There is something profoundly cathartic and spiritual about cooking. The science, scents, and sounds of bringing together divorced ingredients to create a happy marriage of deliciousness jolts joy into the soul.
On levels, all lovely, somber spirits are lifted to extraordinary heights of bountiful bliss when memories of grandmas and mamas making their finest savory and sweet creations flood the mind.
A magnificent meal coupled with a delectable dessert can make a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day turn into a glorious day in no time. And the secret to cooking’s power is always love. Yes, love and happiness can be created on stovetops and in ovens.
Of this, Barbara Whitley knows. Her reality is grounded in the truth of how influential a talented cook can be in the lives of folks. She is a youthful-looking, cavity-sweet, 74-year-old master baker who can also make gourmet meals with ease.
In this instant, she is making mini quiches graced with eggs, half and half, chicken and Swiss cheese.
Her 29-year-old assistant, Brittany Melzer, is directly in front of her, on the other side of the table, helping her prepare what will be the lunch specials.
Behind them both, slightly hidden by utensils, is a lone jar of pear relish – one of the rare culinary misses Whitley has ever had.
“I tried it one time, but I have not tried it since,” she said as she sprinkled paprika into the quiches.
Whitley is the main face of Crady’s Eclectic Cuisine on Main at 332 Main St. in Conway. Whitley is the one you will see moving in and out of the kitchen to check on customers before migrating back to the rear where she creates creations that send mouths into saliva overdrive.
Her working space is particularly compact, exceptionally organized, and you-can-lick-the-floor clean. It is here, in this area, that she leads the way in preparing numerous baked goodies that must come out of the oven palate-pleasing and magazine-cover ready. If not, she tosses them out. Few things ever get thrown away, though.
Whitley is a certainly polished pro. Crusts know they have to be buttery and flaky for her. Cakes present their best decadent layers to her. Fruits manifest their juiciest selves on her behalf. Basically, things that go into baked goods have a serious crush on Whitley.
Najgy Crady made certain it would be this way. She was Whitley’s mother, and Whitley spent tons of time baking with her.
“I was so content,” said Whitley, who began baking at her mother’s knee. “That was my time with her, and I knew I had my mother’s undivided attention.”
Crady always wore an apron, and her daughter does the same today.
You’ll never find Whitley looking dowdy in her kitchen at home or a work. She is sharp as a tack on any given day, wearing makeup that accentuates her natural beauty.
Somehow, Whitley keeps her face free of flour blush and her apron spotless. A smile regularly glides across her face as sweet reminiscences bubble back and ooze out of her like apples and juice from a hot pie.
Baking, she will tell you, is definitely a science. Yet, it is also gooey, sweet and romantic like salted caramel lava cakes. Star-crossed lovers can become uncrossed when that perfect dessert says what their lips couldn’t properly articulate.
Whitley, though never a star-crossed lover, has kept her husband of 57 years, Les Whitley, a retired Coastal Carolina University biology professor and an owner of Crady’s, in part by baking her way into his heart and keeping their hearth warm with love.
“I like the romance of baking,” Whitley said. “Have you ever given someone something you baked, and they say, ‘No, thank you?’”
From her past and always in her present, Whitley remembers the ABC’s of baking she learned from her mom. Whitley passed on that same zest for cooking to her two children, Heather Whitley, who is a singer and an owner of Crady’s, and her late son, Adam Whitley, who died in 2009. He was a master gardener and a designer that planned the restaurant and its menus.
Keeping a family legacy going strong, however, can sometimes be a challenging task. Getting high marks in the kitchen isn’t always easy.
Barbara Whitley learned long ago that good cooking couldn’t be rushed. It takes time and skill. She has proof on her person, and the evidence is a burn scar she received when she was only 6.
“I was so hungry one morning, and I couldn’t wait for my mother,” Whitley said. “So, I decided to fry me some eggs, but the butter was too hot in the frying pan.”
The butter popped out and landed on her wrist, but the memory brings a smile to Whitley’s face and causes laughter to erupt in her belly and flow from her mouth. Indeed, those were good times – moments that helped her become the baking guru she is now.
Lessons as such also taught Whitley that not only did she need knowledge in the kitchen, but she also needed ample amounts of wisdom, too.
Today, she has both and you can taste it.
Contact Johanna D. Wilson at JohannasCarolinaCharacters@gmail.com or to suggest subjects for an upcoming column.