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Oral Histories

The SFA oral history program documents life stories from the American South. Collecting these stories, we honor the people whose labor defines the region. If you would like to contribute to SFA’s oral history collections, please send your ideas for oral history along with your CV or Resume and a portfolio of prior oral history work to annemarie@southernfoodways.org.

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Karen Barker

Magnolia Grill

Along with her husband Ben, Karen Barker was co-proprietor of Magnolia Grill in Durham, North Carolina. Together, they chose towalk away from the restaurant business, shutting the doors of this beloved neighborhood restaurant in 2012.

Karen has been named the best party chef in America by a number of different organizations. But she isn’t wholly comfortable with the title. Karen prefers to be called a baker.

Her repertoire, honed over two decades in the kitchen, includes pink grapefruit soufflé tarts, key lime coconut pie, blackberry slump with sweet potato dumplings, and bourbon peach cobbler with cornmeal cream biscuits. She works in the American vernacular, resurrecting desserts that have fallen out of favor, gently reinventing sweets that have, through the years, become clichéd. Along with celebrating these dishes in her restaurant, she offers them in her book, Sweet Stuff: Karen Barker’s American Desserts.

Among her talents is a way with pie. She wields a rolling pin with authority. Karen’s model is crafted from oak and recalls, in girth and weight, the trunk from which it was hewn. She does not roll it across the dough until she has a crust of sufficient circumference to fit a pie plate. Karen beats that dough, cocking her body like a spring-loaded jackhammer built to mete out punishment, slamming the pin down with such force that the ball bearings within the pin chime and the table beneath the crust shudders.

Date of interview:
2005-01-19 00:00

Dean McCord, SFA member


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The Southern Foodways Alliance drives a more progressive future by leading conversations that challenge existing constructs, shape perspectives, and foster meaningful discussions. We reconsider the past with research, scrutiny, and documentation.


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