Story by Allison Law; photos by Sincerely Shawna Photography
It started out simply. Brenda Hicks Gantt – retired educator, grandmother of five and seasoned home cook – set out to make a quick video to show some young women at her church how easy it is to make homemade biscuits.
With one hand in a flour bowl and her phone in the other, Gantt made a four-minute video, showing how to make what her late husband George called “two-bite biscuits.” She put the video on her personal Facebook page, and the church ladies were thrilled.
They shared the video, and then others shared it. In two weeks, it’d hit one million views.
Friends and newly-found fans started asking her to make other videos: how to make cornbread, or chicken and dumplings. A lifelong educator, she liked the idea of teaching others, so her son-in-law created a Facebook page for her, “Cooking with Brenda Gantt,” to keep the videos separate from her personal page. (She figured her local friends “don’t want to see all this stuff. They just know me as Brenda, who likes to cook.”)
The biscuit video was the first video posted. She doesn’t remember what the next one was, but it was just the beginning. The combination of her simple recipes, folksy charm and antiques-filled country kitchen struck a chord with fans of all ages. As of early August, her page had more than 800,000 followers.
That’s just since April.
Timing is everything
Gantt, a member of Covington Electric Cooperative, never expected her videos to take off. Her timing, though she couldn’t have predicted it, was exquisite. Stuck at home with little to do due to COVID-19, adults and children alike were discovering her down-home cooking style, served up with a side of humor and an appreciation for the treasures of life – like family and tradition – that sometimes seem to have escaped our modern society.
“I think the coronavirus, and it is a terrible thing, but I think good’s coming out of that too,” she says. “Families are learning that they can survive together in the house for more than a day, and they’re not rushing around to get to ball games and dance recitals.
“People are stuck inside, they’re bored, they’re watching videos on their phones, and I came up. And I was teaching them something. (And) they say they like my smile!”
Her style resonates with fans, many of whom say she reminds them of their grandmother. Melissa Gaines of Fort Payne says the biscuits video was the first one she watched and brought back sweet memories.
“(Her baking) is similar to how my Nanny made them,” Gaines says. “I’d give anything to be back in that kitchen with her, and Mrs. Gantt’s cooking takes me back.”
The COVID-19 situation may have had another consequence that has widened her popularity, though sadly so. “I think there’s a lot of lonely people out there,” she says, noting that many older folks may not have a spouse to share their days with, and they are likely isolated by restrictions on dining out and church gatherings. “I think they’re hurting and lonely, and they need to know how to cook. I think that’s it. It’s not my cooking, and it’s not my recipes. They can look in a book and get a recipe. It’s the interaction they’re craving.”
And she talks right to the viewers. While doing the more monotonous chores, like chopping vegetables or working dough, her sunny nature fills the time. “What have y’all been doing today?” Or, “Did y’all do your Bible study today?”
Or she shares what she’s been up to: Maybe she’s getting ready to have dinner with her daughter and her family, who are just a golf-cart ride through the woods; or perhaps she’s been to “The Pig” and saw some friends while stocking up on buttermilk, shortening and self-rising flour, the only ingredients needed for her now-famous biscuits. Usually, she makes the videos all by herself, with the help of a holder for her smartphone. Every so often, one of her granddaughters helps out.
The viewers feel like she’s talking to them, and they love it. “The other day I told them, ‘I burned this, and it’s your fault!’” she laughs. “I was so busy talking I burned the cornbread.”
Seriously though, she does feel a responsibility to her fans. “My prayer has always been, and it still is, to help me be a good influence on the people that I meet. That is important, to be a positive influence, and I’ve always asked God to give me that.”
Creating a community
Gantt now realizes that not everyone had the same kind of upbringing she did; she learned to cook from her mother, who she says was “an excellent cook.”
“If she was in the kitchen, she made me be there. I may be sitting at the table, or stirring something, or shucking corn. I may not be cooking, but I had to be in the kitchen.” She raised her children the same way, and now her grandchildren, too, who all know how to cook.
But she had no idea that people didn’t know things that are second nature to her: The difference between all-purpose and self-rising flour. How to properly fry vegetables. Or how to cut up a chicken.
“I’m not trying to perform; I’m actually trying to help them to cook. It’s not hard. But so many have written and said, they didn’t ask their grandmother what to do, and their mother didn’t let them in the kitchen.”
They feel like they’ve known her all their lives, and they tell her so. Any one of her videos can easily garner 30,000 “likes” and 10,000 comments. She tries to read as many as she can, but she can’t answer them all.
Many of the comments are personal and touching. “If somebody’s in a problem situation, like they have cancer, (they say) that I really cheer up their day. Or they’re not able to walk because they’ve had a stroke, (they say), please don’t quit videoing, because it makes our day. They say they tune in every morning, because they want to see if I’m on there yet. They call me ‘Miss Sunshine.’ Just sweet. They write sweet stuff, they really do.”
It’s surprised her a bit that her fans have sort of created their own community, and she encourages the interaction. If someone has a question, often another fan will chime in with an answer or suggestion.
Even with so many Facebook followers, she resists the idea that she’s a social media influencer, even though just a small mention in a video can cause a sensation. Her mention of a particular meat seasoning, created by some friends of hers, sparked such a demand that the company couldn’t keep up with orders.
As for the future, Gantt is modest, and is committed to staying near her family and her home, which she and George built nearly 50 years ago. “I’m just going to cook. I’m just going to keep on doing what I’m doing.” Asked if she’s considered doing a cookbook or some other venture, she says she’ll have to think hard about that.
The sudden notoriety has taken some getting used to.
“I’ve only been doing it for two months,” she laughs. “I’ve got to adjust to it. It may just blow over. You know? And that’s OK too! This is OK. Any way it goes, it’s all right with me.”
She references God, which she often does in her videos. “As long as we’re in His will, and doing what His will is, He’s going to bless it and everything will be fine. It’s when we get out of His will that things fall apart. So I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”
A new chapter
Brenda Gantt, 73, may be retired, but she’s far from the rocking chair. “People ask me how I have so much energy. But the fact is, energy begets energy. If you sit, it’s not going to work.”
She and her late husband, George, both loved antiques and collected them all their lives. After she retired as an elementary school teacher, they opened an antiques store in a structure near their Covington County home.
After Hurricane Opal stressed the trees on their property, they decided to use the wood to build Hickory Ridge Lodge, which became a popular venue for weddings, reunions and other events. For one event, Gantt cooked for 350 guests – and did all the cooking herself.
Then they decided to open the Cottle House www.hickoryridgelodge.com/cottle-house as a bed-and-breakfast, and business has picked up since Gantt started doing the videos. And she runs it all by herself – handling the bookings, entertaining the guests, cooking and cleaning.
“We really worked our whole lives,” she says. She closed the antiques store after George died in 2018; her heart just wasn’t in it anymore. But that was just the beginning of a new chapter.
“I loved teaching when I taught, I loved doing the weddings when I did that, I love what I’m doing now,” she says. “Life changes. You’ve got to roll with it. You’re either going down or you’re going up, but you’re never staying the same. You’ve got a choice of how you want to face it.”