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."