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Forty years ago, Irene Hayes put out the call for Kentucky’s best cooks to send their best recipes for publication in her cookbook.

Hayes, who was postmaster in her eastern Kentucky community of Hueysville, used her connections at post offices around the state to solicit the secrets of stack cakes and cream pies, corn puddings and risen biscuits.

Then, with the help of four daughters and several friends, she tested each submission.

“We’d work on everything,” recalls Hayes, who turned 88 in October. “There’s not a recipe in there we didn’t check out.”

She discovered that many of Kentucky’s best cooks never bothered to write down their recipes, but that didn’t stop her from publishing them.

“I went to people’s houses,” Hayes says from her current home in Lakeside Park in northern Kentucky. “I’d say, ‘I heard you make the best chicken and dumplings there ever was. I want your recipe.’ And they’d say, ‘I don’t measure anything.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, you’ve got to measure for me.’”

Then Hayes and the cook would head into the kitchen to determine the right amounts of flour and water for dumplings, or the right combinations of salt and green beans for pickled beans.

The experts would cook. Hayes would measure and record the recipes.

Those efforts became the foundation for What’s Cooking in Kentucky, the book that many people still call the bible of home cooking in Kentucky.

“Irene has got a lot of tried-and-true type recipes that everybody used and passed around,” says Sharon Thompson, food writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Thompson has kept the book in her kitchen for decades.

“It’s the one I use all the time when I’m looking for just a plain old, good Kentucky recipe,” she says.

The cookbook project, which began in 1965 as a fund-raiser to replace the roof on the Hueysville Church of Christ, also paid for a church bus, restrooms, and other projects.

But it’s Hayes’ enthusiasm for Kentucky cooking that has caused the book to endure, Thompson says.

Hayes has updated her self-published cookbook four times; the latest edition, copyrighted in 1994, features more than 800 recipes, along with the names and hometowns of the people who provided them.

She’s sold more than 200,000 copies of the book—many through state park gift shops. She also published a sequel, What’s Cooking for the Holidays, in 1984 that’s sold more than 20,000 copies.

And she still receives a handful of letters every few weeks from people in places from California to Canada asking about the cookbook.

“I’ve had people say they never cooked; their mother didn’t teach them,” Hayes says. “But they learned to cook from my cookbook. That’s what I love, and I get letters like that from all over the United States.”

A woman in Chicago wrote to tell about a former boyfriend who’d taken the cookbook to Ireland and used the recipes at a bed and breakfast.

After one meal, guests from France gave the B&B food a standing ovation, the letter writer said.

“And it was all from my cookbook,” Hayes says.

Another letter came from Kathy Prater, features editor for the Floyd County Times. More than a decade ago, Prater’s brother threw out one of their mother’s tattered, food-stained cookbooks, the kind that has scraps of paper with handwritten recipes stuffed within its pages.

One of those scraps contained the recipe for her father’s biscuit-like gingerbread.

Prater searched everywhere to replace it, but all she could find were recipes for cake-like gingerbread. Then she discovered the gingerbread in What’s Cooking in Kentucky. It produces a treat just like her dad’s.

“I was thrilled,” Prater says. “We’ve got it back in the family now thanks to that cookbook.”

Prater says What’s Cooking takes her back to her childhood. “It has a lot of recipes that my grandmother, aunts, and mother used to prepare,” she says. “As these people move on, unless you’ve gotten the recipes written down or in your head, you lose them.”

Hayes’ cookbook has saved recipes for corn sticks, salt-rising bread, and transparent pie. It’s recorded the directions for Hodgenville Ham Pudding, the entrée that the town’s woman’s club served to Dwight Eisenhower when he came to visit. (According to local legend, Eisenhower asked the ladies for their recipe and took it back to the White House.)

And it’s preserved the secrets to the cakes that Kentucky church women used to proudly share at potlucks and socials—jam cakes, pound cakes, and an old-fashioned stack cake with apple filling.

“That’s a recipe that people are always looking for was that stack cake,” Hayes says.

Hayes describes her recipes as authentic Kentucky creations, but she leaves it to her daughter, Sharon Claypool of Park Hills, to define the term.

“These are foods that have graced Kentucky tables for the last 100 or 200 years,” Claypool explains.

Personally, Hayes is most famous for her butterscotch pie. Her mother-in-law taught Hayes to make this Kentucky favorite and it quickly became a hit.

“People liked mine better than hers,” she says. “I think it was the homemade crust.” A good, flaky pie crust needs lard, she confides, dismissing any health-related objections to the ingredient.

But after years of following her mother-in-law’s recipe, Hayes decided to experiment.

“I’ll tell you what an expert cook is,” she says. “An expert will take a good recipe and improve it. I don’t count myself as an expert. But this one time, I was an expert.”

Her improvement was the addition of fresh brown sugar as the final step of the pudding. The results drew raves. “People would stand in line for a piece of my butterscotch pie,” she says. And though health problems prevent her from doing much cooking these days, her butterscotch pie remains the most popular dessert at family holidays, she says.

Hayes says the most frequently requested recipe is the pickled corn that’s included in the pickling and preserving section.

The reason “everyone says it’s better than anyone else’s” is because it calls for making a brine, rather than adding salt in the jar, she says.

“I don’t do any scraping,” she adds. “I just cut the corn off the cob and ooohhh, it’s the best thing you ever ate.”

Irene Hayes’ cookbooks sell for $22.95. They’re available through bookstores or from T.I. Hayes Publishing Co., P.O. Box 17352, Fort Mitchell, KY 41017. Shipping is $3.50 per book. For information, call (888) 280-3615.


Below is the butterscotch pie that Irene Hayes perfected from her mother-in-law’s recipe. The recipe is attributed to her daughter in the cookbook.

BEAT: 3 egg yolks

ADD: 2 cups milk

COMBINE and ADD to above:
1 cup brown sugar
6 scant Tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
Cook on medium heat until thick, stirring constantly. Cook until done.

4 Tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 or 2 Tablespoons fresh
brown sugar
Pour into baked pie shell.

TOP WITH meringue made from:
3 egg whites
3 Tablespoons sugar
Add sugar while egg whites are still frothy. Beat until stiff.

Bake slowly in 350° oven to eliminate watery meringue.

Ronda Hayes Knorr


Cookbook author Irene Hayes sees changes occurring in Kentucky kitchens. People don’t cook anymore. And she’s not happy about that.

“My soapbox is I want to get the word out to working mothers: ‘Your children need family-cooked meals,’” she says emphatically. “They DO NOT need fast foods. You know what they do to you,” she adds, using her hands to outline the shape of a large box.

“I tell you, the obesity problem with fast foods is absolutely terrible,” she continues.

Her prescription for staying slim: “Tonight, make up a casserole out of my cookbook. I’m not going to say any other cookbook because you don’t need any other. Put it in the refrigerator for tomorrow night. Soon as you get home from work, put that in the oven. You can have broccoli casserole and a small meat loaf. Make a little salad and bake some biscuits. You’ve got a meal.”

In addition to preventing obesity, a good home-cooked casserole can keep families together, Hayes says.

“Cooking is a big part of a family,” she insists. “All the family sitting down to a meal at one time. It’s important. Very important. Parents should early on make that a very important part of their life. But they don’t. Parents need to be educated. They need to be taught.”

And what better way to teach them than to pass on tried-and-true recipes.

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