again and put some extra cheese on top. Creativity can get you out of a jam. It can get you to the front row, get your foot in the door. It’s really a great thing to nurture and foster.
In your book, you mention you’ve catered more than one thousand weddings. Is there a particularly memorable one?
There was a weekend where we were actually catering three weddings, and I had agreed to be at one in Madison, Georgia, at a historic home, because they booked me first. For the ceremony, we brought a huge clear span tent in from Memphis, Tennessee. And that night a small tornado touched down in downtown Augusta and ripped that tent to shreds. The wedding was the next day. I never shut my eyes that night. I found another location. The stars aligned because there was one historic property in town that was not rented. I redrew the diagram and we transferred everything. We had to completely redo the wedding. To this minute I do not know how we pulled that off.
You shared four recipes with us—tell us a little about each.
Cheese Crispies: That recipe was actually on the Rice Krispies box back in the day. The secret is really good sharp cheese, or else you’re gonna end up with too much oil. There’s a lot of chemistry involved in baking. One of the things we’ve spent a lot of time with in both of these cookbooks is making sure the descriptions are exact. So when I say to make those balls the size of a marble, you know what that size is, instead of me saying, roll it into a small ball. I truly want your experience with my book to be successful. The Cheese Crispies have a really nice, crisp bite, perfect for when you have people over for drinks.
The Velvet Hammer Cocktail: Well, it’s named like that ’cause you drink it and then it’s like somebody hit you in the head with the hammer. And you’re three shakes to the wind. You’re talking about vanilla ice cream, some extra vanilla, vodka, and Kahlua. It’s the best milkshake you ever tasted. But if you really did not eat your supper very much, it’s gonna hit you like a ton of bricks. It’s a tried and true favorite in this town. It’s the go-to after dinner drink.
Blondies with Pecan Praline Sauce: You know, a blondie was always probably my choice over a brownie. I just love that caramel and butterscotch flavor with the nuts, and that praline cream sauce gives you a different way to present it. The blondie is generally thought of as a pickup dessert, like a cookie, so I wanted to give it an opportunity to be presented as a plated after-dinner dessert.
Sue’s Carrot Sandwiches: This is the best. I learned so much about cooking from my mother-in-law. She was a caterer too. So the first time I tasted one of these, I had no earthly idea what I was eating. I mean, it was this bright, vibrant orange color, so what could it be? You immediately think it’s pimento cheese. But it ends up being carrots! They are finely grated, then you have to squeeze the water out, mix it with mayonnaise and a little bit of garlic salt and pecans, and spread it out on that thin bread. If you’re on a budget and you’ve got to come up with a bunch of appetizers, like for a tailgate or something, it’s perfect. People cannot get enough of that filling, and nobody would ever dream that it was carrots.
It seems like you’re always cooking up something scrumptious! How can we keep up with new recipes outside of the cookbook?
I share new recipes weekly on The VeryVera Show, which airs in forty markets across the country. I also post recipes multiple times a week to my social media accounts. Come follow along with us at @veryverastewart.