Sites We Love: Local Milk

Gorgeous photos? Check. Engaging writing? Check. Seriously inspiring recipes, tips, and culinary curiosity? Check, check, and check. The best food blogs all seem to have a lot in common—but what separates them out are the strong personalities behind them. In our Sites We Love series, we sit down with some of our favorite bloggers to find out how they do it—and why it’s as much fun for them as it is for us.

Local Milk Blog
Local Milk Blog

Today's Site We Love is Local Milk, where Tennessee-based Beth Kirby dreams up distinctly Southern dishes. Prolific, romantic, and moody, Beth's writing and photographs go far beyond mere recording of ingredient measurements and cooking techniques. Rather, she uses food to weave stories of people and place. Here's what Beth has to say about her site:

Blog Name: Local Milk

Live since: April 2012

Post Rate: About once a week these days.

Geographic location: Chattanooga, TN

Why is the site called "Local Milk"?: The name was inspired by an impossibly sweet glass of raw milk and Jeff Mangum (of the band Neutral Milk Hotel). I was listening to the album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea for the blue billionth time (I'm stuck in my ways), drinking the aforementioned glass of milk, and trying to think up a name. Naturally, given the circumstances, "Local Milk" came to me; it has a simplicity, lilt, and metaphor that I love. The word "local" means so much more to me than its stock semi-political association. It's about living in the moment and cooking with a sense of place and time, about the flavor of being exactly where you are when you're there. I find when I eat with the seasons I'm more grounded, and it helps me experience life instead of think it. The word "milk", that building block of mammalian life and our very first food, is a metaphor for sustenance in all its forms: physical, emotional, spiritual, creative, and intellectual. You can find so many of those, not just the physical, around the table. So, in short, the name "Local Milk" is just about being present and finding sustenance right where you are.

What's been your most popular post? As of right now, it's the Salted, Spicy Double Chocolate Cookies, but the Naked Coconut Tres Leches Cake with the story of my engagement is nipping at its heels. We all love our sweets and love stories, what can I say. As to the sweets, I can't choose between the two either. I'd like one of each, please.

What's your favorite post? My favorite post, aesthetically, is the Cornmeal Brown Butter Scones with Lavender Peach Curd; I'm really happy with how the recipe, writing, and photography turned out. I like the mood of that post. That said, my most rewarding post would have to be Curried Kabocha Squash Soup & "No Time" Bread. The soup is comforting, the bread a near miracle, and I was just starting to hit my stride with my photography style. But none of those reasons are why I love that post. I love it because I wrote it for a roommate of mine who passed away, my roommate in treatment to be exact. It was the post in which I opened up about my past as an alcoholic and addict, and that post confirmed for me that the unnerving practice of being transparent about those things is worth it. I received an outpouring of comments and emails from addicts and the loved ones of addicts; I had no idea that it would move people like it did. I am, along with countless others, living proof that hope is not unfounded, that addicts can and do recover, and any fear I may have about sharing that openly is calmed by the knowledge that it gives people comfort. If I went from dive bar to farmers' market, anyone can.

What's something great that you've learned or that's happened to you since starting your blog? Well, there's the obvious, crazy thing: I ended up making it to lucky number 13 on the television show Masterchef! That's something that would've never happened if it weren't for the blog, though I most certainly didn't start down this path looking to be praised (but mostly screamed at) by Gordon Ramsay. But honestly, that's not the most exciting thing that's happened since I started blogging by a long shot. The opportunities to work on projects I love and collaborate with people I respect—from beginning the process of writing my first cookbook to hosting Kinfolk workshops here in Tennessee to my freelance work—that's been the truly great part. The food blogging community is full of some of the most wildly talented and ridiculously kind people I've ever met, and I owe so many dear friends to blogging. I've done everything from share cake and tea in Ireland to pick strawberries in Tennessee to lunch in Brooklyn with friends (and friends of friends!) I've met through this crazy enterprise. As to what I've learned...I learned photography! Fact: I'd never picked up a camera before a year and a half ago. I've studied relentlessly, shot constantly, and discovered a passion & career I might have never known.

What's the usual process for developing one of your posts? I look out the window. I get hungry. I crave. I go to the market. I rifle through my pantry. I think of my grandmother's ramshackle kitchen. I lie awake at night. The creation of a post isn't an exact science; I never have a perfect plan. Usually, I either have some culinary fixation (for instance right now I'm obsessed with homemade ricotta cheesecake) or I'll find something beautiful and unique at the market—like figs near bursting or golden, heirloom cucumbers—that inspires me. Then I usually think a) how can I make this different and b) how can I make this Southern? After the recipe idea has taken shape, I'll take to cooking (during which the recipe will invariably morph) and making an ungodly mess in the kitchen. That part is intuitive for me, the cooking and mess making. I'm very good at both. I then proceed to alternately stand on tables and roll around on the floor taking photos. Then I sit down, stare at the blank screen, loathe myself a healthy amount (a requisite part of my writing routine), and then set about penning the post. I try to bring life into my posts; I don't just write about food. I do that because I think it's all one thing. Everything is interconnected, and sometimes a story about homesickness might say more about beignets than talking about beignets. That might sound strange. But it's my general philosophy. And somehow out of all that chaos emerges a cohesive piece—the process takes me days. I try to look at posts as humble little works of art; I put a lot into every single one.

What are your favorite ingredients and tools? If it's wild, weird, or Southern, chances are, I love it. Personal favorites? Aside from my sorghum fetish, pig fat and my digital scale. And Cruze Farm's buttermilk, Sequatchie Cove's Dancing Fern cheese, and all of the unique produce—from Gravenstein apples to stinging nettles to Egyptian walking onions—from my favorite stall at the farmers' market. I also have a soft spot for lovage, country ham, cornmeal, cardamom, purslane, lavender, sorrel, and garlic scapes. Not together. Butter, flour, sugar. And nothing compares to an egg or a very sharp knife. Mint, parsley, and celery leaf are all severely underrated. And I don't care to do without a stand mixer, my ceramic mandoline, wooden spoons, a fine mesh strainer, a digital candy and oil thermometer, and—but of course—my cast iron skillet.

What are your favorite food and cooking resources (books, stores, etc.)? I'm a food science nerd at heart and therefore a complete fool for Michael Ruhlman—total fangirl here. I think every cook should own Ratio & Ruhlman's Twenty. They teach you the sort of things you need to know to throw off the shackles of recipes & be creative. Aside from those, I love The Flavor Bible, the writings of M.F.K. Fisher, and Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking. I also happen to really love it whenever Virginia Woolf writes about food; she's probably made me a better cook in her way too. I don't use cookbooks so much for recipes as inspiration (though I keep meaning to cook out of them more!), and some of my favorites to read like novels are anything and everything by Thomas Keller, Julia Child, and Alice Waters as well as The Blackberry Farm's cookbooks, Faviken, Frank Stitt's The Southern Table, Hugh Acheson's A New Turn In the South, and Polpo. I'm also a magazine reader, and I currently really enjoy Kinfolk, Gather, and Lucky Peach. As for stores, I'm covetous of everything in Food52's new store Provisions, and I often find myself staring longingly at Father Rabbit and Herriot Grace.

What photography equipment do you use? I shoot the blog and most of my commissioned work with a Canon 5D Mark III with a 50mm 1.4 lens, and I do some personal work with a Pentax K1000 with a 50mm lens. I have a wish list a mile long. Most wanted: an L-series 50mm 1.2 lens & a Mamiya c220 to learn medium format on.

Where else can we find your work? You can find more of my non-blog related photography from various projects in my portfolio, and currently, I have pieces coming out in the fall issue of Spenser Magazine as well as the winter issue of Home & Hill, a beautiful, new Tennessee quarterly. You can also find me on Food52 where I write a column, Seasonal Southern Cooking.

What food blogs do you follow? I follow a lot of food blogs; it comes with the territory. I started a blog because I love to read them. That said, you know that a site is special when you're awash in a veritable sea of them and it still manages to really stand out. The following blogs don't simply give excellent recipes (they do) but also tell stories through their images, words, and flavors. The Vanilla Bean Blog, Happyolks, Dash and Bella, and {farmette} to feel at home. Brave Tart and Poires au Chocolat for inspired baking. The First Mess, My Darling Lemon Thyme, and Lemon Fire Brigade for bright, fresh photography and flavors. Nothing but Delicious, Honey & Jam, and For the Love of the South for beautiful Southern food & photos. Hungry Ghost, Manger, Little Upside Down Cake, and Always with Butter for beautiful moods and inspired light and styling. So much talent and endless inspiration in that bunch.

What is one thing that sets your site apart from others? What sets my site apart is the only thing that can set any work apart: my voice. You either use your own voice or you don't. If you do, that will be the one thing you have that no one else does. If you don't, mediocrity is almost guaranteed. A voice, a vision, a style—it's an ever evolving part of yourself, and finding it is a lifelong process that never ends. My particular voice, at present, is raw, Southern, off-kilter, and lyric. I don't know that those are characteristics you often find in food blogs, and those traits, I hope, come through in all that I do, the cooking and photography as well as the writing. I'm vigilant about keeping my own strange poetry in my work, even if that work is baked goods. Lucky for me, there's strange poetry in everything. Even biscuits. Especially biscuits.

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