By Lynn J. Richardson
Mary Duke McCartt likes to keep busy creating delicious food, new recipes, and experimenting with scrumptious ingredients.
That’s just one of her interests. The bubbly Johnson City lady loves gardening, painting, music, and entertaining. She also loves to sing and spent nearly 12 years singing with a popular local band, The Spirit of Soul Dance Band. Add a busy life of volunteer service making backpack food for local elementary school children and working with ETSU and NE State college students in Intervarsity, this gives you an idea of how busy Mary Duke’s life can be.
She just doesn’t develop recipes without knowledge of cooking. Her degrees from the University of Tennessee include Dietetics, Nutrition, and Food Service administration.
A few years ago, she decided to write her own cookbook. Her cookbook’s title, “Mary Duke Cooks!” and most of all, its tagline, “Sassy Southern,” says a lot about both the recipes and Mary Duke herself.
“Being Sassy in the South is not being rude,” she explains. “It’s meeting life head on with your head held high, facing whatever life throws at you with just a little bit of spunk!”
Her publishing endeavor took two years to complete and was published in 2017. She and her husband, Dr. Alan McCartt, spend free time working in their garden and greenhouse at their home located on five acres in the heart of Johnson City.
Many readers will be familiar with Mary Duke’s name. She has been writing a popular weekly food column, ‘Mary Duke Cooks! Sassy Southern,’ in the Johnson City News & Neighbor since 2012.
“It’s amazing. People will come up to me in the grocery store and tell me they loved reading my column and would cut out the recipes each week. They are so nice and I can’t thank them enough for reading my column,” she said.
As the newspapers column became more and more popular, Mary Duke decided to offer her recipes online as well. “I would take the recipes I used for the paper and put them in the blog then I started photographing the food. My first pictures were terrible. I turned to my friend, graphic designer, and professional photographer, Lana Robison for help,” she said.
When it came time to write the cookbook, Lana was the graphic designer and edited every photo. “She really made the photos come to life!” Mary Duke said.
The end result is a 330+ page cookbook, “Mary Duke Cooks! Sassy Southern,” containing 157 photos and 177 recipes along with humorous personal stories about everything from fish funerals to the, “time we flipped the car!”
Recipes are written for every skill level and include both new and classic recipes including southern favorites like Squash Casserole, Low Country Boil, and Pig Candy. Her favorite recipe, Apple Cider Brined Pork Chops with Smoked Bourbon Molasses Glaze, is also included as well as others such as Grown up Macaroni and Cheese with Wild Mushrooms, No Knead Focaccia Bread and Oreo Cake.
As popular as the cookbook is, her blog at marydukecooks.com is perhaps even more so. It currently boasts 331 recipes and last year had almost 9,000 visits.
Mary Duke’s love of preparing food and creating recipes runs deep. She got a mega dose of inspiration from her mother, pharmacist father, mother-in-law and aunts who loved to cook.
“I worked at my dad’s pharmacy after school, compounding medicine and making medicated make-up,” she said. “It always fascinated me the way carefully weighed ingredients could be combined to make all those different products. Of course, my dad was always looking over my shoulder and inspecting the finished work!”
She carried those skills into the kitchen. “I’ve always loved to cook. My mother taught me all she knew then I moved on to my aunts and later my mother-in-law. My aunts didn’t measure anything. You know how that goes. They would say things like, ‘use shortening the size of an egg,’ or start with a bowl full of flour.’”
“That didn’t work for me,” she explained. “I need things to be exact.”
So, in her aunts’ kitchens, she would cram that ‘shortening the size of an egg’ into a measuring cup to see exactly how much was required for the recipe.
“They were patient with me,” she laughed. “I need things to be exact.”
In college, Mary Duke took classes in food science where they developed recipes for White Lilly or Martha White. “We never knew which one. They wouldn’t tell us. But it was in those classes I learned about food science. You can take any recipe and change it. You can alter the flavor profile or modify the texture by changing the ingredients or their amounts. That’s how I learned to cook.” “I’m more of a baker than a cook,” she explained. “I liked using a recipe with written, precise measurements so developing recipes is great for me!”
After college, Mary Duke worked as a registered dietitian in a 500-bed hospital in Memphis and later at Johnson City’s Specialty Hospital. It was at that time she learned she loved to teach, using her background in nutrition. All of us have these journeys we take,” she added. “I started my career as a dietitian and ended up in a different field.”
Mary Duke’s home is her office, studio, and test kitchen all rolled into one. She calls her recently redone kitchen a “blank canvas” and says going from dark wood to white changed the whole feel. “My kitchen is bright and light now. Every time I walk into the kitchen I smile.”
But although she has a “blank canvas,” she still prefers to do most of her food photography outdoors. She will go to all lengths for a good shot, even going as far as photographing food outdoors in the dead of winter. With snow on the ground.
“People think I’m a little crazy,” she laughed. “But photos are always so much better outside with natural light.”
Making sure the food she prepares photographs well is secondary to making sure it tastes delicious. Having fresh ingredients is important and many of her recipes include dishes made with fresh produce from her family garden and greenhouse.
“My husband has taken over the gardening,” Mary Duke explained. “We have a greenhouse full of heirloom tomatoes and basil. We grow cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash in the garden outside.”
In summer, I use food from the garden or local farmers markets. I also have an herb garden I use year-round in my recipes and for garnishes.
I’ve gotten to do a lot of interesting things,” Mary Duke said with a smile. “I certainly never dreamed that I’d be writing for a newspaper, developing recipes, or writing a cookbook. It just shows that people are always in the process of re-creating themselves.”
Mary Duke McCartt’s cookbook, “Mary Duke Cooks! Sassy Southern” is available at the Johnson City Eye Clinic, the Cosmetic Laser Skin Care and Gregory Isbell Jewelers in Johnson City; and at Noelle in Jonesborough. Her blog, by the same name, is at marydukecooks.com.