You Can Eat Like Johnny Cash — Thanks To A Cookbook From Country Music's First Family

Dec 29, 2018
Originally published on December 29, 2018 11:33 pm

Music was an integral part of life in the home of country music stars Johnny Cash and June Carter — as was Southern cooking.

Recipes and stories from The Cash and Carter Family Cookbook, compiled by their son, award-winning record producer John Carter Cash, now give readers a chance to experience what it was like to sit at the dinner table of two music legends.

Carter Cash's cookbook includes everything from his mother June's tomato, red onion and avocado salad to his father Johnny's old iron-pot chili. It also includes recipes passed down by his grandmother, Maybelle Carter, otherwise known as the mother of modern country music.

The recipes, Carter Cash said, give a taste of both the diversity of cuisine the family ate when traveling on the road and the Southern comfort food that his father grew up eating. Much of the food — biscuits and gravy, baloney and eggs, and a dish called a "Cash Burger" — is hearty and homey.

In 2013, NPR's Don Gonyea wrote about his interview with Carter Cash's dad, Johnny Cash, in the early 1980s. Perhaps hinting at his Southern cuisine diet, Cash had joked then that he wore black because it was slimming.

Now, more than 30 years later, Gonyea interviewed his son, John Carter Cash, for Weekend All Things Considered, and asked him if his parents were as talented in the kitchen as they were on the stage.


Interview Highlights

On his grandmother's quest for a sour pickle recipe

The first recipe from her in here is half-sour pickles, or sour pickles, depending on how long you ferment them. She traveled in the 1930s to New York City and I remember her telling me that she learned how to make pickles in New York, trying to copy how they were made in the delis. I remember eating different foods at her house that were varied from around the world, but there was always this tie-in with Southern flavor.

On what "Southern flavor" really means

People come to Nashville where I live and they say, "What's a great Southern restaurant?" Well, you got to know the right grandmother, because there's a lot of magic to good Southern cooking. So, my cookbook is laid out as a matter of cooking theory in some ways, because there is a recipe that you can use as a guideline, but I support and endorse the idea that the cook needs to develop their own flair and their own unique touch to make something beautiful of their own creation.

On his father's cooking flair

He made his iron pot chili with cuts of sirloin or maybe cuts of venison if it was around, and slow-cooked it for hours upon hours. Then, he would go by the chili pot with a handful of cornmeal in his hand — I remember seeing this so many times when I was a boy — and he would throw the cornmeal at the pot. You didn't know how much was going to get into one pot of chili to the next. However much it was — that was the specific texture and thickness of that chili. So, there was a whimsical nature to some of their creations.

In his new cookbook, John Carter Cash shares his mother June Carter's recipe for "stuff," which includes a medley of vegetables.
Courtesy of Sara Broun

On his mother's "stuff" recipe

My mother did a fried vegetable dish called "stuff." It's fried potatoes and carrots. Then you add bell peppers, mushrooms and other softer vegetables. At the end you add onion. Then, you steam the dish with hot pepper cheese on the top and it melts down through the dish. It's delicious. It's wonderful. My goodness, I'm getting hungry.

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DON GONYEA, HOST:

About 30-plus years ago, I was right out of college. And I got a job as a disc jockey at a country western radio station in Michigan. And I found out that the great Johnny Cash was coming to play the local county fair. So I hung around his tour bus not knowing if I'd get to talk to him, but he came out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GONYEA: How you doing, Johnny?

JOHNNY CASH: Hi. How you doing?

GONYEA: Welcome to Monroe.

CASH: Thank you.

GONYEA: I'm from...

It was all kind of on the fly. And at one point, I ran out of questions to ask him. But Johnny Cash seemed to want to hang around and chat. So I came up with this...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GONYEA: How'd you get to be the man in black? Can you tell our people - is there a story behind that?

CASH: Not really. I've always worn black. I've always felt comfortable in it on performing. I felt it had a kind of distinctive look. And one reason, it's a little more slimming and...

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: He was joking, of course. But after flipping through the recipes in a new book, "The Cash And Carter Family Cookbook," maybe there was some truth to Johnny saying he wore black because it's slimming. Bologna and eggs, biscuits and gravy, Cash burgers, the hardy, homey comfort food of the Cash and Carter family is now featured for all of you to recreate at home thanks to this new cookbook compiled by John Carter Cash. He is the child of June Carter and Johnny Cash and an award-winning record producer. He joins me from his cabin studio in Tennessee. John Carter Cash, thanks for joining us.

JOHN CARTER CASH: I'm so grateful to be here, Don. Thank you for having me today. My mother always said that my father wore black because it hid the dirt.

GONYEA: (Laughter) OK. And, of course, there's a great song that explains it all, but these alternative answers are pretty fantastic.

CARTER CASH: Just as much the truth as anything.

GONYEA: So we know the Cash Carters are a musically talented, legendary family, but how is the cooking? Tell us why you decided to compile these recipes in a family cookbook.

CARTER CASH: Well, heartfelt family recipes that were handed down through the years, Southern recipes were common fare around the house. But, I mean, I grew up with great diversity in food because we traveled so much. And so, you know, we were in Germany, or we were in Australia, or we were in exotic places - France. Who knows? And so the foods that we had were just as varied as the places we traveled to. And, you know, the foods around the house were no less diverse than what we found on the road.

GONYEA: So it sounds like these recipes together, putting them all in one place, kind of give you and give us a sense of your family's history. Your dad, for example, was in the service. And there are recipes that represent that time in his life.

CARTER CASH: Yes. Yes, most certainly. And, you know, I mean, he always tended to enjoy most of all the comfort foods, the things that he ate when he was a little boy - you know, the Sunday afternoon fried chicken, the country dishes that reminded him of home. But he would probably just as soon eaten fresh roasted peanuts as he would of anything. My mother had a very diverse palate, and she liked fine foods and whatnot. You know, and she taught me how to cook. But my father taught me how to cook from the fried bologna to a really good Texas-style chili. He had quite a hand in the kitchen.

GONYEA: So these recipes come from both sides of the family, including from your grandmother, Maybelle Carter. A lot of people know her as Mother Maybelle Carter, the queen of country music, I think, one of the founding figures of American country music. Can you tell us something that you've taken from her that's in this book?

CARTER CASH: The first recipe from her and here is half-sour pickles, or sour pickles, depending on how long you ferment them. But she traveled in the 30s to New York City. And I remember her telling me when I was a boy that she learned how to make pickles in New York trying to copy how they were made in the delis of New York City. And, you know, she went to Mexico. And I remember, you know, eating different foods at her house from around the world. But there was always this tie-in with Southern flavor, you know, around my house.

And, you know, a lot of southern cooking, it's like people go - come to Nashville where I live, and they say, what's a great Southern restaurant? Well, you got to know the right grandmother because there's a lot of magic. You know, there's a lot of magic to good Southern cooking. And so my cookbook is laid out as a matter of cooking theory, if you will, in some ways because, yes, there is a recipe that you can use as a guideline, but I support and endorse the idea that the cook needs to develop their own flair and their own unique touch to make something beautiful of their own creation.

GONYEA: Give me an example of how your mom, June Carter, or your dad, Johnny Cash, would have used that kind of personal flair when working with a recipe.

CARTER CASH: Well, my dad, he made what he called his iron pot chili. And he made it with cuts of sirloin or venison if it was around and slow cook it for hours upon hours. And then he would go by the chili pot with a handful of corn meal in his hand. And I remember seeing this so many times when I was a boy that he would throw the corn meal at the pot. And, you know, and if - you know, you didn't know how much was going to get into one pot of chili to the next, but however much it was, that was the specific texture and thickness of that chili, you know. So there was a whimsical nature to some of their creations. My mother did a fried vegetable dish called stuff.

GONYEA: Stuff, just stuff, S-T-U-F-F?

CARTER CASH: Yeah. S-T-U-F-F. June Carter's stuff. And that really makes me think about my mom.

GONYEA: And what was in the stuff?

CARTER CASH: It's fried potatoes and carrots. And then you add bell peppers and mushrooms and other vegetables - softer vegetables. And then at the end, you add onion. And then you steam the dish with hot pepper cheese on the top, and it melts down through the dish. It's delicious. It's wonderful. And my goodness, I'm getting hungry.

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: John Carter Cash is a record producer, the son of Johnny Cash and June Carter, and now, cookbook author. His book, "The Carter Cash Family Cookbook," is out now. Thanks, John.

CARTER CASH: Thank you so much, Don, for having me. And I hope all the listeners out there enjoy the flavors of my family's kitchen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RING OF FIRE")

CASH: (Singing) I fell into a burning ring of fire. I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher. And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire, the ring of fire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.