Ten minutes may not seem like a very long time to most people, but when you're talking to one of the country’s most beloved icons, it’s more than enough. So much so that, at the end of my 600 seconds with Dolly Parton via video chat, I started to cry.
"Well, that’s very sweet of you," she responded. "Don’t go get your mascara running, now! Not over me."
At 76 years old, Parton is an indisputable gem of a human being, loved by seemingly everyone. From growing up impoverished in Tennessee to becoming one of the most successful singer-songwriters of all time, her childhood is what has stuck with her most, inspiring one of the most important parts of her life. And no, it’s not her singing or her acting — it’s her cooking.
Dumplings, fudge and potato salad
"Growing up in the South with my mom being the greatest cook in the world — and my aunts and my grandmas — I just remember things like fried chicken on Sunday was one of the greatest things ever," she told TODAY Food Wednesday.
"Or like a big old bowl of potato salad along with the chicken. I make chicken and dumplings. My mom was good at that, so I kind of follow her. I just remember when I tasted all that good food, any of that left an impression on me."
Parton still loves to cook today. In 2020, she shared her milk gravy recipe with TODAY, a dish she lovingly makes for her husband of 57 years, Carl Dean.
"I used to love to go church (when) they had what they call all day singing and dinner on the ground, where everybody in the church and in the neighborhood — in the community — would bring something different to eat and spread out on these big tables," she explained. "All these cakes, pies, puddings, chicken and all that good food that everybody cooked."
As for what she loves to bring to a barbecue herself, Parton goes for a mayo-based potato salad, but she also loves making a vinegar-based coleslaw as well. But according to Parton, that mayo going bad on a hot summer day isn't something she's ever had to worry about.
"When that happened at our church and that big bowl of potato salad got there, you didn’t have to worry," she said "Even it was sunny, it wasn’t gonna last that long! It wasn't gonna go bad … not if I was around!"
When asked the most famous person Parton has ever cooked for, she was stumped.
"I cook a lot when I’m on my movie sets," said the star of hit films like "9 to 5" or "Steel Magnolias." "So I guess it would be a long list of famous people, because whoever the stars and co-stars are. I have this huge big pot, and I make chicken and dumplings. I’m famous for it, so everybody wants me to make that or a peanut butter fudge that I love and take on set with me. Everybody asks, 'When are you going to do the dumplings?' I always announce it a couple of days before so they all look forward to it. So, I’ve had my dumplings eaten by a lot of famous people."
But, can we get the recipe, Dolly?
"I don’t give out the recipe! Mine is all these secret ingredients — and the main one is love."
'It’s a very Southern thing, first of all'
Parton stopped by TODAY on Wednesday to chat about her new line of cake mixes and frostings with Duncan Hines, which she says has already been flying off the shelves.
"It's a very Southern thing, first of all, and I’m a very Southern girl," she explained of the cake mix flavors, which include banana and coconut cake.
"Everybody in the South — but everywhere, really — we love bananas, and we love banana pudding. But when you have a good banana pudding, it’s great. So we thought, 'Well, wouldn’t it be great to have a wonderful banana pudding cake?' And so that’s what we we did, and we just thought it was a perfect fit to my personality being you know, that I’m a Southern girl."
Already sold out online, the mixes and frostings — which come in creamy buttercream and chocolate buttercream — will be available in the baking section of grocery stores beginning March 2022. If you can't wait for that, you can also sign up now to be updated on when they're available back online for ordering.
"I’ve always just loved coconut cake and I think most people do," she said. "I always think of Sundays when I think of coconut cake. My mom always made either chocolate cake or coconut cake on Sundays, but on Easter, we always had a coconut cake. So we just felt that it was really a nice start for me to do something more Southern, and they’re beautiful."
To the rookie bakers out there, she urges them not to "be intimidated" by baking.
"All you got to do is to stay true to the directions on the back," she said. "It’s hard for me to follow directions of any kind really, but if you want to learn to bake, best to start with mixes and things that really you can’t make mistakes if you just follow the directions. Once you get good at it, then you can just do all sorts of things."
Wrapping up our chat, I make sure to spend a few of the seconds I have with Parton to let her know how much someone as fearless as she is has inspired me over the course of my life. That she has shown me by example to be true to yourself no matter what — even if that means not following the directions on the box. This is when my tears begin to well up. But, of course, Parton had a Dolly-ism for that, too.
"I love (crying). That's how you wash your soul clean, is crying," she responded. "But thank you for loving me enough to cry over me."