Phila Hach, Who Spread The Gospel Of Southern Cuisine, Dies At 89

Dec 4, 2015
Originally published on December 4, 2015 6:44 pm

A Southern cooking pioneer has died in her native Tennessee. Phila Rawlings Hach hosted the first television cooking show in the South, evangelizing the virtues of Southern cuisine. She went on to become a cookbook author, restaurateur, innkeeper and catering chef to politicians and military flights.

Hach died Wednesday at the age of 89, according to her son, Joe Hach.

"What the Grand Ole Opry did for country music, she has done for Southern food," wrote food writer Betty Fussell in 2009. She said Hach spread "the gospel of simple country cooking in a seductive Tennessee voice that has drawn the world to Nashville."

Long before it was trendy to have a Southern drawl, sip bourbon from silver cups, and plate down-home country cooking, Phila Hach was serving barbecue and turnip greens to United Nations delegates. It was 1976, and the U.N. gathering was taking place at Nashville's Centennial Park, where alcohol is prohibited.

Nonetheless, Hach smuggled in 1,700 mint juleps so that dignitaries could sample the "best damn bourbon in the world," as Hach later put it. Made with Tennessee's Jack Daniel's Black Label, no doubt — Hach had state troopers ferry the bourbon from Lynchburg to the state capital. She then commandeered the local Coca-Cola bottling plant to make and freeze the cocktails in the middle of the night before the U.N. event.

Another time, Hach commandeered a grocery store bakery to make 300 chess pies, when, on her way to cater an event for Roots author Alex Haley, she forgot to pack dessert.

Hach was known for her biscuits, Sunday suppers and prolific pie-making, but her first career was as a flight attendant in the postwar 1940s. Food was in the picture even then. During her international travels, Hach soaked in different cuisines, even talking her way into famous kitchens, such as the Savoy in London and the Hotel Georges V in Paris, to learn new techniques. She helped create early airline menus.

In 1950, Nashville TV station WSM recruited Hach to host Kitchen Kollege, the South's first cooking show. She wrote her first cookbook based on the program, and later authored 16 more, including recipe collections for Opryland USA, the Cracker Barrel chain, and the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville.

She and her husband, Adolph Hach (now deceased), opened a bed and breakfast inn in Clarksville, Tenn., that drew a wide variety of famous customers, including Howard Baker, Oprah Winfrey, Conway Twitty, Henry Kissinger and Duncan Hines.

John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, says Hach's long life was "a showcase of the South's better instincts." Edge calls Hach a pioneer in air travel, food service and broadcast television. "She drove the reinvention of our region," he says.

"Here's this small-town Tennessee woman curious about the world, and she saw food as the way to explore the world and understand other people," Edge says.

The SFA honored Hach this October with its Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award. In a short film to mark the occasion, Hach is seen wearing a bright floral apron, sitting at her long dining room table while telling stories from seven decades of cooking. Love the name "Phila," she says in the video, "because it means love." She described herself as a "bold woman of conviction."

Hach's family still operates a retreat center she started in rural Joelton, Tenn. In recent years, Hach worked to help Kurdish refugees learn the food business.

"I let moments empower my life," Hach told SFA filmmaker Joe York. "All we have is the moment."

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Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

A Southern cooking pioneer has passed away in her native Tennessee. Phila Rawlings Hach hosted the first television cooking show set in the South. She went on to become a cookbook author, innkeeper and chef. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports she died Wednesday at the age of 89.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Long before it was trendy to have a southern drawl, sip bourbon from silver cups and plate up down-home country cooking, Phila Hach was serving barbecue and turnip greens to United Nations delegates and most certainly in her no-frills way.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PHILA")

PHILA HACH: I'm what you see - nothing more, nothing less, and my name is Phila - love the name because it means love.

ELLIOTT: That's Phila Hach introducing herself to filmmaker Joe York in a short film commissioned by the Southern Foodways Alliance. The group honored Hach in October. She's wearing a bright, floral apron, telling stories from more than seven decades of cooking, like the time Senator Howard Baker asked her to cater a U.N. gathering in Nashville in 1976. Alcohol was prohibited, but Hach smuggled in 1,700 mint juleps made with Tennessee's Jack Daniels, no doubt.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PHILA")

HACH: That's what we southerners like. It's the best damn bourbon in the world.

ELLIOTT: Another time she commandeered a grocery store bakery to make 300 chess pies when, on her way to cater an event for Roots author, Alex Haley, she forgot to pack dessert. Known for her biscuits, Sunday suppers and prolific pie making, Hach was a flight attendant in the 1940s. Food was in the picture even then. On international trips, Hach talked her way into the noted kitchens of Paris and London. Southern Foodways Alliance director John T. Edge says in Phila Hach, you see the South's better instincts come to life.

JOHN T. EDGE: She was a small-town Tennessee woman curious about the world, and she saw food as the way to explore the world and understand other people.

ELLIOTT: In 1950, Hach became host of the first cooking show in the South, "Kitchen Kollege." She wrote a cookbook based on the program and later authored 16 more. She made her mark at the bed and breakfast inn she ran with her husband. The remarkable guest list included Duncan Hines, Conway Twitty and Henry Kissinger.

Her family still operates a retreat center she started in Joelton, Tenn. Nashville food writer Jennifer Justus says Hach was very much rooted in Tennessee but had a magical curiosity that was reflected at her table.

JENNIFER JUSTUS: I've seen her cook with Kurdish immigrants, and then I've seen her serve sushi and biscuits from the same table.

ELLIOTT: In the Southern Foodways Alliance film, Phila Hach said she let moments empower her life.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PHILA")

HACH: All we have is the moment.

ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.