When I was in the third grade, my mother, Jane, took a job in the Southern Living Test Kitchen. I'd watch her get out of the car every night around 5:00 with a brown paper bag. The question was always: What's inside?
My sister and I knew it was leftovers from that day's tasting, always on a white oval Chinet plate in a zip-top plastic bag. It could be a casserole that had gone horribly wrong, poached fish, or—if we were really lucky—a dish that had gotten a high rating. The mystery of that paper bag is just one of the things I remember when I think of my mother.
I also worked for Southern Living as a Test Kitchen Professional, the same job my mother held for 10 years. My mother was always against my having a food career. In high school, I just mentioned the possibility of attending culinary school, and she said, "Absolutely not!" She wanted me to find my own path, which I definitely did. I was the girl with pink hair who dropped out of college and worked in retail.
But I've always loved food and entertaining. As a kid, I would sit on the beat-up kitchen stool, and Mom and I would talk as she cooked. She'd offer little tips like, "Marian, you never want to have more than one crunchy thing in your menu." I learned so much from her. We always discussed the contents of that day's brown bag during the meal. And when we went out to eat, we'd rate the food just like we were at taste testing! I just thought that was normal.