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Trisha Yearwood’s fans, if those of us gathered at a Viking store and cooking school in a suburb outside Nashville, Tenn., are representative, are mostly Southern or Midwestern white women in our 30s and 40s, but some of us are men, some of us are gay, and at least one of us has a mohawk. What we have in common, besides that we love Yearwood, is that through local radio contests sponsored by Clear Channel Communications stations in various American cities, 34 of us have won a cooking lesson with the country singer to celebrate the publication of her bestselling new cookbook, “Georgia Cooking in an Oklahoma Kitchen: Recipes From My Family to Yours.” This is how we’ve found ourselves in the sort of mini-amphitheater where a college class might be held, except that instead of a professor standing in front of us, it’s Yearwood, and instead of syllabuses waiting on the desks when we entered, there were deviled eggs.
OK, so I didn’t actually win a radio contest, but I called Yearwood’s publicist to ask if I could tag along, and I’m here as a fan as much as a journalist. Or maybe it’s some combination, because, while exclaiming with contest winners over how tall and pretty Yearwood looks, and how delicious her deviled eggs taste, I’m also trying to find answers to some pressing questions. For example: Given that Yearwood has led an awfully interesting life, why’d she choose to write a cookbook instead of a memoir? Is it weird for her to be married, as of 2005, to Garth Brooks since she’s very successful but he’s very, very, very successful? And finally: What exactly did I do wrong the other night when I tried the recipe for Uncle Wilson’s Baked Onions?
Yearwood, as you may or may not know, has a gorgeous, powerful voice. The winner of three Grammy awards and two female vocalist of the year Country Music Awards, she’s had nine No. 1 singles, and 11 of her albums have gone gold or platinum. Though she doesn’t write her own music, since releasing her first album in 1991, she has cultivated a consistent tone and focus. Has your man left you heartbroken and you just wish everyone would quit telling you to get over him? Yearwood’s been there, as she sings about in “Everybody Knows.” Have you ever given your man his walking papers, then wished you hadn’t? So has she, in “Believe Me Baby (I Lied).” Have you found yourself endlessly revisiting what you and your man used to have even though it’s long finished? Yearwood feels your pain in “Where Are You Now.” And yet, in the midst of all this man-inflicted torment, do you sometimes feel flashes of you-go-girl empowerment and optimism for the future in spite of the fact you’re not a Size 6? Well, have a listen to “I’m Still Alive,” “Real Live Woman” or “Not a Bad Thing.”
Lest it seem presumptuous to read autobiographical elements into her music, Yearwood, 43, actually invites this, telling us during the cooking lesson that she chooses songs “that feel like they’re mine. I like songs for the same reason you do, songs that sound like someone was spying on your life.” To be fair, Yearwood does sometimes sing about love gone right, especially about the promise of an early relationship, and she even sings the occasional song that has not much at all to do with love but focuses more on, say, the pleasures of country living. She’s most well-known for her first No. 1 hit, “She’s in Love With the Boy,” which is one of the songs Yearwood will perform for us later today, but first there are meatloaf, green beans with ham, and brownies to attend to.
In person, Yearwood is warm, energetic and quick-witted. “You guys didn’t really think I cooked, did you?” she asks as she shows us how to make several recipes; meanwhile, the same recipes, already prepared by Viking employees, are brought out for instant gratification sampling. As we watch and chew, Yearwood offers cooking tips and other banter — “Mom said never open an egg over your recipe,” she says cheerfully before proceeding to open an egg directly over the mixing bowl for the meatloaf. She also reassures us that she washed her hands right before the demonstration, tells us that when a recipe calls for room temperature butter and she’s forgotten to get it out ahead of time, she’ll cut it up and set it on the windowsill, and explains, “I’m about using as few dishes as possible. You know how that is.” Oh, and the pressure cooker is, she says, “just a wonderful invention, and they don’t really explode anymore.”
More than once, tabloids have razzed Yearwood about her weight, and there’s something refreshing about a celebrity whose reaction to such criticism isn’t to become a Jenny Craig spokesperson but instead to publish a cookbook featuring multiple recipes that start with melting a stick — or two — of butter. And, although she has spoken publicly about her weight struggles, on this day, Yearwood is downright trim; in fact, with her long, straight, very blond hair, navy blue sweater, fitted jeans and jewelry, she looks kind of like the head cheerleader 25 years out of high school if the head cheerleader had aged as well as possible without medical intervention. At the same time, she’s not so skinny that you doubt she actually eats, let alone cooks. “I love potatoes — they’re my favorite food,” she announces, mentioning shortly afterward, “I like a gooey cookie.” And she’s only more effusive in the pages of her cookbook, where she writes, variously, “I love cheese!” “I love any salad that has bacon as an ingredient!” and, “So to answer the burning question, can you make an entire meal out of sausage ball appetizers? Yes!”
The idea of writing an autobiography did come up, Yearwood explains, but she wasn’t tempted because, as she later tells me in an interview, “I don’t interest myself that much. Maybe in 20 years, I’ll have something to say, but at this point, I feel like it’d be Part One.”
A cookbook, on the other hand, seemed like fun to her. Raised in small-town Georgia by a teacher mother and banker father who both were avid cooks — the cookbook is dedicated to her late father, Jack, who died in 2005 but shows up in photos making yeast bread, barbecued chicken and collard greens — Yearwood decided the project should be a family affair. Her mother, Gwen, and sister Beth are credited as co-authors and, indeed, the title and many of the recipes come from a 40th birthday gift they made for Yearwood after she moved to Oklahoma: a binder they called “Georgia Recipes for an Oklahoma Kitchen.”
The result of this labor of culinary love manages to be glossy and even kind of beautiful at the same time that it feels genuinely down-home. The lush photographs of the food, including shots taken for the book at a Yearwood family picnic, are interspersed with older photos from when Yearwood was growing up. Individual recipes are accompanied by personal commentary from the Yearwood ladies of both the practical and the more conversational varieties. For instance, accompanying the Baked Ham With Brown Sugar Honey Glaze recipe, “From Gwen: If you don’t want or need a whole ham, you can bake half a ham, but choose the butt (meatier) end rather than the shank end.” Or, also from Gwen for Mama’s Cornmeal Hushpuppies: “The idea for adding jalapeños comes from Herb’s sister Patty.” Having read through the cookbook at length, I have to confess I still have no idea who either Herb or his sister Patty is, but it’s hard not to be charmed by these sorts of details. In fact, as you peruse, you may find yourself wishing you, too, were a Yearwood.
Given that the closest most of us can come is just to eat like one, I attempted three of Yearwood’s recipes before venturing down to Nashville: Garlic Grits Casserole (tasty, apparently, because my husband ate four servings), Easy Peach Cobbler (delicious, and also in danger of being submerged under its river of melted butter) and the aforementioned Uncle Wilson’s Baked Onions. With just three ingredients, all of them pretty hard to wreck — onions, bacon and butter — Uncle Wilson’s recipe seemed a sure-fire hit, but when I made it, the onions were about to disintegrate after being in the oven for well over an hour, yet the bacon still wasn’t fully cooked. I was prepared, for the sake of research, to forge ahead and eat them anyway when my husband wisely if inelegantly warned, “You don’t fuck with bacon.” So instead I threw them in the trash.
Back at the Viking superstore, an audience member raises her hand to mention that she too had trouble with a recipe — in this case, with the caramel icing Yearwood’s mom learned to make “as a young teacher in Dawson, Georgia, [when she] boarded with Mrs. Mary Lou Alexander.” Yearwood offers consolation and advice; the icing, it turns out, is probably the most difficult recipe in the whole cookbook.
Yearwood tells us she’s game to answer any of our other questions. “It can be about food or music or me or my husband,” she says. “Anyone? Bueller?”
Her husband — ah, yes, we have arrived at the subject that makes Yearwood’s life story both more interesting and more complicated. Whereas Yearwood, having sold 10 million albums, is by any measure a success, Brooks has sold a hundred million — putting him in a category with only a few other performers, such as Elvis Presley or the Beatles. That alone would seem to create a complex dynamic in a marriage for two people in the same field, but there’s more — in fact, there’s enough back story to fill a novel.
Yearwood and Brooks met at a demo session in Nashville in 1988, and knew immediately they’d like to work together in the future. Three years later, by which point Brooks had become a country star, he invited Yearwood to tour with him as his opening act. Brooks had been married since 1986 and had three daughters with his wife; Yearwood was married and divorced twice, without having children, by 1999. After Brooks divorced in 2000, the two began dating. Not surprisingly, rumors have circulated about exactly when they became involved, and some of the songs they’ve collaborated on — particularly 1997′s “In Another’s Eyes,” which Brooks co-wrote — seem awfully fraught with meaning, with lyrics such as: “In another’s eyes I’m someone who/ Loves her enough to walk away from you/ I’d never cheat/ I’d never lie/ In another’s eyes.”
Both Yearwood and Brooks appear more than a little ambivalent about their fame: Brooks retired in 2000 at the age of 38, arguably at the peak of his career, saying he won’t record or perform until 2015, when his youngest daughter is 18. They live on a ranch in Owasso, Okla., where Yearwood’s two best friends are a dental hygienist and a physical therapist; she and Brooks shop regularly at Wal-Mart; and they faithfully attend Brooks’ daughters’ soccer games. Yearwood calls herself the girls’ “bonus mom.”
Yearwood takes her husband’s staggering success in stride. “I have fans, and he has followers,” she tells me. “It’s a different sort of phenomenon. And I get it. If somebody’s excited to meet me and they go, ‘Well, we were hoping Garth was gonna be here,’ I don’t take offense because that would be the natural assumption. Most of the time it’s that. Occasionally, someone will come up to us and say, ‘You know, Garth, I like you, but I really love Trisha.’ That happens enough for me that it keeps my ego in good shape.”
As it turns out, this is, almost verbatim, what one of the radio contest winners, Candyce Havenstrite, says at the cooking lesson. Havenstrite, an interior decorator who lives in Murfreesboro, Tenn., won the chance to attend the cooking lesson with Yearwood by calling in to a morning show on her drive to work and correctly answering a multiple-choice question about what makes the dirt in Georgia red. (If you’re wondering: iron ore.) Today, Havenstrite’s here with her 9-year-old daughter, Samantha.
About Yearwood’s music, Havenstrite says, “I just like that it’s so real and from the heart, and she has a phenomenal voice.” But that’s not all. “I like seeing her have a whole new life, how she’s happy and content.” Also divorced, Havenstrite adds, “It gives me hope.” Which isn’t to say Havenstrite’s at all surprised Yearwood and Brooks ended up together. “Many, many years ago, I saw her perform on Jay Leno with Garth, and they had such a connection.”
Bonnie Manzeck and Denise Evert, two stay-at-home moms from Milwaukee whose daughters are in school together, echo this sentiment. “I expected it,” Manzeck says of Yearwood’s current marriage. “Any time you saw them, you could see the chemistry.”
Like Havenstrite, Evert is impressed with Yearwood’s air of authenticity. “You could be friends with her,” she says. “She seems so real and genuine and down-to-earth. She looks so pretty and cute with jeans, but not like a diva.”
Listening to her other fans, I’m struck by the thought that Yearwood herself is a lot like her cookbook — that in the age of the vagina-flashing no-talent 20-year-old celebrity, she’s a bit of a throwback to a less sordid time. She’s open enough to be accessible and glamorous enough to be intriguing, but she’s also discreet enough to remain mysterious. We like her not just because she’s lived a real and complex life, including her two divorces, but also because she’s never posed for a magazine in her underpants while talking about those divorces.
Our day of food, friendship, fandom and female empowerment concludes with Yearwood singing several songs, mostly off her latest album, “Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love.” And this is another great thing about Trisha Yearwood — she may have found domestic fulfillment at last, but she hasn’t forgotten, as the title of the album implies, what heartache is like; she’s still making music for every mood you might find yourself in, from wounded to elated. Accompanied by two musicians, she’s standing about 12 feet from me, which feels decadently intimate, like I’m that obscenely rich guy who paid $7 million to have the Rolling Stones play at his 60th birthday party. Yearwood’s voice is loud and strong and beautiful, and when I glance around the amphitheater, I see digital cameras held high. Between songs, Yearwood good-naturedly notes the cyclical nature of her career. She says, “You start out playing in kitchens, and you end up playing in kitchens.”
Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of the novels "Prep" and "American Wife."More Curtis Sittenfeld.