Chef Talk: Some Mighty Swell Cooking

Chef Barbara Swell.

Chef Barbara Swell.

Barbara Swell describes herself as a fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants kind of cook. However modest this may be, one thing is for sure — Swell is one busy lady. Not only does she teach cooking classes from the log cabin on her property, using vintage tools and vegetables she has culled from her own garden, she also writes a number of cookbooks which she publishes with the help of her husband, banjo-player Wayne Erbsen. The ever-entertaining Swell recently took a break from grinding her own cornmeal and canning goods for the winter to answer a few questions for Bold Life.

What is your inspiration? Family, certainly. But in the kitchen, my grandmother Maudie, from rural West Virginia. She made everything from scratch and most of it from her garden. She never shooed me out of her kitchen.

Which person, alive or dead, do you most admire? George Washington Carver. A brilliant, selfless, driven scientist who was light years ahead of his time. Each one of us Americans is touched by his gifts.

What is your guiltiest pleasure? Sunlight.

What is your current state of mind? Perplexed as to why I’m answering “chef” questions when I’m only a fly-by-the-seat-of- my-pants kind of a cook.

What is the quality you most like in a person? I like just about everybody, the good and the bad in them. I like it most when people let their humanity hang out.

What is the quality you least like in a person? Uppityness.

Which talent would you most like to have? The gift of language learning. I’m trying to learn Italian because soon my daughter will marry an Italian man, and I want to be able to blab in Italian with his mother over a plate of fontina-topped polenta.

Which habit would you most like to be rid of? I always mean to call people back, answer letters, write thank yous.

What would you choose to be if you were to be reincarnated? I kind of like being a human. I’d like to do that again.

What is your favorite thing to do on a cold day? I love to sip a special fragrant tea while cooking soup on my old wood cookstove.

What would you cook for the President? Pie. I’d make him a fresh blackberry and bittersweet chocolate pie, and then I’d sit at the table and share it with him and his family.

Who would you most like to have dinner with? My family, my friends and anybody who wants to come eat with us.

What is your favorite culinary tool? I don’t have many kitchen gadgets. I do love my 1930’s Rumford biscuit-cutter, though.

Who is your favorite chef? I don’t exactly run in chef circles. But as far as our local artisan food producers go, I think David Bauer of Farm and Sparrow Bakery is a hearth-baked bread and croissant genius.

Who are your heroes in real life? There are so many. In terms of food, my heroes are farmers.

What is it that you most dislike? War. Famine. Poverty. Looking the other way. Me first. Foods that wiggle. Stuff like that.

What food could you not live without? Kale, collards, chard and kale. Did I mention kale?

What music could you not live without? My husband Wayne’s guitar playing. He often plays in front of the fire while I cook dinner for us.

How would you like to die? Behind a shovel in the vegetable garden.

How would you like to live? Behind a shovel in the vegetable garden.

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