Many of our friends and neighbors who fluently speak the language of baking and basting are quick to count a wooded campus off Lakeshore Drive as vital to their journeys in the world of food. Within its three glass-walled buildings they tested recipes, wrote or filmed tales of barbecue and biscuits, and formed lifelong friendships while working for national brands like Southern Living, Cooking Light, Southern Accents, Coastal Living, Cottage Living, Health, Oxmoor House books, MyRecipes.com and Food & Wine.
Over the years many of them taken their talents beyond the publishing world of what is now Meredith Corporation (formerly Southern Progress Corporation and Time Inc.) to transform our city with their creativity and business acumen in innovative ways. Here we highlight a few of those folks who are making waves in the world of food. They are all quick to sing the praises of their season in magazine work and all it taught them—and all the more so that of all of people they worked with.
Mary Drennen and Tiffany Vickers Davis
Now: Co-Founders of Nourish
Then: Cooking Light Test Kitchen Professional, 2004-2009 (Mary); Cooking Light Test Kitchen Professional & Director, 2001-2014 (Tiffany)
Photo by Rob Culpepper
Mary and Tiffany first became friends testing recipe after healthy recipe for home cooks for Cooking Light magazine. They didn’t know then that they’d still be working in the kitchen—and running their own business—a decade and a half later. “We had no idea (Nourish) was the foundation we were building,” Mary says today.
The duo had started their own catering company while they were still at Cooking Light, and after Mary left to start a food delivery company that delivered to Iron Tribe locations, she brought Tiffany, who calls Homewood home, on board to start their own brand, Nourish. Today the food delivery business employs about 40 people and delivers 4,000-6,000 meals per week. About 60 percent of their clients are in Birmingham, and another 40 are spread throughout the country.
“We provide healthy meals that are more convenient than cooking yourself,” Tiffany says. “We utilize the same skill set of developing healthy recipes of familiar foods. There was a lot of development possibility then and there is now.”
Nourish’s strongest base is in the Southeast, and their menus are planned accordingly. Customers especially love their Shrimp & Grits made with cauliflower grits, and their Stuffed Sweet Potato with pulled pork, bacon and a homemade diary-free ranch. “We love to use the Southern flare and are from the South,” Tiffany says. “We (also) focus our efforts in the Southeast because we feel like our food appeals most to a Southern palate and it’s most cost-efficient to get it to them.”
Above all, their niche comes from their background not as business people (though they’ve learned that too) but as chefs and test kitchen professionals. “We understand the food and product,” Tiffany says. “Our menu changes weekly, and you might not see the same item for six weeks. We want to engage them with different flavors and recipes.”
Now: Head of Content for eMeals
Then: Assistant Food Editor & Food Editor & Executive Editor for Southern Living, 1999-2010
Photo by Lindsey Culver
Scott fondly recalls his role as food editor at Southern Living (and the first male to hold that title in the magazine’s then 50-plus-year history) sending him to meet a second-generation shrimper and his family in South Louisiana. There he came to understand the shrimper’s culture and cooking traditions to share in the pages of the magazine. “It encapsulated everything I loved about my job there, which was meeting Southerners and people doing fantastic things with food,” he recalls.
Although his current job doesn’t send him to interview shrimpers, in other ways the vision longtime Southern Living editor John Floyd explained to Scott when he interviewed for a job at the magazine in 1999 wasn’t all that different from when he interviewed with Forrest Collier, CEO of eMeals, more than a decade later. “It’s taking my passion and expertise around food and wine and entertaining and delivering that in a context that’s meaningful to real people and real home kitchens,” Scott explains. The main difference is simply that the eMeals, a recipe subscription service, is digital instead of print.
Today Scott heads up a team of recipe developers, many of them former Southern Progress editors and test kitchen professionals, to create 15 different styles of menu plans each week for eMeals. “It’s still helping people who hate hearing, ‘What’s for dinner?’ at 5:00 with simple recipes that give them healthy nutritious meals,” he says, only they are also “linking in next generation ways so people can activate through delivery and pickup at their favorite grocery stores.”
Scott still thinks back often on what he learned from folks at Southern Living too. “My time working with John Floyd was critical in shaping the way I viewed the importance of understanding your audience,” he says. “The same unwavering dedication to the needs of the audience (is the same as) here the subscribers of meal plans. That was something that John tried to stress at every level and pressed into me as a foundational element: always remember the reader and meet them where they are.”
Jan Jacks Potter
Now: Dreamcakes Owner
Then: Test Kitchen Professional & Food Stylist for Oxmoor House, Southern Living, Cooking Light and Southern Accents, 1998-2005
Photo by Lindsey Culver
Jan has never been a stranger to kitchens. As she tested recipes daily for national magazines, she always gravitated toward baking and desserts, and soon was baking cakes on the side for coworkers and then as a business. She’d also started decorating cakes when her kids were young—and then it “took over her life,” she says. That’s when she decided to make cakes a business of her own full-time. “It was a tough choice because I loved working (at Southern Progress), and the people were great,” she says. “If you like to cook, it was the dream job of course because that’s all we did all day long.”
The magazine world was not just about cooking but about presentation and styling too—a skill set Jan brought with her to her bakery. “You learn to have an eye for detail and make things look beautiful, so when I started Dreamcakes, a lot of attention was paid to not only how good it should taste (but what it looks like too). I always say you taste with your eyes first. We also came up with catchy names of our cupcakes reminiscent of a catchy name of a recipe.”
Today Dreamcakes still makes its home on Oxmoor Road adjacent to Saw’s BBQ, started by another former Southern Progress test kitchen professional, Mike Wilson. There her staff bakes up countless cakes and cupcakes—for weddings, birthdays, gender reveals and more. They also create special cakes for O’Henry’s and one for each baby that is born at Brookwood Hospital.
Through it all, Jan has been no stranger to her old stomping grounds, as she has written two cookbooks, one on cupcakes and one on pies, for Southern Progress/Time. Inc.’s book publishing division, Oxmoor House.
Now: Back Sheep Kitchen Owner
Then: Southern Living Cooking School, Cooking Light & Southern Living Freelancer and Senior Food Editor, 1998-2015
Photo by Patrick McGough
Julie Grimes started her career in food in New York City, where she attended culinary school and to worked at Union Square Café. “It was very stuffy and restaurant-driven in the New York food scene,” she recalls. Then she came South, closer to her Texas roots, though, and replaced her customers with the readers of Southern Living and Cooking Light magazines, where she developed and tested recipes and wrote and edited food stories. “I had to learn to shape my recipe development and my food framework to be geared not so much for a restaurant audience or heavy foodie but more in terms of what people are doing to go eat on a Wednesday night—things people actually cook at home and put on their dinner table,” she says.
And so when she opened her gourmet take-out food store in Crestline Village in 2015, Julie knew those recipes, too, should be grounded in familiarity. “In a restaurant you are paying for an experience and things you wouldn’t do at home,” she explains. “When you eat a home, people tend to make things they are familiar with because, like I am at my house, you are trying to please a range of food preferences.” That’s why you’ll find Chicken Pot Pie, Pork and Grits, and casseroles on her menu at Black Sheep Kitchen—all with a new twist in what Julie hopes is the best version of the dish her customers have had.
“Every bit of that goes back to working at Southern Living and Cooking Light for years,” she says. “When I first started off, I wanted to introduce new ingredients, but I learned it’s more important to make a good solid dish that won’t be a gamble to see if everyone at my house will like it. I draw on that lesson every day here in this business.”
Since leaving the magazines, Julie has seen the network of former magazine staff at work too, and it’s carried to multiple generations. One of her staff members is the son of one of her former magazine colleagues, and she keeps in close touch with Mary Drennen and Tiffany Vickers Davis at Nourish, who have also hired the son of a former team magazine team member. “It’s been amazing to me how deep the ties bind (are),” she says. “We all keep up with each other and encourage each other.”
Now: Ash Owner & Executive Chef
Then: Time Inc. Food Studios Coordinator and Recipe Tester and Developer, 2016-2018
Photo by Emma Simmons
When Mark started at Time Inc., he already had earned his chops as sous chef at Highlands Bar and Grill and kitchen manager at Bottega Café, and he had helped open Brick & Tin in Mountain Brook. But that didn’t mean he didn’t learn a ton at Time. Inc. as he helped open and run their then-new Food Studios that brought together the test kitchens into a hub for all the magazine brands in 2015. Along the way he got to develop food articles on subjects like ribs or crab for Southern Living, watching as his ideas were cooked and photographed and came out in print.
More so than his restaurant tenure, that world of magazines exposed Mark to a wide range of cuisines and chefs and trends, as well as the difference between a home recipe and a chef recipe. “When you write recipes that are tested and scrutinized, you start to understand amounts better,” he says. “We would joke that chefs are the worst recipe writers, and you’d have to translate what they were doing inside their kitchen where they don’t really measure.” All that exposure was a major player when Mark opened his own restaurant, Ash, across from Patriot Park in West Homewood, in the summer of 2018. Their grilled Brussels sprouts—on trend with what he was seeing in the magazines—sell even more than Fried Green Tomatoes.
And instead of firing up the grill for Southern Living now, he uses his wood fire technique for dishes like their burger and top-selling Barbecue Chicken and Grits. “The wood fired experience tries to keep the food simple and let it speak for itself, but it presents it in a way that preserves the ingredients as much as possible even when it goes over fire,” he says.
His work with social media managers for the full suite of Time Inc. brands—Southern Living, Coastal Living, Food & Wine, People, Health, Real Simple and MyRecipes—also taught him the importance of not just posting to social media but in creating high quality content that has fueled how he has marketed his restaurant. “We get followers from Australia or the UK with the right hashtag,” he says.
Now: Registered Dietician + Blogger at Cleverful Living
Then: Oxmoor House Assistant Food Editor, Southern Living Food Assistant Food Editor, MyRecipes.com & CookingLIght.com Food Editor, 2002-2013
Photo by Carli Best
A dietician by training, Holley started her career like many at Southern Progress, behind the pages of Weight Watchers and Cooking Light cookbooks, and later healthy living columns and recipes for Southern Living. But then she discovered the camera, and not too many years later she’d been on more than 600 “Dinner Tonight” videos for MyRecipes.com, the hub website for all the Southern Progress brands. All along she was working with recipes and food photography, but the more she did camera work, the more she became a spokesperson for the publishing company’s brands, flying from coast to coast with her crockpot and appearing on the Today Show, CBS Early Show, Fox and Friends, and TBS Movie and a Makeover.
Today her work is similar, only she works for herself under the brand Cleverful Living. More than 28,000 people follow @holleygrainger on Instagram for her #healthylittlelunchbox ideas along with other tips for food and family and fun. “It’s me just trying to share what (my family is) doing, the good time and bad times, lunch box or meal wins and fails, parenting ups and downs,” she says. And her audience as a mom and dietician is one that national brands want to reach too, which feeds into her other professional role as a spokesperson, video talent, recipe developer and blogger and more for food brands and organizations like McCormick spices, Egglands’s Best Eggs and the National Dairy Council
And in it all she has the flexibility to spend more time with her daughters Ellie and Frances and invite them to take part of her work on camera. “We do a lot of Facebook lives and they have fun being in the kitchen with me and being on camera with me,” Holley says. “They see what Mommy does and are learning more about food and becoming more comfortable in the kitchen–and trying to become more adventurous eaters.”
Now: The Market at Pepper Place Executive Director
Then: SPC Digital Video Studio Director & Time Inc. Lifestyle Video Group Executive Producer, 2007-2015
Photo by Leisa Cole
At the start of Leigh’s tenure at what was then Southern Progress Corporation, her team’s goal was to produce 100 videos in a year for Southern Living, Cooking Light, Health, Oxmoor House and MyRecipes.com. Eight years later, they were producing 1,200 videos a year for those brands plus Food & Wine and Travel & Leisure, and they’d seen the advent of social media videos and countless other changes in the media landscape.
“We created content that was really beautiful and impactful,” Leigh says. “Our ‘how to make a cauliflower pizza crust’ how-to video on YouTube got like 40 million views, which was absolutely insane and thrilling.” After all, only a year or two beforehand they’d been happy to get a couple of thousands views on a video.
Along the way, Leigh had interacted a lot with the food world, so when she later came on board with the Market at Pepper Place, she already knew what farmers were producing in the South. The parallels between the jobs don’t end there either. For her producing a market is not unlike producing a weekly show. As the market’s executive producer of sorts, on Saturday mornings you’ll find her making sure the chef doing the cooking demonstration is being taken care of, or when a special guest like Andrew Zimmern is walking around market that he gets to meet all the right people. She also still exercises her muscles as a storyteller on digital communication platforms and in fundraising.
Under Leigh’s leadership, the market season has been extended to year round except for winter holidays, and they have started a grant-funded program with SNAP that allows market vendors to accept food stamps, with the bigger goal to encourage people from all over the city and county to the market. “That helps the market be a truer reflection of what our community is and should be,” she says.
And through it all she gets to meet people at the forefront of new directions and “to experience the agony and ecstasy when people start these new business,” Leigh says. But, perhaps best of all, she gets to intersect with the “network of incredibly high caliber people” she worked with at SPC/Time Inc. Some of them—like food stylist Anna Kelly who owns sheep’s milk farm Dayspring Dairy sheep’s milk and recipe developer Laura Zapalowski who owns Homewood Gourmet with her husband—are guaranteed to be there week after week, too.
Now: Jones Valley Teaching Farm Executive Director
Then: Southern Living Intern, Health Magazine Editorial Assistant & Assistant Editor, Cooking Light Marketing Coordinator/Manager, 2001-2008
Photo by Cary Norton
Much of Amanda’s work for Southern Progress brands was spent travelling all over the country, meeting people and exploring “incredible initiatives.” For a Fit House that Cooking Light built, part of her job was exploring a farming community outside Atlanta called Serenbe. On the West Coast she got to see unique food bank programs, green initiatives and other nonprofits doing “big things.” “I thought, ‘Gosh, that was really cool! Why aren’t’ we doing that in Birmingham?’ But we were but I didn’t know it,” she recalls.
And then when she was laid off from Southern Progress in 2008, Amanda started to explore her backyard in Birmingham in new ways. Pretty quickly she called up Edwin Marty, a former garden editor at Southern Living who had started Jones Valley Urban Farm, and began to volunteer for them and do marketing work in exchange for a box of food. She went on to work for the Community Food Bank and United Way of Central Alabama before becoming Jones Valley’s executive director in 2015, all along using the know-how she learned working in editing and marketing magazines she credits for her subsequent work.
Today she’s running a nonprofit that has become a national model folks from all over the country call her about. Most people are familiar with Jones Valley’s 3-acre teaching farm in downtown Birmingham, but they also run six teaching farms on Birmingham City Schools campuses that implement standards-based curriculum through culinary arts. “We use the power of growing food as a foundation for learning and growing as young people,” Amanda says.
Amanda considers herself less of a gardener than an advocate for the “culture of food and what it does for communities and for friendships”—now with a passion for creating more equitable access to good food. But the know-how she learned answering reader letters with gardening questions as an intern at Southern Living certainly doesn’t hurt either.