March 2019

Vera Stewart: ‘Sassy Southern Sparkplug’ – As Seen on TV

Author: Linda S. Hopkins | Photographer: Peter Frank Edwards

When Vera Stewart speaks, right off the bat you know two things: (1) she’s Southern through and through (2) in spite of accomplishments “beyond her wildest dreams,” she’s still firmly grounded right here on earth.

I dial in for our phone interview. “How are ya?” she asks, in her authentic Georgia drawl, unrushed, as if she doesn’t have a television show to produce and an evening culinary engagement. But don’t let the accent fool you. Anyone who knows Stewart will tell you she can run rings around a jack rabbit and still win the race.

Picture a little girl, one of five children, growing up in a small, asbestos-sided three-bedroom, one-bathroom house. Fast forward a few decades, and find a 66-year-old woman starring on her own syndicated television cooking show, The VeryVera Show, running summer cooking camps for children, and promoting her new book, The VeryVera Cookbook: Recipes from my Table. Now imagine what happened in between.

Stewart is a well-known entrepreneur and businesswoman in Augusta, Georgia, where she started a successful catering business and mail-order venture leading up to her television debut. Claim to fame? Beating Bobby Flay in a carrot cake throwdown! Asked by her competitor how she keeps moisture in her cake, she replied, “I kiss it!” (Watch the episode at https://www.foodnetwork.com/videos/carrot-cake-throwdown-0148162.)

As our conversation continues, she takes me on a quick trip back to her roots, offering a CliffsNotes version of her career path and a glimpse at what her life looks like today.

Early memories
Stewart’s dad died when she was seven years old, requiring her mother to enter the workforce for the first time at age 40. College educated, she started teaching school and, in the summers, earned her master’s degree. “My memories are of her waking us up to go to school, and she was already dressed. She had her hair done and makeup on. She was very organized and very together,” Stewart said. “I remember my dad having a briefcase and walking out the door to go to work. So, my roleplay as a child was either a teacher or a business person. I didn’t play dolls; I never owned a doll.”

Her fondest food-related memories are of her mother’s homemade birthday cakes. “With five children, it seemed like there was always a birthday,” Stewart said. “She would take out her Sunbeam Mixmaster and make the cake and the icing from scratch. And you got to pick the cake you liked most for your birthday. Oddly enough, my birthday cake was German chocolate. There’s nobody around for me to ask why I would have chosen that.”

With a childhood steeped in Southern culture and in an era when women’s career options were limited, Stewart walked a sensible path, attending the University of Georgia where she earned a degree in home economics education.

“Back in the ’70s, when you graduated from college, you could be either a teacher or a nurse—or a flight attendant if you were real pretty,” Stewart said. “Teaching was always my intent, but when I had my first son at age 26, I really wanted to be a stay-at-home mom.”

Missing the additional income, Stewart’s entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. “I thought maybe I could do little parties for people or do appetizer platters. I would always make a pound cake for somebody if they called me. I charged $10 (I figured it was $10 I didn’t have in my pocket before they called), and I had the ingredients in the house,” she said. “I developed the catering side of my business just doing small things and getting the word-of-mouth recognition even before 1984 when I legitimately hung my shingle.”

Stewart went on to operate a vibrant catering/event business for 30 years, a mail-order business (VeryVera) and café for 20 years, later adding her summer cooking camps for children, which continue to grow and thrive today, bringing her career full circle—back to home economics education.

“When I closed my retail business [in 2013], it was because it was getting more and more costly—the cost of ingredients, the cost of shipping. I was also getting asked, ‘What is your exit strategy?’ just a normal question to ask someone who’s obviously not 40. I didn’t have one, so I decided I needed to make a plan,” she explained. “I reached out to some co-packers to see if I could continue to ship my products, but every time I got a sample, I cried. I couldn’t do that. So, I looked at what I could do, which was continue the show and my camp. Since I wasn’t going to be making these products anymore, I decided to put the recipes in a cookbook, and then VeryVera would live forever.”


In her spare time, Vera enjoys spending time with her grandchildren. Pictured left to right, McClendon, Lucy, Jane, Frances, and Ward at play in Vera’s fairy garden at her Augusta, Ga. home.

The book, published in April 2018, contains every recipe she sold in her café and across the country via mail order—layer cakes, pound cakes, casseroles, soups, and salads—plus the stories behind them, pre-planned menus, serving suggestions and pro tips. Grateful for her mother’s fortitude, both in and out of the kitchen, Stewart said, “I am so proud to have dedicated my book to my first mentor, my mother, Betty Stewart Wingfield.”

Show biz and beyond
So how does a local caterer manage to break into show biz? “I was on Throwdown with Bobby Flay in 2011. He challenged me to a carrot cake throwdown, and I won,” Stewart said, matter-of-factly, although it was admittedly thrilling and opened up a whole new world of opportunity. “So, the local TV manager offered to find a spot for me to have my own show. He said if you work really hard, you could potentially syndicate at the end of five years. Well, we syndicated at the end of three years,” she said.

The key to her ongoing success, she said, is her drive and determination. “You need to be determined; you need to be responsible; you need to have integrity; you need to have vigor; and you need to be enthusiastic. I never said intelligent or smart. I didn’t say rich. There’s nothing in that definition about money. And honestly, it’s never been about money for me. I haven’t gotten rich running VeryVera.”

For Stewart, cooking is a natural gift more so than a learned skill, she said. “I do not refer to myself as a chef. I’ve certainly studied enough about the culinary aspect to be versed in that regard, but I’m not a culinary graduate. I probably have loved more of the menu planning and the presentation aspect.”

She confesses she enjoys baking more than cooking because of the organizational aspect and structure. “There’s something therapeutic in that for me,” she said. “I can certainly fly by the seat of my pants when it comes to making dinner when I haven’t been to the grocery store. Hopefully the end result is fine, but it’s not a joy.”

Her greatest satisfaction, she said, comes from her entrepreneurial endeavors and educational reach. “I never dreamed I would write a cookbook, and I never dreamed that I would have a TV show—not in my wildest dreams. I was almost 60 years old when I got the show. And here’s this cookbook, and the summer camp that I created so I didn’t go broke in the summer at my big building on Washington Road [a season when people weren’t shipping cakes or having as many parties.] My accountant said, ‘You need to come up with a way to make money in the summer.’ So, I thought, I’ll just invite children over here for a week and teach ’em how to cook. This summer will be 16 years ago, and now I have that franchised.”

Stewart has been married to (recently retired) attorney Andy Kilpatrick for 27 years. Together, they enjoy a blended family of five children and nine grandchildren. “My two sons and my stepson all live in Augusta, and I am affectionately referred to as ‘Granny V.’ Most of my children’s friends call me that, too,” she said.

When not working, Stewart “carves in some time” with her husband and enjoys “doing stuff” with her grandchildren. “My favorite thing is to go to the Lowcountry. That stress level comes down tremendously as soon as we smell the salt air.”

People often ask her how she can be around food all the time yet stay so fit. While never a large person, Stewart’s quest for fitness began with a personal goal she set at age 49 to be fit by 50. “I don’t drink; I exercise five days a week; and I eat small amounts throughout the day.

I don’t call it a diet, but I’ve convinced my body to recognize being full with small amounts. My strength and my ability to be so energetic has a lot to do with what I’m fueling myself with. I’m more interested in the energy. And because I adopted that attitude, it paid off for me when I got the opportunity to have my show.

“And thank God I’m okay with gray hair because I wouldn’t have time to go get it dyed! I go get it cut and leave with wet hair and dry it myself. I don’t wear all that heavy makeup on TV either. I just hate that stuff!”

The VeryVera show airs locally on WSAV 3, Sundays at 7 a.m. Learn more about the show, the cookbook and cooking camps at www.veryvera.com.

Meet Vera!
Vera Stewart will make an appearance on Hilton Head Island as keynote speaker at the Women’s Association of Hilton Head Island’s spring luncheon, to be held at the Sonesta Resort, April 26, 2019. Reserve your seat now! For more information, visitwww.wahhi.com or call Anne Lambdin at (443) 418-6445.

______

SEAFOOD BISQUE
This seafood bisque was dreamed up by one of my younger employees, Robert Gordon, at the Café and served every Friday. With tons of flavor, this decadent cream-based soup makes for a great weekend meal. Serve with crusty bread and you’re good to go!

Serves: 10 to 12
Prep Time: 10 to 15 minutes
Cook Time: 50 minutes

¾ cup salted butter, divided
2 ¼ cups Vidalia onions, diced
1 ½ cups canned button mushrooms, drained and cut in half
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons shrimp base*
1 ½ tablespoons lobster base*
4 cups whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups half & half
¾ teaspoon paprika
2 ¼ teaspoons granulated sugar
Cooked shrimp, for garnish

1. Melt ¼ cup of butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat.
2. Sauté the onions and mushrooms in the butter until the onions are translucent.
3. In a Dutch oven, melt the remaining ½ cup of butter. Add the flour and whisk until the flour has dissolved in the melted butter and a creamy, light brown paste (a roux) has formed.
4. Cook the roux until it is dark tan in color. Add the shrimp base and lobster base and mix well.
5. Stir in the milk slowly and let the mixture thicken until it looks like peanut butter.
6. Add the heavy cream and the half & half to the onions and mushrooms and heat through.
7. Slowly add the onion mixture to the roux mixture, then add the paprika. Let it come to a slow boil and then add the sugar.
8. Reduce to low heat and cook until the soup thickens, about 35 to 40 minutes.
9. Add shrimp to each serving as a garnish and a hearty addition.

NOTE: I use fresh large shrimp, sautéed in butter and cut into bite-size chunks. You can also use small popcorn-size shrimp, adding 6 to 8 to a cup of soup or 12 to 14 to a bowl.
My husband and I are fortunate enough that our dock in Beaufort ends on top of a shrimp hole. One of our favorite things to do in Beaufort is to throw the cast net with the grandchildren.

*Shrimp base and lobster base are available at specialty food stores. If you do not have a local specialty food store, check online at Amazon.com or an online specialty food store. Although it may require more work to find these ingredients, both add so much flavor to this soup and will give you enough to make this many times!

Let Us Know what You Think ...

 

Social Bookmarks