Our Style Director grew up in a suburb in the Midwest at a time where everyone knew their neighbors in their subdivision and events were celebrated together. When her father mowed the lawn, it was a time to gossip with other fathers in the neighbhorhood and their wives planned ways to come together. The highs and lows were celebrated through food. Now more than ever, the need to bring warmth to the everyday through food is an essential. We had the opportunity to sit down with Elizabeth Heiskell, who just released her lifestyle cookbook, What Can I Bring, to talk about how she got into the culinary industry, a Today Show Contributor, a caterer and how we can approach incorporating food into lifestyle situations. We laughed more than any interview we can think of and the food and the presentation of it from this book is from a place of love.
ATHLEISURE MAG: Tell us how you came to this journey as a cook, TODAY SHOW contributor and writer.
ELIZABETH HEISKELL: I started in highschool with a catering company and my mom was really good friends with the owner of the company and so I would go and cater on the weekends. I would work during holidays and when I came home from college and I would work for her. So when I finished school, I was looking for a job and ended up finding a husband instead of a job and then very quickly had a baby right after we got married. I hadn’t planned on working as I was just going to raise children and my family and that was just what I was going to do. Then I had this friend that I just adored and she had just moved back to town. She didn’t have a job and she would just come over to my house and literally every morning, we’d visit and have so much fun!
Her husband was making her get a job. So it was so bad that I would load up the baby and then sit in the car while she would go off to do interviews and then we would go eat lunch – it was awful! Finally, I said, “this is ridiculous, we just need to start our own company and then you don’t have to get a job and we can still hang out!” I told her that I had this idea call Instead of Flowers. So basically instead of getting flowers, you called us and we would bring you food. If you had a friend that died or someone who had a baby or sick – we would take food. So we did that and of course our husbands called it, “Instead of a Job”, but it was really successful and it moved into catering almost immediately.
Then we moved from Memphis back to the Delta in Mississippi where I’m from originally and I slowly started catering again and then I became the head chef at Viking Corporation – which of course is the stove company. I was there for 8 years while still catering and then we were approached by this couple that owned a farm in Oxford. They had just bought it and were going to develop it with house, but then the market turned and they thought they were just going to hang on to it. In the meantime, they had started a farm down in Louisiana and they were servicing New Orleans with some of the most beautiful vegetables that you have ever seen. So they decided to shift plans with the property that they were holding onto and to work with someone to do the same things that they were doing there.
So my husband came home from work (he was a builder at the time but had grown up as a farmer) and started talking to me about all of this. We had just built my first house as we had lived in rental after rental after rental – it was my first house. We were going to live in that house, we were going to die in that house – I wasn’t going to go anywhere – they were going to have to lay me out on my dining room table when I was dead for people to see me - that was it! I wasn’t going to go to Oxford Mississippi! He wouldn’t shut up about it and I agreed to look at the property in Oxford. We went down to Lousiana at their other farm and they started pulling out vegetables that I had never seen before! This was 7 years ago before we even had a WholeFoods. You’d see these vegetables in magazines but the thought that you could harvest them and cook them took me to a whole other level.
So we ended up selling my beautiful house and moved to Oxford and started growing them. The plan was that Luke would grow the vegetables and that I would sell them. That’s the way it was going to be because I was a chef and knew what the restaurants wanted and what they needed and I was connected to them in Memphis and in Oxford.
The crates were a thousand pounds because there were crates of squash and tomatoes. It wasn’t feathers that we were selling and it was the hardest 5 months of my life. I went to Memphis 3 days a week and sold these vegetables and then we had a barn on the farm that we were redoing so that I could get back to catering and of course we’d use all the vegetables in the catering company.
It was a perfect marriage and then I had wanted to be on the Today Show for 17 years. I remembered sitting in my house back when I had Instead of Flowers seeing Martha Stewart on with Matt Lauer with a Turkey that she was making. I told my friend, “One day, I’m going to be on the Today Show and I am going to show my grandmother’s Pillowcase Turkey and it’s going to be fantastic.” My children would always ask me if I could take them to New York and I’d say, “we can go to NY as soon as I get on the Today Show.”
So I was asked to do a dinner for Andy Lack in Oxford at Roanoke. I cooked out of William Faulkner’s kitchen and I was the first one to cook out of his kitchen since his death. It was 12 people at the dinner and he was coming back out of retirement to take over as the head of NBC and that was on a Thursday and he was taking over on Monday. I knew that this was my chance. Honey, we put the dog on!
AM: So wait – what was this dinner like?
EH: It was the most magical thing that I had ever done. We had silver on the lawn, the oak trees were uploft, beautiful bars and we served mint juleps out of sterling silver cups with sterling silver straws as that is what Willian Faulkner served. We passed ham and biscuits because he always had a ham everytime he had a party. They were seated at his table – it was a magical night and at the end of it, Andy just held my hands and said, “you need to understand that you are wildly talented.” And I said, “Oh Andy – you tell all the girls that!”
I sent him a package reminding him of my interest to be on the Today Show and I didn’t hear anything for about 2 and a half months and my fingers were bloody from hitting the email button!
I wasn’t going to let it go and we have a Bloody Mary mix called Debutante Farmer Bloody Mary Mix that was born on the farm with Luke growing 10,000 tomato plants and me having nothing to do with them as we only had 6 restaurants.
I knew that Andy loved Bloody Marys as I had already put some in his room at the hotel and he drinks the mix every morning – not with the vodka but he loved it.
So I FINALLY got a call from the Senior Producer of the Today Show and I talked to her for 2 hours as I was headed to Nashville. It didn’t dawn on me how long it was as I was driving to Nashville and I know she didn't get a word in edgewise and my Suburban was filled with tomatoes. So at the end of the conversation she said, “we’re going to send a crew to you and I really want to see what you’re doing there. We’ll get one of our anchors to come down to be with you.”
She said, “I know, you want to be on the Today Show with Matt Lauer – there isn’t a person up here who doesn’t know what your dream is. We will get you on, but if you don’t mind we’d like to come and do a segment on you.”
They came down with Erica Hill and did a beautiful segment and it was nominated for a James Beard – which I didn’t know until after the awards happened. Then she called and it was about a month before Thanksgiving and she let me know that they wanted me to come up and to do the Thanksgiving Turkey. She didn’t know that that was what I wanted to do – just my friend. So I came on and did the turkey in 3.5 minutes with Matt and I thought that that was it. That was my dream – we went to Tavern on the Green, had champagne and went shopping with the girls.
That’s how we got to all of this and because of the Today Show, Sid Evans (Editor in Chief of Southern Living Magazine) called and said he wanted me to come to Birmingham to do Facebook Live and webisodes. We then had lunch with Katherine Cobb the Editor at Time Inc and Oxmoore House had this idea of What Can I Bring which is based on a column that they already have in the magazine and with that column they wanted to do a book. I had already thought about doing a book about 3 months before this and my prayer was that I wanted to do one but it had to be simple and easy as I didn't have time to find an agent, a publicist etc. I just wanted it to be the easiest book that I could write. So Katherine told me about it and I was like "Katherine that was my first job – ‘Instead of Flowers’ that’s what I did.” I can do that with my eyes closed – lock me in the room for 2 hours and I’ll have a book for you.
After that I agreed and I wrote a little bit and Sid said we’ll see if you can write and if not, we can get someone to help you write. I let him know that I thought I could write it and he said, “we’ll be the judge of that.” I sent him a few things so that he could pitch it to Time and they said the book went through. I asked Katherine if Sid thought that I needed someone to help me write and she said, “oh no no you’re doing this all by yourself.” It’s so funny as English was my worst subject and to see this book sitting here, I can’t believe it! It’s beyond! I just wrote what I was thinking and I figured that Katherine would fix whatever needed to be done and she never called – and now there is a book.
AM: Tell us more about the Debutante Farmer.
EH: So, we started with the Bloody Mary Mix and started canning it. So we had big stove pots we would mash the tomatoes down and cook them, strain them and then add what you do – Wooster, Garlic, Salt and Lime – that’s it – nothing else. We canned and canned. I’d take it to friends and then people started asking for it and it became this thing. So then we found this wonderful guy that makes it for us and he uses local tomatoes and does right by the product. So now it’s a really great product. The next step will be to work on the Pimento Cheese, Pickled Green Beans, Pickled Okra - all of those things will follow suit with this. Because there is nothing better to me then Cheese Straws and Bloody Marys and Pimento Cheese and a Pickled Okra.
The Bloody Mary is the only thing that can drink at 9am and no one is going to roll their eyes at you or to put you in the Betty Ford Clinic! They just think that you’re getting in your vitamins.
AM: What foods are classic to the Mississippi Delta?
EH: Well just the ones we were talking about. We have such notoriety for our fried foods and things that aren’t healthy like Pimento Cheese and Chicken Dumplings which are fantastic. But what a lot of people don’t understand is that we have the vegetables and the produce and the ability to grow it with the land that no one else has. We have beautiful Farmer’s Markets and people are moving back to this seeing this huge resurgence. When I grew up, we had a vegetable patch and most of my friends did. We had big lunches everyday and it’s going back to that but it wasn’t very long ago. So I still remember this as it’s not 2 generations or 3 generations – like it is in a lot of other places. There was a meat and 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 including sliced tomatoes, creamed corn, wonderful black eyed peas – oh my God! So although we’re famous for the fried chicken, it’s moving to a healthier aspect and I honestly think that we will be known as almost the vegetable basket (just like the bread basket in the midwest) – because we do know how to grow the vegetables and they flourish there.
AM: What Can I Bring debuted this month, what can people expect when reading this book?
EH: Number one it’s funny. I wrote it just like I’m sitting here talking to you talking about my favorite pound cake recipe.
Even though I am going to promote vegetables and healthiness all day long, there is sometimes a need to take a shortcut to get to the end result! The whole point of this book and why it's important is that when people are sick or hurting or celebrating – if you stop your world and take your time to care for them, by bringing them something that you made, it’s like God magnifies it and impacts them in ways that are lasting and memorable forever. I have a friend and I talk about this – my youngest daughter had an eye surgery and she was only 6 months old and we had to go to Baltimore. She was blind in one eye and it was terrifying. We came home and my neighbor saw me getting out of the car and she came over and hugged us. A few hours later, she brought back a beautiful roast chicken with lemon rice, asparagus and muffins. That was 19 years ago and I can still tell you everything that she brought. I can’t remember what I ate yesterday or where I was but I remember every single thing of what Lee Fife brought me that day. That is the reason why this is so important. Especially in our day and time today – there’s nothing more important than sharing your time with someone else. That’s what this all boils down to and that’s why the book is doing so well.
AM: So can anyone give you a lifestyle situation and you can give them a dish/dishes that can pair well with it?
EH: I can – that’s the catering background that I came up in!
AM: Oh great as we have some Athleisure situations that we’d love to know what it can be paired with! We always like asking 3 things and this seemed perfect! First up, what’s a great meal for a girls night in?
EH: Ok [laughter] Ok Girl’s Night In – now this is funny because usually with a girl’s night in or at least my friends, the wine starts flowing first. So what happens is that everyone starts talking and their mouths are moving a mile a minute. I mean, we're the loudest group in Oxford, Mississippi and you want things that are easy - easy- easy to pick up. So a gorgeous charcuterie board with beautiful cheeses and bread and honeycombs are perfect because you can just eat it. Just a little nibbles and noshes is what I call it. So a wonderful tiny BLT – things that you don’t have to fix and make a plate to stop that energy. Because the energy of those kinds of parties are so fun that you don’t want people to have to stop, go sit down, get a fork and a knife to eat – because the mood is ruined.
AM: Second one – your friend just moved out of her home office and her business has its first space and you want to bring her her first lunch – what can we bring?
EH: Mmmm ok so if you’re traveling with anything, you want to make sure that it’s easy and portable. I love Chinese To Go containers. I think that they are the most adorable things in the entire world. So I would have the most beautiful marinated vegetables and put that in and then I love salad.
So we have the marinated veggies in the to-go containers because packaging is fun and it makes it. Do another to-go container lined with Bibb lettuce and put your chicken salad in there and tie it up with some crackers and bread and then have some finger pimento cheese sandwiches. Honey, that is the most delightful lunch ever! But then put it in a great basket and take it to her and then she has something to remember the lunch by and the food is always going to be fantastic, but then you want to take it to the next level and consider what it looks like, how portable it is and what is the impression that you’re going to make when you give it to somebody. If you threw that into an old to-go container, yes it’s going to taste great but is it going to be spectacular? You want to put an exclamation point at the end of that lunch, not a period.
AM: And finally a tailgating -
EH: Oh shut up – you don’t know nothin' about no tailgating! I mean …. That’s all we do down in Oxford, Mississippi and right now we’re in the throws of it with LSU being home this weekend. Our tailgating is very different than most. Because we put a lot of effort into it but there are things that you have to remember. Number 1 – it’s weather dependent, you want to make sure that if it’s boiling hot you don’t want to do a bunch of mayonnaise and shrimp – things that go bad. Because people are drinking so much and talking so much (much like the Girl’s Night In), you want to make sure that things are already assembled like the hangover slider and you can pop it in your mouth. You don’t want to have to set your drink down to fix something. You want to be able to hold onto that drink and pick it up whether it’s chicken tenders – fried chicken all day. Same thing with wonderful roast beef sandwiches with bleu cheese. I have a wrap that’s a flank stank wrap that I love that has carmelized onions and bleu cheese and it’s easy to pick up and put in your mouth.
This is not the time for crudité or no damn marinated vegetables – we are all in on this tailgate. And a lot of pick up sweets like cookies that have you theme on them, tent name or greek name. That’s a ton of fun!
It’s so easy to pull in the car right there, unload everything, set it up, cars go out and then the cars come back in to load it up at the end of the night. So we do it up! There are a ton of tents that have chandeliers and candleabras – we’re talking tablecloths, overlays and everything. You have to come – you’d die and everyone is dressed up, I’m talking cocktail dresses. Huge flower arrangements although many times I do my own but last weekend, I didn’t have time.
When I started tailgating, that’s when I realized I’m competitive. My tent, I'm going to know that I won because when I walk by every other tent, I can tell you that it was me. I mean we kill it every single time. We’ve made gameday twice!
AM: For the holidays, what are things that people should have on hand in terms of gifts to give delivery men?
EH: Delivery men, I give them beers – just kidding but I do give it our trash guys and put a bow on it, they love it! You want something that is easy and portable and that they can snack on when they are driving around. I love Rosemary Cashews which is one of the recipes in the book and Fried Walnuts will make you swoon. Put them in a great bag and tie them with a festive ribbon and they can take them home and serve them to their friends.
AM: So what’s a typical holiday dinner like at your home?
EH: I was raised that my Great Grandmother, my Grandmother and my mother all had beautiful beautiful holiday dinners – they’re always perfect. They were PERFECT. The thing that is difficult for me is that my house is where everyone comes and I wouldn’t have it any other way – I love it more then anything. But with the catering company by that point, I’m a little exhausted. But still, it’s 25 people for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter – whatever the holiday is and everyone comes over.
I am really funny, I don’t usually let people bring things to my Thanksgiving or Christmas because I want them to enjoy themselves and it’s how I can give back to them and … I don’t trust them! There are some people in your life that you can’t entrust them with key parts of your dinner, there are some people that just need to bring the rolls an the wine - or just the vodka!
AM: What charities do you support?
EH: St. Jude – We have the Taste of St. Jude which is an unbelievable event in Oxford, Mississippi and I have been on the board for about 5 years. We raised over $237,000 last year – this is in Oxford! We get things donated like trips and I do a lot of the culinary packages. We auctioned off a dinner for 40 people on the 50 yard line in the stadium the night before the LSU game.
We will be in the stadium, we bring in a Celebrity Chef Ryan Trimm is going to be cooking. Literally, they will sit on the field and have dinner with the stadium lights on – nobody is in there but them. That went for $10,000 this year.
We do a Pig, Pizza and Produce event. We have a great chef in town that does barbecue with amazing pigs and then we have an amazing wood fire pizza place that brought their ovens out and I did all the produce. We auctioned that off for $8,000.
I auctioned off a VIP tour to the Today Show. So there are tons of trips and events and our team is second to none.
Ronald McDonald House, St. Jude, the LeBonner House, Young Life, Doors for Hope – there are so many. It’s weekly that we’re doing something because I honestly feel that I have been given so much and blessed beyond that God will give back.
One year, my husband figured out how much we as a company had given out in time and money and he said, “we can’t afford this” and I said, “we can’t afford not to do this.” God will give it back to me a million times over. It doesn’t matter what it is but the moment that I feel that I don’t have enough to give to someone that is in need, that’s the minute that I will not have enough to give. That’s how I believe. We give a ton and we get a ton!