The orphan chef, the kindly professor and Dr. Bagby’s Spoon Bread

Imagine that for years you called an orphanage home. While living there, you were met not with kindness but childhood trauma.

For over 11 years, this was Vladislav Yarmolenko’s story. Vladic, now 18, lived in a Ukrainian orphanage where he was subjected to abuse. That is until the day he was adopted by two American parents, Davina and David Kenny.

While Zacki’s Culinary Creations was preparing a catering experience in the Kennys’ home, we learned that young Vladic is an aspiring chef. We invited him to join us in the kitchen where he helped to prepare a fabulous dessert: Crook’s corner persimmon pudding. Not only did Vladic follow directions well, but he also displayed his photography skills by taking pictures of our addictive pudding.

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We were so impressed by Vladic’s enthusiasm, politeness and willingness to learn, that he is now an official intern at ZCC. He is open about his past and talks about it as if it no longer has the power to sadden him. Vladic has much gratitude for his current situation. To display his appreciation for the positive aspects of his heritage, he is planning a reunion trip to Russia. A visit with his grandparents and brother is long overdue. His grandmother is an avid gardener who makes delicious jams and vodkas from her fruit trees.

While interning, Vladic and I made one of my favorite comfort food dishes: spoon bread, a custard-like cornbread that you eat with a spoon. I came to love this childhood favorite from the time I spent with my “oldest best friend” Dr. English Bagby.

Dr. Bagby was a psychology professor at UNC, but to me, he was my summertime fishing buddy. As a youngster growing up in Chapel Hill, I was blessed to have Dr. Bagby play an essential role in my early years. He wore funny-looking handmade leather shoes and he liked to cook. Around Christmas time, he baked and delivered a wonderful soufflé called spoon bread. The fun part about this yummy egg concoction was that you needed to eat it right away while it was hot and before it lost its “poof.” I always met him at the door to ensure getting the first bite. Now, before I get into the evolution of this experience and further spoon bread development, I must tell you a little more about Dr. Bagby.

My family lived on eight acres in what was then a sparse neighborhood called Hidden Hills. Hidden Hills is not so hidden anymore. Hundreds of homes sprang up over the years, and it is now Estes Hills. In those days, our family had a large vegetable garden, a pond, and you might find an occasional arrowhead. I grew mint and at age 6 started selling it to Fowler’s Food Store for 5 cents a bunch – big bucks in those days!

Our family pond was filled with bream and bass. In the summer, Dr. Bagby and I would go and pick out minnows or just dig in the dirt for worms. With bait and poles in-hand, we would climb Copper Head rock and settle in for hours. I loved seeing my red and white bobbin begin to move with a gurgling sound. This was when I acquired something called “patience.” Fishing will teach you that.

Putting a minnow on the hook was bothersome to me, so Dr. Bagby, being a kind psychologist and realizing my angst, obliged me. He offered to do it. Dr. Bagby would take my fresh catch off the hook, and he also filleted it before we walked back up the hill to present mama with supper. In a few moments, our fish met the sizzle of her hot iron skillet. And, to me, the best side companion side was spoon bread baked in a greased pan or in muffin-sized tins; always with a dollop of hot butter.

Dr. Bagby accomplished many things before he passed in 1955. Years later, on a quiet afternoon after I was crowned UNC’s homecoming queen, my escort and I took a detour through the old Chapel Hill graveyard. October leaves had covered much of the sites, but we found Dr.Bagby’s grave. I placed my bouquet of red roses next to his name. All the while giving thanks to my fishing buddy, who helped me learn patience and the art of making spoon bread.

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Double Corn Spoon Bread

2 cups milk, heated

2/3 cup cornmeal

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1/4 cup butter

1/4 cup corn kernels

3 egg, separated

2 teaspoon baking powder

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a round 9” casserole dish or cake pan.

2. In a 2-quart saucepan, bring the milk to a boil, whisking occasionally. Combine cornmeal, salt, and sugar. While whisking, pour in the cornmeal mixture in a steady stream. Whisk vigorously for about 1 minute. Lower heat and blend in butter. Add corn kernels and stir. Remove the pan from the heat. Beat the egg yolks and add to the warm mixture. Set aside and let cool.

3. Beat the egg whites until stiff. Fold into cornmeal mixture. Pour cornmeal batter into the prepared casserole pan and bake until golden brown and puffy, about 35 minutes. Serve immediately.

Serves 4

Zacki Murphy of Zacki’s Culinary Creations traveled the world as a Ford model and worked with her friend, Martha Stewart, as a food stylist offering her knowledge of “The South”: South Vietnam, South America, South Africa, South of France, and most of all, her beloved South of North Carolina.