For decades, Lynchburg cooks have served up delectable farm-to-table dishes—with a generous helping of Southern charm—well before cooking with fresh local ingredients became a ubiquitous culinary movement. Thankfully, many have preserved their favorite recipes in vintage cookbooks boasting stylish yet simple entertaining hints while furthering local social causes. Highly collectible, Lynchburg’s classic cookbooks offer an endearing glimpse into the gracious Virginia hospitality tradition infusing our local culture and cuisine today.
Jessica Bemis Ward—a Sweet Briar alumna hailing from Arkansas and award-winning author of Food To Die For: A Book of Funeral Food, Tips and Tales (2004), the 2005 National Winner of the Tabasco Community Cookbook Award, and Food to Live For: We’re Alive and Cooking (2013)—writes with a Lynchburg culinary perspective. “Having married into a large, well-known (and aging) family over 40 years ago,” Ward has many times found herself in the midst of funeral arrangements. Ward credits her husband’s and children’s enthusiastic appreciation as the inspiration of her 56 years of cooking and entertaining. For Ward, cookbooks serve as multi-generational “connectors:” They spotlight the way people live in any region, no matter how “lavishly or modestly,” and carry on cherished recipes that have gathered families around bountiful dining room tables for generations.
Ward’s two delightful cookbooks—deft compilations of recipes from family, friends, favorite cookbooks, and her personal creations—are filled with wise and witty tips for cooking, living and dying well, and benefit Lynchburg’s Old City Cemetery. In its 2014 Thanksgiving edition, Southern Living glowingly featured Ward’s Food to Die For. The article reads, “If you die in the South, you can count on one thing: There will be a casserole in your wake. The healing powers of funeral food reflect a distinctly Southern phenomenon, and Food to Die For, benefitting the Old City Cemetery in Lynchburg, Virginia, goes way beyond Bundt recipes for the bereaved. The cookbook gives advice on transporting a meatloaf, organizing food delivery, and even writing a condolence note—all with a comforting dose of humor.”
Executive Director Denise McDonald praises Ward for her myriad volunteer contributions and the impact of her cookbooks on the cemetery’s growth as a center of local history and horticulture. She says, “Jessica’s cookbooks have been a major point of success for the organization.” Food To Die For devotees adore Ward: Fans Vaughn and Stephanie Rawson even hand-carved, painted and donated a whimsical “Funeral Fairy” figurine in her honor.
While Ward’s cookbooks remain on sale in gift and bookstores, other cookbook classics have slipped out of print and become coveted collector’s items. The Junior League of Lynchburg’s (JLL) Good Cookin’ From the Heart of Virginia (1985), illustrated with colorful scenes of rural farm life by renowned artist Queena Dillard Stovall, and the iconic Katie Mundy’s Fashions in Foods (1980) are among them. If you are lucky enough to find them at an estate sale or on Amazon, they can fetch prices north of $90.
Good Cookin’ From the Heart of Virginia features recipes from JLL members in the 1980s, some of whom worked for the legendary hostess and culinary expert Katie Mundy. A discriminating JLL tasting committee tested the recipes and selected the cookbook finalists, each introduced with an enticing tip. For show-stopper “Shrimp Louisiana,” which originated in Mundy’s cookbook, the introduction reads: “Double or triple this recipe—it’s always the hit of the party!”
The JLL’s cookbook profits support the organization’s charitable programs, which include Amazement Square, Kids Haven, and the Adult Care Center. In the November, 2019 Thanksgiving edition of Southern Living, editor Sid Evans lauds JLL cook-volunteers for making a difference: “Over 140,000 Junior League members are volunteering in their communities, working to solve problems of poverty, hunger and addiction, among other issues that challenge society.”
Mundy’s Fashions in Foods culminated her 39-year hospitality career at her storied tea room and restaurant, The Columns, which opened in 1940. Fresh and refined Southern cuisine was her niche: Mundy reminisces in her introduction that she bought local hens and country hams for 15 cents and 25 cents per pound, respectively. She writes, “I remember offering a meal of Chicken A La King in Patty Shell, Stuffed Tomato Salad, Limas, Homemade Rolls, Beverage, and Ice Cream for the exorbitant sum of 50 cents!”
Mundy’s establishment hosted countless elegant cocktail parties, bridal showers and wedding receptions. She served her scrumptious Southern fare to Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson, and US Senator John Warren and Elizabeth Taylor, among other celebrities.
Yet one senses that Mundy’s cookbook, like those of Ward’s and the Junior League of Lynchburg, aims to offer everyday home cooks healthy, delicious recipes and pleasing menus, so we may feed and care for our loved ones and ourselves with confidence and, yes, a sprinkling of haute and high style. After all, Mundy writes, “There is no company as important as your family!” ✦