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Brenda Gantt considers herself a humble home cook, but her online following has made her a viral superstar. With more than two million views on some of her Facebook Live cooking videos, Gantt has introduced Southern cooking to fans from around the world. Ultimately, though, the Andalusia, Ala. cook and host of “Cooking with Brenda Gantt” says that her newfound popularity has given her the unexpected opportunity to share her Christian faith with a huge audience. “A lot of people who comment will say that my cooking is great, but my talks about Jesus are the icing on the cake,” she said.
Unexpected Stardom. The coronavirus pandemic had just begun when Gantt was asked by several church members–mostly young married men– to share with them how to make homemade biscuits. They even offered to pay her if she’d give them instructions. Instead, she recorded a video on her personal Facebook page of herself baking the biscuits. She shared it with the church members who had requested her recipe, and word quickly spread. “I always cook a big Sunday lunch so that one particular Sunday I got onto Facebook and thought I’d just show them how to make biscuits. I put it on my personal page and then they could just watch it there,” she remembered, laughing. “People on my page are people in my town and at my church. I figured that would get them off my back.” The video was shared thousands of times!
Gantt said that the first video looked quite different than hers do today. “I held my phone in one hand while I made the biscuits with the other. I went slow and told them exactly what to do. The phone was just pointed at the bowl, and I cut out the dough and put them on the pan,” she said. “I didn’t cook them because I didn’t know how to cut two videos together.” Despite the amateurish nature of that first video, it garnered an immediate response. Within two weeks, it had hit a million views on Facebook. “My friends must have shared it with everyone. I was just shocked,” Gantt recalled. “People kept messaging me or texting me asking me to cook other things. ‘Please show us how to cut up a chicken. Please tell us how to make fried pies. Do you know how to cook perfect rice?’ I didn’t realize how desperate people were to know how to cook.”
Despite its popularity, Gantt’s show is planned in a very organic way. She usually goes live with whatever recipes are on her mind at the moment. “I just do videos when I want to,” she said. “I’m not on a television show, not on a cooking channel. I’m my own boss, so if I have a hankering to make something I will.” For instance, one morning when she wanted hot chocolate; she went live and showed how to do it homemade with real cocoa.
Although the growth of Gantt’s popularity comes as a surprise to her, she acknowledges that there is something important that her viewers get from watching her. She provides authenticity and friendship. The start of the venture coincided with the start of the Covid pandemic; that and the ensuing times of quarantine created a special situation for her videos. “People are lonely. They’re going through a time like no other,” she said. “I guess there’s something soothing about me teaching them how to make biscuits. It’s like you’re in the kitchen with a friend.”
Gantt’s Facebook audience continues to grow, with almost two million follows; most of her cooking videos receive anywhere between five and 20 thousand likes and an almost equal number of shares. With viewers from around the world, she exclaims that having someone from Australia ask her, “What are grits?” can sometimes feel unbelievable. For Gantt, in fact, it can all feel unbelievable. “All I can say is that it was all the Lord,” she said. “It’s been a shock to me, and I know God has a sense of humor. It’s overwhelming but wonderful.”
An Early Love of Cooking. Gantt came to cooking honestly–learning at the feet of her mother and grandmothers. Both her grandmothers were excellent cooks, and she still remembers the experiences of eating in their homes. “One of my grandmothers cooked a big lunch every day for the people who worked in her fields,” she said. “At suppertime, you’d eat what was leftover along with a big pot of coffee. If there weren’t any leftovers, she’d always make a big pan of biscuits and you’d have that.” Her own mother was a baker, and “all of her stuff was delicious.” Cobblers, apple rolls, pies, cakes, biscuits…the creations learned from her relatives made her the cook she is today. “My mother made me stay in there with her while she cooked. And if I wasn’t cooking with her, I’d set the table or dry and put away dishes,” she recalled. “I may not have been cooking all the time, but I was with her.”
According to Gantt, there are now generations of people who don’t know how to cook. “I recently talked to a woman in her 50s or 60s, and for some reason, that group didn’t learn to cook. We talked about why, and she said her mother would shush her out of the kitchen and not involve her. Maybe that’s it,” she said, “but there are other reasons too. Restaurants started popping up, we had frozen dinners around that same time.” It’s not just that generation that was affected, Gantt said. Millennials and young people–even children–seem to have a newfound interest in learning how to cook and bake. She recently hosted a small group of girls from a local church camp, teaching them how to make biscuits. “These were girls 8 to 10 years old, and I gave them each a bowl of flour, tiny black skillets, all the ingredients,” she said. “As I made the dough in my bowl, they had to make it in their bowl, get their hands dirty, knead it. They just had the best time.”
Sharing the cooking experience has always been something Gantt has treasured with her own family–which consists of grown children Dallas and Hannah, their spouses Anna and Walt, and grandchildren Isabella, William, Bay, Cate, and Banks. Gantt’s husband, George, passed away in 2018. “My husband had vascular dementia and I took care of him, but it was very quick,” she said. “After he died I sorta wondered, ‘What was my mission?’” She said that her family is supportive of what her “mission” has become. Besides social media, Gantt also shares her cooking through The Cottle House, a bed and breakfast she owns in Andalusia. “It’s a 1905 farmhouse with a wraparound porch. We redid it and it has that country feeling,” she said. “I cook breakfast every morning for guests, and they tend to want to eat together these days. People are coming from all over the United States, and I think they need that connection.”
Sharing her Faith. Gantt, a member of Bethany Baptist Church in Andalusia, said that talking about Jesus comes as a natural part of her conversations while cooking on social media. “Sometimes you don’t know what else to say, and I talk as I cook,” she said. “I don’t really plan on saying a particular thing. It’s just whatever comes out, comes out.” The response she’s received from nonbelievers has been especially meaningful, and she feels like she somehow resonates with them. They see a friendly face with a natural faith. “They say that they feel a connection to me and my faith,” she said. She’s received messages, letters, and even phone calls from individuals–Christians and non-believers–who said her videos made a difference in their lives. One came from an atheist who said she was “drawn” to her. “I wrote back and said that if she wanted to understand me more to just read one chapter of John,” she said. “I don’t want to be too pushy. If you say too much, you can turn off some people. It can be touchy. But you can do it the right way.” Another phone call came from a man who said she saved his life. “I picked up the phone one day and there was a man on the line from Ohio,” she recalled. “One day I’d been teaching how to fry fatback and started talking about a headless chicken that lived about 18 months because his heart was somehow still beating. His body was going through the motions, but he wasn’t really alive. I explained that a lot of people were like that headless chicken. Going to work, having babies, going to parties, going to church. But inside they’re dead, they’re lifeless. They don’t have Jesus in their hearts, so they aren’t really living.” The man on the phone said that the story stopped him dead-in-his-tracks. After hearing Gantt on the video, he called his mother and then his fiancé and told them they were going to start going to church and Bible study. “He told me that he knew he was that chicken,” she said, “He knew he was just existing.” Experiences and conversations like that one are what make Gannt’s newfound viral success so important–and that keeps her grounded. “Don’t put me on a pedestal. I’m just a sinner saved by grace,” Gantt said. “I’m just a regular lady who loves to cook and loves Jesus.”
Cheryl is a freelance writer and author who also loves to cook. Her most recent book is Notes from a Quarantine: Essays, Stories, and Poems now available on Amazon. She lives in Hueytown, Ala.
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