We’re not exactly sure when Prudence Hilburn began contributing a weekly column of cooking tips and recipes to our publication. Best we can tell from dipping into our memories and consulting former colleagues, it was about 1991.
So, for more than a generation, local readers have been stepping into Prudence’s kitchen each Wednesday, looking over her shoulder as she prepared what always sounded like righteously delicious breads, casseroles, desserts, entrées and the like. (We occasionally got to sample the results; trust us, the sound was reality.)
No, readers didn’t literally travel to Piedmont, the mill town where she was born and lived most of her life, knock on the door of her house that was just like the rest of the houses on her block and request admission to her kitchen that at first glance would be difficult to distinguish from any other. (There weren’t any flashing signs either place saying, “A culinary master lives/works here.”)
Prudence invited them — us — in through her columns, which she deliberately wrote in a friendly, warm, conversational tone to ease the path.
For those who knew her only from afar — eventually her writings appeared in publications and on websites across the U.S.; she often marveled when she got emails from the other side of the country — we’ll vouch that those qualities absolutely matched the diminutive, sweet, vivacious person.
Along with giving them recipes to try, kitchen directions to follow and encouragement to experiment, Prudence captivated readers with tales of her life and travels. It’s an understatement to say she got around, and while she always waved a flag for the Southern cuisine she grew up eating and loved, her training and skills were much more diverse.
She couldn’t cook breakfast gravy for her husband as a newlywed; she told us in a 2014 profile for our Gadsden Style magazine that she had to plop it onto his biscuits with a spatula.
From that inauspicious beginning, Prudence made herself into a six-time Pillsbury Bake-off national finalist (before the organizers stopped letting her into the contest).
She studied in New York with legendary chef and writer James Beard, and in France with Simone Beck, co-author with Julia Child and Louisette Bertholle of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” She moved to New York for a year-and-a-half to work at what now is the Institute of Culinary Education, where she mingled with the elite of the culinary world.
In addition to her columns, Prudence wrote 12 cookbooks — one for a major publisher (HarperCollins), the others self-published. Asked once why she only had one book go through a major publishing housing, she chuckled. "They're too slow! I've written three (cookbooks) in the time it took to get ("A Treasury of Southern Baking") in bookstores!"
She was a popular speaker at cooking seminars and presentations, and was featured on television. She was spokeswoman for Pillsbury even after the Hilburn Ban was instituted for the Bake-off. (She had other endorsement deals as well.)
Her health had declined in recent years and doing her column had become a challenge, but the quality of her work and her enthusiasm for sharing her knowledge and her love of cooking never ebbed.
We lost Prudence on Wednesday. She was a member of our extended family, and we weren't prepared to let her go.
Her funeral services are today. We join her family and friends — and her fans and readers who feel like she was a friend and a family member even if they never actually met her — in mourning her passing and in saluting a life well lived.