When she was a girl, Barbara Swell would watch her grandmother Maudie bake sugar cookies, pumpkin raisin cookies, string beans, and chicken and biscuits in her sunlit West Virginia kitchen.

As the older woman cooked, always by instinct rather than recipe, Swell would take notes in a small notebook her mother had given her for that purpose, recording details like when to sift in the flour and how much was in a “pinch,” along with bits of grandmotherly wisdom.

“She had a made-from-scratch life,” Swell says, recalling Maudie’s homesteading ways. “She was my inspiration for hominess, making do, and doing it myself.”

Swell never lost the pioneer spirit she developed by her grandmother’s side. For the past decade, in fact, she has spread it to the world, offering old-time cooking classes from the 1930s log cabin on her five-acre property in Asheville.

Focusing on lessons like how to make heirloom pumpkin pies, cornmeal dumplings, jams, and chowchow, Log Cabin Cooking classes meet around Swell’s 1928 Home Comfort wood-burning cookstove, fireplace, or a campfire out back, all of which she values for the challenges they present, and for their simplicity.

“I like the era when people really thought about how they were doing things,” Swell says. “I think Hamburger Helper endangered a lot of cooking. People really long for from-scratch food and roots cooking, the kind of family cooking that was steeped in generations of people who cooked.”

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Cheerful and cozy, Swell’s log cabin kitchen appears to have come straight from a bygone era. Brightly colored feed-sack aprons — which she lends to students for class — hang from white hooks against one wall. Colorful bowls line the shelves above the sink, rolling pins fill a basket by the cupboard, and cast-iron pans of all shapes and sizes cover the stovetop. Outside the back window, Swell’s garden thrives, and sheets on the laundry line blow in the breeze.

“I really like vintage tools and gizmos. This is for beating your egg,” she says, handing over a crankless eggbeater that spins a quarter turn and back when you mash the end against a hard surface, like the bottom of a bowl. “You have to try that; it’s very satisfying.”

Though Swell’s classes teach the secret to flaky piecrusts and the best way to cook herbed pesto chicken over a campfire, what she cares about most is that people sit down, without distraction, to eat with the people they love.

Quality ingredients prepared thoughtfully are important, but when it comes down to it, she says, “We’re mostly about the gathering.”


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Christina Cooke is a freelance writer and editor living in Durham. She teaches journalism and nonfiction writing in the documentary studies programs at Duke University and Lewis & Clark College. Find more of her archived stories here.