Jessi Baker cooks, Jessi Baker writes, Jessi Baker smiles. And – Jessi Baker makes moonshine.
(I like this woman.)
Today, she’s sharing a bacon recipe and talking with me about her brand new book, Shining: Ole Smoky Moonshine Family Cookbook.
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Hi Jessi! I’m delighted that our paths have crossed! (Thank you, Dallas Wilt, for the warm introduction.)
I’m intrigued by your family history, your life choices, and your decision to write a cookbook. Let’s start at the beginning of the journey.
You grew up in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, right?
And your family business was…
My grandparents, Dave and Peggy Dych, started Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen in 1950.
They recognized the potential of Gatlinburg as a growing motor tourist destination, and developed a visually entertaining main street business, serving the tourists with homemade candies. Candy makers, dressed in white uniforms, stirred large copper kettles while feeding taffy into hypnotic machines. This drew a crowd on the patio outside the windows. The candy was displayed behind glass cases and sold in any quantity requested. Gatlinburg has flourished as a motor tourist destination and Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen is still serving the tourists homemade candy in the original way – one piece or a box full.
My grandparents also developed the Village with Jim and June Gerding. The Gerdings own the Pancake Pantry, which just this weekend is having its 50th anniversary celebration!
I love that you still call Gatlinburg a “motor tourist destination.” What a great phrase! I feel like I’ve stepped back in time. What was it like growing up in Gatlinburg? I visited several times as a child and was so enchanted…
It was great! I used to walk to the candy kitchen every day after school. I would wind my way through the village, often stopping at my Aunt and Uncle’s Donut Friar for a sweet treat. There are always so many visitors coming through Gatlinburg to enjoy the mountains that you meet a lot of different people from all over the country.
After college, you returned home to Tennessee for law school, married your high school sweetheart, Joe Baker, and had three children. In 2009, you and Joe made a big decision about your family’s future. Tell us about that…
After growing a busy law practice, Joe became more and more restless to start a business that wouldn’t be so emotionally draining as criminal defense. He came in one day and said “I’m going to start making moonshine.” I thought he had lost his mind. Turns out, it was quite the idea!
Yes, it was! I have learned that Ole Smoky is the leading distiller of premium moonshine in the U.S. and the first federally licensed distillery in the history of East Tennessee. In 2009, Tennessee law changed and it became legal to make, distill and sell the infamous bootlegger’s hooch. Today, Ole Smoky retails globally and offers more than twenty flavors crafted from the family recipe; Ole Smoky has also partnered with some of the country’s biggest music and sporting organizations. Awards have been won. Attendance records have been set.
When did you decide to write a cookbook?
I’ve bought and enjoyed many cookbooks over the years, so the idea always seemed interesting. Food is my love language, and when Joe and I started Ole Smoky Moonshine years ago my initial job was in retail and moonshine food items (many, like moonshine taffy, that I sourced from the candy shop). This book aims to take that concept of moonshine foods a step further by finding ways to use our moonshine and whiskey to enhance flavors in homes and kitchens and at tailgates across the nation.
Also, as a Mom who is often pulled in a million different directions, I wanted to do something significant and tangible for my kids to memorialize a particularly tough year. I had gotten pregnant and lost the baby, and suffered some health issues following that. Ultimately, I wanted to create a record of what we eat at home so the kids and maybe grandkids could someday enjoy recreating these meals, and celebrating a business that has become a huge part of our family story and history.
The book isn’t only a cookbook. It’s also a bit of the history of moonshining in Appalachia, and our personal moonshine success story.
Do you like to read cookbooks? If so, what are some of your favorites?
Yes. Any Ina Garten, Barefoot Contessa book is special to me. Since I’m not a classically trained chef, I really learned by trial and error, mostly from Ina’s books. I was given a few for my wedding, and each page of those original books is stained with my early kitchen efforts.
I also love Edna Lewis’s The Taste of Country Cooking. Her recipes and cooking methods are as pure and simple and fabulous as any I’ve ever tried.
What else do you like to read? What’s on your nightstand table right now – or next on your list?
My daughter read The Westing Game in school this year and begged me to read it, so I’m in the middle of that – it’s great! I read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine right before that and absolutely loved it. It may be my favorite book of the year so far. I’m about to re-read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, because we are going this summer to see it on Broadway.
How long have you lived in Nashville?
We moved to Nashville last summer, so not long at all! We’ve been coming here for years though. My Dad had a fraternity brother who started the Full Moon Bluegrass concept on his farm (Ted Walker), so my earliest memories of Nashville revolve around music and barns and being outside.
What do you like best about living here? Least?
We were so glad to move back to Tennessee! I love the food scene, music and we’ve been glad to find a great offering of hiking, camping and water activities. I guess if there’s anything to not like, it’s the traffic.
Do you miss living in the mountains?
There’s definitely something about the mountains that gets in your blood, but the great offerings of outdoor living in Nashville are a good distraction.
I’m a non-practicing lawyer as well. So I have to ask you a few questions about that. Did you practice? Are you glad you went to law school? Do you ever dream of practicing law again? Or would that be – a nightmare?
I worked as a prosecutor for a while and then helped Joe with our law practice off and on while I was having babies. I’m grateful for the education and experience. We often miss the practice of law and hope to do some legal work in the future.
Thank you so much for stopping in at Bacon today, Jessi! And for sharing a recipe below.
Do you want to try something that is SO extra??
Skillet-fried bacon is definitely my favorite version of bacon, but try adding some brown sugar, cayenne, and moonshine for a whole other level of bacon goodness.
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
4 tablespoons Ole Smoky White Lightnin’ Moonshine
4 tablespoons maple syrup
Black Pepper to taste
¼ teaspoon cayenne (optional)
1 pound thick cut bacon
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking pan with foil and put a cooling rack over it. The foil helps with clean up! Mix the brown sugar, Ole Smoky White Lightnin’ Moonshine, maple syrup, black pepper, and cayenne, if using, in a shallow bowl. Dredge each bacon slice on both sides through the sugar mixture.
Place the bacon on the rack and bake for 25 to 35 minutes, depending on the thickness of your bacon, until it’s browned and crisp. For extra flavor, pull the bacon out at about 20 minutes and baste it with the remaining sugar mixture. Return to the oven for the remaining 5 to 15 minutes of cooking time and serve while hot.
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Bonus photo from Dallas Wilt: