Photo by Peter Frank Edwards

 

Vera Stewart has been in the public eye her entire life. Especially here in her hometown of Augusta, she is a well-loved and well-known entrepreneur with a career spanning all the way back to the early 80s. Her 30-plus years of work as a teacher, a baker, a retailer, a businesswoman, and most recently, a TV personality, havebeen written about and featured by everyone ranging from Southern Living Magazine to the Food Network. So for a Southern icon like Vera, who has lived most of her adult life in the spotlight, keeping a secret is no easy task.

That’s right. Vera Stewart has secrets.

And luckily for us, those secrets will finally be shared with the world in the form of her first published work, The VeryVera Cookbook: Recipes From My Table. At last, Vera is finally letting all of us behind the scenes of VeryVera by giving us access to the vast collection of recipes that has been the backbone of her success since 1984—the same recipes that her adoring fans have already enjoyed for decades through her mail order business, her cooking camps, and popular brick and mortar cafes. But don’t dismiss this book as a simple accumulation of information and ingredients. It’s way more than that. It’s also a collection of personal anecdotes and a keen look at Southern culture that took several years to create. The book does include recipes of course, but if you were to look a little closer, it reads more like a story—a rich history—that tells the tale of a determined woman that fell in love with being a teacher and never learned to take no for an answer.

Vera’s story begins on the first page of Recipes From My Table with a dedication to her mother—Betty Stewart Wingfield—a single mom who worked full time and still managed to raise six children on her own in a time when such accomplishments were nearly impossible to achieve. It’s no wonder that Vera was able to create the legacy she has for herself after growing up in the shadow of such a strong woman.    

After hearing about her childhood and how far she has come since pioneering the mail-order kitchen in the mid 80s, I asked Vera how she saw herself now, with the release of her first cookbook, in relation to the long overdue wave of pro-woman initiative currently sweeping our popular culture. Her response was confident and pragmatic. “I’ve always strived to be the best person for the job, as opposed to being the best woman. For me it should always be about merit and not about gender.” I agree that it’s about time the rest of the world finally caught up to that method of thinking.

In the pages that follow the dedication, the book goes on to share not just the ingredients for award-winning layer cakes, soups and casseroles, but also the key ingredient to a successful business—or successful life for that matter—and that is being part of a team. Vera is very adamant from the beginning to the end of this book that she couldn’t have done any of it alone. She even struggled with using the word my in the title, after so many years of using the word we in her work. “Everything—all of it—since the early days of VeryVera has been a group effort. The brand has always been about more then just me.” It’s been a true collaborative effort made up of everyone from family and friends, to the supportive Augusta community, to all of the young women over the years who have come under Vera’s mentoring as interns. Something Vera is extremely proud of and rightfully so. Beaming with excitement during our conversation, Vera told me, “Every single woman that has ever come on as an intern for me has been offered a full time job.”

And it’s that spirit of learning and giving back that inspired Vera to write the book. “A lot of people helped create this book and I acknowledge them all as part of the team on the pages inside.”

The book is also something that the rest of us Augustans can take pride in, since someone who truly loves her hometown wrote it. When I asked Vera if she’d ever thought of relocating to other well-known hotbeds of Southern culture like Savannah or Atlanta for example, her answer was a powerful and resounding “No way. Augusta is my home and I can’t imagine being anywhere else. Why in the world would I want to? I live in a wonderful community and I’d never want to leave it behind. Augusta has embraced me and continues to support and lift me up. Lifting people up and vice versa has always been what VeryVera is about and this book is filled with that kind of spirit.”

My next question was about accessibility. Since I don’t claim to be much of a cook, I was curious how easily someone like me would be able to follow along with Recipes From My Table. I was pleased to find out that Vera and her team went to great lengths to make sure that the recipes included in this book were as approachable as possible to all skill levels and to any kitchen—anywhere. Each recipe is preceded by an extensive list of tools and tips to inform and prepare even the most inexperienced kitchener, with the hope that anyone—including someone with no prior experience—could bring Vera’s secrets to life in their own homes. One example of how she did that made for a great story. She told me that during the process of putting the book together, she gave the information and recipes she set out to include to her two brothers—two men far removed from the world of baking and told them to, “Do this.”

They did—and the results were spectacular.

That experiment helped prove to Vera that this cookbook could be for everyone, even if you’ve never picked up a whisk before in your life. Toward the end of our interview, I asked Vera if she had any more secrets to tell above and beyond this initial foray into the book world and once again her reply was filled with the confidence of a woman, who at 65, is still moving at full steam. “Most definitely,” she said. And of that, I have no doubt.

Along with all the Southern delights detailed inside, the book is filled with gorgeous photography from world-renowned food photographer Peter Frank Edwards, and the pictures alone are enough to make your mouth water. This month, Vera hits the road to promote Recipes From My Table on her very first book tour where she will be signing copies and looking forward to meeting all of the people she inspires—the same people that inspire her.

Article appears in the May 2018 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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