This essay appears in In Helen’s Kitchen: A Philosophy of Food, and is reprinted with the permission of the Regulator Bookshop.In the second issue of The Independent, 29 April 1983, H. Hudson Whiting wrote our first food article. The topic was fried chicken and how to make it–a perfect topic for our Southern-fried alternative newspaper and our do-it-yourself readers, mostly youngsters who wanted to cook like Mom but didn’t know how.
The Independent got started in 1982 in Helen’s “office,” a windowless cinderblock room on Hillsborough Road where she and Dave Birkhead shared a single typesetting machine. It was an old Mergenthaler phototypesetter they literally held together with tape, Dave punching the keyboard all night before Helen came in for the day shift. As we assembled a newspaper staff and struggled toward our first issue, hours got long, money got short, tempers got shorter. But never Helen’s. She was the calm, kind eye of that storm.
Good jokes, long stories, new recipes, mystery books to recommend, ACC basketball predictions, a laugh beginning just behind her front teeth and ending in a deep wheezy chuckle, fingers flying gently, madly all the while–that was Helen then.
Durham then was full of “meat-and-three” joints: Whit’s Grill and Morgan’s catering to the textile mill crowd on Ninth Street; Parker’s on East Main; Carolyn’s on the corner of Angier and Driver; Nance’s down near the American tobacco factory where the ballpark stands today. Helen bowed to these fried chicken emporia in this first piece, paid mandatory obeisance to barbecue, Brunswick stew and hushpuppies, then wrote her personal cook’s mantra: “Don’t be intimidated by the fried chicken legends,” by memories of Mom in the kitchen or by the local restaurants. “You can aspire to mythic heights in your own kitchen.”
For another dozen years she told Independent readers that we could do it ourselves, that good cooking wasn’t too hard and she would teach us how to do it. For Helen, cooking wasn’t a high-stakes artistic endeavor. Nothing too fancy, no culinary gyrations. Just go ahead and do it! she admonished. Enjoy it! That’s what all her columns say.
We all know the big names in the development of food culture in the Triangle–people like the Eure family, Tommy Bullock, Mary Bacon, Ben and Karen Barker, Lex and Ann Alexander. Give H. Hudson Whiting a place of honor among those names. She taught the foodie generation that we could cook, too, and have fun doing it.
H. Hudson Whiting’s pieces link two eras. When Helen began writing about food, there was exactly one restaurant, a steak house, between Duke University and Franklin Street. As our food culture exploded, Helen was right there trying humorously to get us to take food seriously.
As, yes, Helen was funny. Never a column went by without some clever headline, some gentle wisp of a joke. When The Independent started a new food section in 1992, it was Helen who suggested everyone’s favorite feature: “Gadget of the Month,” she called it, and she soon wrote a fabulous gadget piece. You know that combo bottle-and-can-opener you’ve got stuck to the fridge? Helen apotheosized it in the story entitled, “The Magnetic Church Key: Not Just a Simple Twist-Off Fate.” In the piece she extols the church key’s versatility and ends the piece like this: “An argument could be made that this is the only refrigerator magnet I’ll ever really need, but I’m not sure I could give up my guitar-shaped Elvis swizzle stick.”
M.F.K. Fisher was one of Helen’s favorite food writers and mine, too. So now when I pull out a copy of Fisher’s With Bold Knife and Fork, I feel Helen’s hands and eyes upon it. Or I sit occasionally in Helen’s decades-old bright-red swivel chair that she bequeathed to The Independent when she stopped setting type, and I remember those flying hands, that husky laugh. I look up her advice on how to skin a pearl onion. When I make yeast bread, I follow her published maxim: “Relax.” I cook from the recipes she published over the years, invariably named for their progenitors: Holly McDonough’s Burgundy Mushrooms, Nona McKee’s Eggnog.
Helen wrote more than once about Bill Neal, the legendary author of Southern Cooking, creator of some of the Triangle’s best restaurants and best food, a man who, like Helen, died way too young. She once compared Neal to the great food critic Elizabeth David in words that remind me of Helen herself: “We are not being urged to travel to a particular location to eat a particular meal that she once enjoyed,” Helen wrote, “but to recognize and enjoy those wonderful moments of our own and to create a few of them at our own table.”
In Helen’s tiny, packed kitchen, she created those moments for all of us.