How the Cheese Biscuit Queen Got Her Crown
Posted June 1, 2021
By Reba Campbell
Columbia cookbook author Mary Martha Greene comes by cooking and storytelling naturally. Both are as an integral a part of her life as waking and sleeping. She grew up with meals made from handwritten family recipes, parties thrown using family china and silver, and tables lovingly set with crystal vases filled with fresh flowers.
The people who know Mary best reflect on her love of telling humorous, inspiring and sometimes raucous stories about her family, their adventures and their cooking. This combination of food and stories produces the perfect recipe for Mary’s recently released cookbook, The Cheese Biscuit Queen Tells All, which hit bookstores around the country on Mother’s Day in May.
Mary’s young years were spent in Beaufort where she cultivated her love of cooking. The pleasure she gets from sharing her cooking with others is directly attributable to her grandmother, her mother, and her two aunts whose names she bears and who are frequently referenced and credited throughout the book.
Mary comes by the title of “Cheese Biscuit Queen” by following in the footsteps of her beloved Aunt Mimi, her mother’s youngest sister. The story goes that after Aunt Mimi died at 86, Mary says she was concerned the recipe would be lost forever since it had never been recorded in writing to include all of Aunt Mimi’s secrets.
When trying to help a family friend recreate the biscuits after Aunt Mimi’s death, Mary says her mother got the two of them in the kitchen so she could show Mary how it was done. “She showed me all the little tricks Mimi used that came so naturally to her she never, ever thought about writing them down in her recipe.” And the Cheese Biscuit Queen title was deeded over to her.
The short road to publication
Mary’s journey to add cookbook author to her impressive list of professional accomplishments in state government relations was very short in the highly competitive world of cookbook publishing. The release date was just three years from when Mary found her mother’s beloved recipe box under the stairs in the Beaufort home she had inherited from her family. This was after Mary thought she’d shredded the recipes with old tax files.
The cookbook hit bookstores just over a year from the day she met the staff at USC Press which published the book. Typically projects like this take years to get picked up by a publisher, and most manuscripts rarely make it to bookshop shelves.
Mary credits her friend and author Bren McLain for pointing her in the right direction, making the right connections in the publishing world, and keeping her sane during the writing, editing and publishing process. Bren, a native of Anderson, SC, is an accomplished author and speaker. She was teaching a writing class at the Pat Conroy Center in Beaufort when she first met Mary back in 2016. At the time, Mary was working on a novel.
“Mary brought cheese biscuits to the class,” Bren says. “Then when my novel came out the following February, I was at an event at one of the bookstores. Here comes Mary with a tin of those cheese biscuits. We’ve been friends even since.”
Bren introduced Mary to the staff at the USC Press which had published her novel, One Good Mama Bone. Mary’s editor at USC Press, Aurora Bell, says, “Mary’s voice captured me as soon as I started reading her manuscript, and when I tried the famous cheese biscuits, there was no turning back. The Cheese Biscuit Queen Tells All is more than a traditional cookbook. It’s a book of stories.”
Aurora says that when she first met Mary in February 2020, she knew she wanted to publish in time for Mother’s Day 2021. “That meant working quickly. One of the things that makes university presses unique from other parts of the publishing industry—and that stretches out our publishing process—is that all of our book manuscripts are read by at least two external reviewers. In this case, back in April 2020, I was lucky enough to find two readers whose schedules had been liberated by the pandemic. I did my own editing in tandem with the external reviews, and then Mary and the production department at the press buckled down to complete revisions, design the book, and make all the rest of the magic happen.”
After months of edits to the recipes and stories by family and friends in Columbia and Beaufort, Mary thought she was ready for the peer review by expert cookbook editors. Mary says her first round of edits with the cookbook expert was a bit disheartening. “It was like when you turn in that term paper you think will get an A-plus, but it comes back with a C-minus.”
Mary’s friend Kami Kinard, a children’s and young adult author with many titles to her credit, did a first big edit. And Cassandra King, Pat Conroy’s wife, arranged for Mary to meet with Cynthia Stevens-Graubert, who has collaborated on cookbooks with author Nathalie Dupree, to share pointers.
“Cynthia gave me a list of things to think about,” Mary says. “You list ingredients in order you’re going to use them. Try to be consistent. Don’t say ‘sift the flour and add to the mixture’ in one recipe and then in the next one say ‘add to the mixture after you sift the flour.’ I thought I’d covered all those things, but apparently I had not.”
Mary quickly learned that everybody who writes out a recipe does it in their own way. When the manuscript went to the peer review, Mary said, “I thought I had some consistency across all the recipes. Now we do have consistency. My C-minus got turned into an A-plus.”
The food and the stories
In addition to her family, Mary has lots of personal and political friends who show up frequently in the book. And it’s not just the cheese biscuits that Mary’s family and friends crave. She is also well known for the chocolate pecan cookies she has supplied to to antsy and tired legislators and lobbyists for many years during tedious weeks of the legislative session. “Baking is something that truly helps me relax. For me, it represents creativity, meditation, and worship all in one.”
One story at the beginning of the cookies, candies and bars section of the cookbook gives readers an inside view of the comedy of errors that kept Mary’s cookies away from the State House lobby during the annual budget debate one year. Another story with political overtones is connected to the brisket recipe supplied by a legislator and friend who chaired the powerful budget writing committee.
Not only does Mary’s book give hints about prepping and freezing the dishes from the recipes, but it also could be a primer on southern hospitality and etiquette. Mary shares pointers passed down from her mother about how to set up a party bar at the furthest point from the entry. Mary also learned from her mother that the host should be the first person guests see when they arrive and the last one they see as they leave.
In a story accompanying the recipe for oyster sausage cocktail bites, Mary writes about one of her mother’s rules for entertaining was to always have small plates on hand. In that story, Mary says, “Over many years of standing around and talking at legislative cocktail receptions, I have even mastered the three-finger plate hold . . . the art of balancing a plate on your left index and middle finger and securing it on top with your thumb, leaving your ring finger and pinky free to hold your wine glass. Giving your guests a small plate to use at the party is an important part of the pick-it-up-and-move-along plan to rotate people through your dining room.”
Heathwood and Shandon area residents will recognize Mary’s description of shopping at the Social Pig on Devine Street. In a story found in the meat and poultry section of the cookbook, Mary describes the early days of the Social Pig when most women didn’t work outside the home. They would venture out to the Social Pig where, Mary writes, “They would shop the aisles in their shirtwaist dresses, pumps, and pearls and catch up on all the neighborhood gossip.”
Today, according to the story in the cookbook, “There’s a completely inverse relationship between how well-coiffed and dressed you are and how many people you will run into at the Social Pig. Stop by after work with perfect hair, full makeup, and a business suit, and you won’t run into a soul you know. Slump in on the way home from the gym, all nasty with sweaty hair pulled back into a ponytail, and you’ll run into every person you know or have ever thought about knowing!”
Mary is also known among her family, friends and colleagues for her generous spirit and kind heart. Since 2017, Mary has led a weekly cooking class at the Mental Illness Recovery Center’s youth drop-in center. Her long-time friend Julie Ann Avin is MIRCI’s director and says, “It’s not everyone who wants to volunteer with the homeless or mentally ill. Mary shows up every week and is Aunt Mae Mae to them just like she’s done for my son and other friends’ children. They know they can count on her.”
In the author biography in the book, one of the MIRCI youth is quoted as referring to Mary as “a ‘culinary Mary Poppins,’ in that she always pops in to bake with them and brings along a large bag from which she pulls all the ingredients and tools necessary to make whatever they are creating that week.”
Julie Ann says, “It’s kind of like when you have someone at your house and you’re cooking together and the conversation just flows. They are learning to cook, but they are also forming relationships and connections with people.”
And while Mary says she’s really enjoyed the process of writing, editing and getting the cookbook published, it’s stories and family memories associated with the recipes that she’s so happy to leave behind. “I don’t have children, so the fact that my mom’s and family’s recipes will be there to hand down to my godchildren and young cousins means a lot.”
Mary has several book signing events in the Midlands area coming up. Check out the schedule here.
After more than 35 years working in communications, politics, organizational leadership, fundraising and government relations, Reba is staying busy in her “bonus career” with writing, teaching and consulting. She is passionate about travel; learning to play the uke, guitar and keyboard; and staying connected with old friends. Reba can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @rebahcampbell on Instagram and Twitter. Her writing projects can be found at Random Connect Points.