To many, Anne Byrn is known as The Cake Mix Doctor. To us, she is simply our friend Anne who happens to be a fabulous cook and oh, yeah, has sold over 3.5 million cookbooks with her first one, The Cake Mix Doctor, which USA Today declared as the overall best selling cookbook of 2000. For several years in the 1990’s, Anne was the food writer for The Tennessean. It was here that she first wrote the story on how to doctor cake mixes, which in turn created such tremendous reader interest she developed the entire concept into The Cake Mix Doctor cookbook. Sequels include Chocolate from the Cake Mix Doctor, The Dinner Doctor, Cupcakes from the Cake Mix Doctor, What Can I Bring? Cookbook, The Cake Mix Doctor Returns, and most recently, The Cake Mix Doctor Bakes Gluten-Free. As we reported in November 2010, Anne has introduced her own line of cake mixes, with nothing artificial.
Where did you grow up?
I am a Nashville native and a fifth-generation Tennessean, but I lived away from Nashville for 20 years, mostly in Atlanta, where I was food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I moved back to Nashville in 1994 because of my husband’s career. Looking back, it was the best move we ever made.
Have you always been pulled to the kitchen?
Absolutely. I have always loved to eat and before I knew how to cook I was drawn to the kitchen for the wonderful smells coming from it – cinnamon yeast rolls, fried chicken, chocolate cake – and warm and friendly people like my mother who inhabited it. The kitchen was the happening place in our home, the center of the universe. I am one of three daughters and my mother was one of five daughters, so there was always a lot of girl talk, and the laughter and drama usually took place in the kitchen! Later, when I learned how to cook, I was right at home with pot and pans, setting the oven, knowing how to measure ingredients. It just felt right. I cooked for my sisters when my parents went out for the evening. In the neighborhood, our home was food central, where my mom staged dinner parties and we baked for bake sales. I never intended to be a food writer, instead preferring to report hard news, but I was offered a good food writing job and the way things fell into place, it was meant to be. Newspapers taught me how to write quickly and concisely. I learned to style food for the camera. But the best part was being able to take a leave of absence to study cooking in Paris at La Varenne in my late-twenties. I returned a better writer and cook and from then on wanted to interview every food legendary who came to Atlanta. My hands-down favorite was Julia Child, whom I admired, and with whom I cooked lunch in her kitchen in Cambridge, MA, just before her 80th birthday.
Your cookbooks have resonated with millions of readers. You single-handedly returned many women to the kitchen. Why do you think your approach resonated with so many?
I am my reader. I don’t live in a Manhattan loft apartment with a kitchen that is scarcely used because great restaurants are on every corner. I live in Nashville and raise children and cook dinner almost every night. My life, like the lives of my readers, does not always run smoothly. I love good food, but in the shortage of time, I’m always on the hunt for shortcuts and great recipes. This was the whole idea behind The Cake Mix Doctor. Yes, you should bake your cakes from scratch, but you don’t have time, and you have a few mixes in your pantry, so what can you add to them to make them taste homemade? And for goodness sakes, make a homemade frosting! It’s funny… When I proposed my cookbook What Can I Bring?, my New York publisher, Peter Workman, didn’t understand the concept. “Why would I want my dinner guests to bring something if I am inviting them to dinner?” Peter asked me. “Because if they bring something, then everyone benefits because the meal is easier to prepare, plus you get to taste their cooking,” I responded over the phone. “And it can be cheaper, especially for young cooks who are starting out and want to entertain.” But Peter wasn’t budging. And I wasn’t giving up either. So I invited Peter to fly to Nashville and hang out with me for a day. I took him to the Loveless Café for a country ham breakfast, then drove him to Hill’s grocery store in Green Hills and back to my house and then to my children’s schools. We were in my husband John’s Volvo because my car was in the shop, and somewhere on Hillsboro Road, Peter leaned over and said, “OK, I get it. You can write the book!”
What are your top three tips for pulling together a family meal?
1. Have food in the house – onions, garlic, seasonings, flour, sugar, lemons, basmati rice, interesting pasta, beans, olive oil, butter, Parmesan, canned tomatoes and jars of good pasta sauce like Trader Joe’s Arrabiata, whatever basic flavors and mainstay foods your family loves. This way you are not shopping at 5 in the afternoon for a cartload of groceries, which is mayhem. It will be easier, which translates into more enjoyable, which translates into you will cook more often. Stock your freezer with leftover soup, the tail end of a big fillet of salmon, ground turkey for burgers and taco salads, pie crusts for summer blackberry and peach pie. Imagine that you could not drive and shop for three days, so have the supplies in house to pull together a meal effortlessly.
2. Keep the meal simple. Pair a starch – pasta, rice, potato – with something green (salad, roasted Brussels sprouts, sautéed zucchini) and something with protein, like chicken or fish or steak, or beans if you are vegetarian. Add bread if you have it. Add cake if you wish. I was raised on meat and three most every night, but I will tell you my mother spent a lot of time in the kitchen cooking and I am not willing to spend that much time fixing dinner on weeknights. Weekends might be a different story, especially if company if coming. But weeknights, keep it dead-simple. And vary the offerings, depending on the dynamics of your family. When children are little, keep it simple to introduce them to new foods. As they age, meals get more interesting, and the family bakes for fun. As they mature into teenage years, the girls get picky and the guys want steak. As they leave the house, the meals get smaller and healthier for those left behind. If I am cooking just for myself, my favorite meal is to boil pasta and top it with sautéed fresh vegetables, feta or Parmesan, maybe sautéed shrimp or a bit of salmon from the freezer. Top with a dab of pesto, homemade or from Whole Foods or Costco.
3. Don’t let yourself get in a cooking rut. We all tire of our own food, but really, it is so easy to break out and try something new. Walk through the farmer’s market or Whole Foods. Sign up for a share in a local organic farm. Sample what is being demoed at Publix. Take a cooking class. Stage a potluck dinner. Ask your best friend what she is cooking for dinner and beg for the recipe. Make homemade pizza using whole wheat dough from Whole Foods or white dough from Publix. It’s summer and that means lower prices on beef, so grill steaks and serve with a succotash of lightly cooked fresh corn, crowder peas, and chopped fresh tomatoes. Or try those Carolina shrimp Harris-Teeter stocks in the warmer months, and grill them or poach them in beer and crab-boil seasoning and serve with lightly steamed white corn.
Are you working on any other books now?
Is the sky blue? Writers are always thinking of their next project! My gluten-free dinner book, entitled Unbelievably Gluten-Free, will be out in October, and I have a book signing at Parnassus at 2 on Saturday, Oct. 27. This summer I hope to begin a more general cookbook aimed at cooks of all ages and backgrounds, a real problem-solver, with a great title and wonderful stories and recipes. It is in the same vein as What Can I Bring? I cannot mention any more because the details are not worked out, and who knows, I might have to ask my publisher to come back to Nashville to convince him.
What is your favorite thing about Nashville?
Nashville is friendly. People smile. When you walk past them at Radnor, they speak. We are a much more diverse city in so many ways than the Nashville in which I was raised, but there is a laid-back Southern vibe here I find comfortable.
What would you change about Nashville if you could?
Add a light rail system so cars are not essential. Connect neighborhoods with pedestrian friendly walkways or surface streets so you can easily travel from one part of town to the other without getting on a highway – specifically make it easier to get from the southwest part of town to East Nashville.
What books are currently on your bedside table (or in your Kindle)?
Running the Rift, by Naomi Benaron. Beautiful writing on a difficult subject.
Women of the OSS: Sisterhood of Spies, by Elizabeth P. McIntosh. Julia Child references throughout.
Mother-Daughter Wisdom, by Christiane Northrup. A keeper if you are raising girls.
Where is your favorite place to eat out as a family?
Lively, friendly restaurants like Porta Via, Taco Mamacita, Maffiaso’s, UrbanGrub (shrimp and grits), and Sonobana for sushi.
Favorite place to eat out on a date night?
Margot, Miel, or the bar at Bricktops.
Event most looking forward to in Nashville in the upcoming months?
We just finished the festivities of my daughter’s high school graduation and are seeing her off to Tulane in August. Older sister is in Charleston this summer. Younger brother at camp. I am exhausted. The biggest events I want to attend the rest of this summer are casual suppers with friends.
Do you have any fears?
Heights, and the future of the daily newspaper.
If you could pick another career entirely, what would you pick?
I am perfectly happy writing about what I love – food. It has been a career that has allowed me freedom to travel, taste, express my opinion, and raise children. If I had to pick something different, I might say trademark law because it would save me a lot of money!
What was/is your “must buy” item for summer 2012?
A Kate Spade white patent tote I bought this spring and have carried all summer. It’s roomy enough for an iPad, light cardigan, book, tennis racquet, and a snack.
Best piece of advice ever given to you?
From my father: “Knowledge is power.” The more you know about something, the more successful you will be. And also from my dad: “You can do anything if you set your mind to it.”
Person who has had the strongest influence in your life?
My mother, Bebe, the original Martha Stewart, but much nicer. She sewed all our Barbie clothes, elaborate costumes for our piano recitals, and matching country western outfits she and my father wore to square dancing. She dried flowers in the attic, carved watermelons into boats to hold fruit salads at summer barbecues, created frozen parfaits of vanilla ice cream, crème de menthe and homemade chocolate sauce and kept these stashed in the chest freezer in our garage to serve at bridge luncheons. She made the best chocolate toffee candy, fried chicken, and Coca-Cola cake. She entertained countless friends and family in her home for decades. She always cooked more than enough, not in hopes of leftovers, but in hopes that more people might gather at the table and she would have plenty to serve them. My mother seldom complained in spite of limited vision all her life. She was diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer shortly after we moved back to Nashville, and she took the heartbreaking news with dignity. Today when I see her friends around Nashville, they tell me they miss Bebe, and so do I.
Any advice you could give to someone with a passion who’s scared to “go for it”?
Surround yourself with people who believe in you – your family and friends. Focus on the positive and not the negative. Be realistic. Be flexible and change the way you might have envisioned things going, if needed. Tell your story often. Ask open-ended questions when seeking advice. Be prepared to invest a lot of your own money. Pray.
Developing my own brand of cake mix has been a huge undertaking. If I had known how tough it was to break into the grocery business, I might not have ever tried to do it. But, I am still standing. Yesterday, after a year of meetings and trade shows and pitches and small case orders, I received a purchase order from Winn-Dixie for their Florida and Louisiana stores. My mixes are in the Central Markets in Texas, Straub’s Markets in St. Louis, A Southern Season in Chapel Hill, a dozen or more small retailers across the country, plus about 38 Bed Bath & Beyond stores. I have a presentation with another supermarket chain at the end of July, and today, quite unexpectedly, a voicemail was left by the buyer of an even larger supermarket chain. Clue – starts with a “P.” Fingers crossed! It was always my dream to produce a cake mix that tasted so good it didn’t need doctoring, was easy to assemble, and contained no artificial ingredients or preservatives. I want to be on the baking aisle as an option to Duncan Hines and Betty Crocker. I know I am playing with the big boys and it will not be easy, but like I said, I am still standing!
Name three things you can’t live without (excluding God, family and friends).
- A cup of Earl Grey tea and the newspaper in the morning.
- My KitchenAid mixers.
- Our dog Cooper waiting patiently for me to put on my tennis shoes and take him on a walk.
Thank you, Anne! Be sure to attend Anne’s booksigning at Parnassus on Oct. 27 (write that on your calendar right now!) Also, Anne’s cake mixes are amazing. We can attest to that, as we’ve all used them. Please click here for a full list of places around the country to buy Anne’s Cake Mix.
Ashley Hylbert did an amazing job, as always, with Anne’s photos. To see more behind the scenes photos from today’s FACES, click here.