John Tullock, author of Appalachian Cooking, New and Traditional Recipes, shares how his Aunt Wan taught him that cooking was not a chore, but an adventure.

By John Tullock
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Tullock Aunt Wan
Credit: John Tullock

My father suffered a near fatal heart attack during the summer of 1963. Shortly thereafter, his sister, Juanita, arrived on our doorstep to help out so my mother could spend most of her time at the hospital.

With no children of her own, "Aunt Wan" had already become a second mother to a long list of nieces and nephews, fifteen of us, of which I was the youngest. She had barely removed her hat—she seldom went outside without one—when she took me into the kitchen and announced it was time I learned how to cook, as this would not be the last time I had to take care of myself. She was as Scottish as a bagpipe, thrifty, devoted to family, and seemingly tireless. She found fun and excitement in the kitchen. Cooking was not a chore, but an avocation. During that week, getting dinner became a game, an adventure, possibly to allay her own concerns about her brother, but certainly to distract me. I had cooked with the Boy Scouts for a couple of years, but from her I learned for the first time how to tweak a recipe. Her deviled eggs had a dash of curry powder. She sprinkled nutmeg into her creamed spinach and added a spoonful of Dundee ginger preserves to stewed tomatoes. She showed me how to cut out tiny biscuits with an empty tomato paste can, then how to split and butter them warm and tuck pieces of country ham inside.

"Get that skillet hot before you pour the batter in!" she would insist as we made corn bread together.

Thankfully, my father recovered. Aunt Wan went back home to her little apartment. And I still treasure the gift of love she shared in Mom's kitchen more than five decades ago.

WATCH: The Great Cornbread Debate

John Tullock teaches classes on food gardening for the University of Tennessee Gardens and gives presentations throughout East Tennessee. In his new cookbook, Appalachian Cooking, New and Traditional Recipes, Tullock pays tribute to the cuisine of the Appalachians, one of the most unique, and overlooked, traditional American foodways.