This week, we welcome Martie to the other side of the mic.

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Martie Duncan in the kitchen with a food processor
Credit: Mo Davis

Homemade host Martie Duncan asks her guests about the home cooks who first acquainted them with the kitchen, often their parents and grandparents. Duncan too learned to cook at her mother’s side. And with neither formal training nor restaurant experience, Duncan traces her talent to her mother and Southern roots. But the self-made cook’s fearless spirit and enterprising drive deserve as much credit as her homegrown skills. There’s a reason she finished “Next Food Network Star” as a finalist, after all. Tune in this week to learn what makes Homemade’s host tick.

On this special episode, Allrecipes Executive Editor Jason Burnett interviews Duncan about her mom’s best recipes, traveling with cast iron, the time Julia Roberts invited her to dinner, and more. Get her takes on baking with blueberries, boiling shrimp in beer, and her dream guest list for Homemade. Download it for free at Apple Podcasts, Spotify and anywhere else you listen to podcasts beginning September 9.

About Martie Duncan

Martie Duncan is an author, home cook, and "Next Food Network Star" finalist. The Birmingham, Alabama, native worked in law enforcement before catering and planning parties full time. Yet both careers prepped her for success on "Next Food Network Star.” Duncan has since appeared on Food Network’s “Star Salvation” as well as “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” As host of Homemade, she gets to the heart of what cooking means to her guests through nostalgia, banter, and stirring questions.

Follow her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and check out her website.

Martie Duncan
Credit: Martie Duncan

Episode Transcript

JASON BURNETT Hi, I'm Jason Burnett, executive editor of Allrecipes.com. Homemade is usually hosted by Martie Duncan. Martie's great at getting our guests to share the memories and traditions behind some of their favorite foods. Many of our listeners are Martie fans, so I have big shoes to fill today.

Our guest is not only a fantastic cook and entertainer but leads an extraordinary life outside the kitchen. She has rounded up cattle in Argentina, played polo with royalty, and consulted on blockbuster movies. Alton Brown once said that she's fearless, that if she had a t-shirt, it would have her name on the front and "fearless" on the back.

That's right. Today, we're turning the tables, and our guest is Martie Duncan. Martie is not only the regular host of Homemade but is a cookbook author, "Food Network Star" finalist, hosts cooking events across the country, and is a sought after event planner. I'm excited to have her share stories from her amazing life in food and parties. Welcome to the other side of the mic, Martie Duncan. 

MARTIE DUNCAN Oh, this is weird. OK, this is so weird, Jason. Thank you. And I just want to say thank you to the whole Allrecipes family, all 60 million of you, for making me feel so welcome and such a part of the family.

JASON In addition to your food and recipes, which we will get to, listeners want to know more about how you got here. Most people know you from your incredible run on season eight of "Food Network Star.' How did you end up on the show?

MARTIE When I met Guy Fieri — and I think maybe I talked about this during my interview with Guy — but the first time I met him was at a show that we were doing together in Atlanta.

Of course, I knew who he was because he was the headliner. But I was kind of the D-list talent, and it was my very first show. So, when I met Guy, the first thing he said was, "Why don't you audition for 'Food Network Star'?" And I said, "Because I'm not a cook like that. I'm a home cook. I take my time, and I don't get in a hurry to cook." And he goes, "I think you could do it. And I think they're looking for people like you, like people who are real."

I would run into Guy a couple times a year at different food events, and every time he would say the same thing, “Are you going to do it?” And I would always just say, "Nooo."

So anyway, one night, I was online looking up some stuff and came across the Food Network website. And the first thing I logged in, this thing popped up, and it said, "Auditions for 'Food Network Star' ending soon." So I clicked on it, and I thought, well, if it's ending soon, there's no chance I'll do it.

So, I clicked on it. It said there were two auditions left. One was in Hawaii a week later, which I knew I wasn't gonna fly to Hawaii. And the other one was in Chicago the very next day. Well, if it had been any other city in the country, I'm sure I wouldn't have gone. But I used to live in Chicago, and I've driven there a million times. So this was at like midnight.

So I see it, and it says as long as you arrive by 1:00, they will see you. So I just say, "God, is this how we're gonna do this? OK!" I packed my car, and I started driving.

And I got there. I didn't have the paperwork. I'm sure I looked a mess. I checked into the hotel where they were having the thing, and I had booked a room there. And I went straight to the audition, and they basically said, "Come back tomorrow for a callback." And so I went back the next day and there's a whole 'nother story behind that — how the fire department in Chicago helped me prepare for my audition.

JASON That's amazing.

MARTIE The other side of that story is when they said, "Come back tomorrow for a callback but bring your dish." Like bring a dish and talk about it. I'm staying in a hotel. Where am I going to cook? And they're like, "Well, guess you got your first challenge."

So, I was headed to buy a burner so I could cook at my hotel room because I really wasn't beyond that. And so I saw the fire department across from where I used to live and stopped in and they said, "Sure, come in. You can cook here." So I did.

JASON Saved by the fire department.

MARTIE Yes, the cute firemen saved me. I made a shrimp boil because you had to make a dish that sort of represented your point of view, mine being parties and entertaining. So I did the shrimp boil. And they said, "Listen, after your audition, you need to come back and clean up this kitchen." And I'm like, "OK, I will."

So I went back after the audition was over to clean up the kitchen, and they had already cleaned it up. And not only that, they'd made me their version of a Southern supper with fried catfish and hush puppies and coleslaw. Then, they had me slide down the pole in the firehouse and took me on a ride across the city of Chicago in a fire truck!

JASON Oh, my gosh.

MARTIE And I have pictures of it.

JASON Tell people about a shrimp boil, for people who may not be familiar with a shrimp boil.

MARTIE It's just the best thing ever. And it's the easiest thing ever. Just don't put your shrimp in too early. That's the big thing.

JASON Do you include potatoes and corn?

MARTIE All of it. Yep. So, you know, we make 'em in big kettles or big pots and typically outside. But you can do them inside too. Just get a big old pot, the biggest one you have, and fill it with, you know — I use beer and a little bit of water. Sometimes, I use a liquid flavoring like a Zatarain's. Sometimes I use the powder. I really like Old Bay. So make that up and then put in the water, let it boil for a bit.

You want to start with the stuff that takes the longest to cook first. So you can put the corn in, and then once you kind of get that, the potatoes don't take long. They break down really bad. But I put the onions and the corn in first. I would put the potatoes in sort of toward the last.

But the shrimp is the last thing that goes in because you don't want them to overcook and get rubbery. You can put them in whole, you know, head on and everything, or you can take the head off and just leave the shell on. They taste so much better if you do it that way. Some people don't like to have to have their guests peel and devein them or whatever themselves, so they would throw them in without the shell. I think they taste better if you leave the shell on.

I usually put a big strainer in and then put all my ingredients inside the strainer. Then when it's time to serve, I pull the big strainer out, and all the liquid stays in the pot. And then we dump it on — we used to do it on newspaper. But, you know, you get all that newsprint on your hands, so I thought that wasn't very good. So I just get kraft paper, like brown paper, and I put a couple of layers down. So I put down the kraft paper and then newspaper and then another kraft paper over the top of it. And then I put my shrimp and everything, just dump it out in the middle. It's delicious.

You gotta put a beer in there, though. A couple beers. Beer, to me, is one of the most important things in a good shrimp boil.

JASON A beer in the shrimp boil and another in your hand.

MARTIE Without a doubt. Cold one in the hand and pour one in the pot.

JASON What challenge on "Food Network Star" was the most fun for you? Challenge or dish.

MARTIE There was one challenge that was a turning point for me, and that was the episode where we did a takeover of a food court at South Street Seaport. And we had to do a country-inspired sort of fast food joint. Instead of Little Italy, we called it Littler Italy because it was just, like, two tables. All of us had to do something a little bit different. And I did an arancini.

Well, I never made arancini before in my life. Michele Ragussis, who was on Bobby Flay's team, had made it a couple of nights before for dinner. And when they said you’ve got to do an Italian night, "Martie, what are you going to make?" And I'm like, "I don't know." I just drew a blank. And I said, "Arancini." And Alton Brown said, "Have you ever made it before?" I said no. He goes, "Well, you're going home."

But I'd watched Michelle make it. And so I asked her, do you care if I make a version of your arancini for this challenge? She just laughs. She goes, "Ha, ha, ha. No. Bye. We'll see ya." So, anyway, I made arancini with a marinara sauce, and I did it.

I don't know what I was thinking. I'm an idiot. I made it in New York for Italian people who came to this dinner, and I got a marriage proposal. One guy got down on his knee and said, "Listen, I always said if I found somebody who made gravy better than my mother, I would marry her. Will you marry me?" So, I think it was pretty good.

My favorite episode, and the one that people probably remember the most, was the one where we were in that garden during the South Beach Food and Wine Festival. And they called it "Anything Goes." They would play tricks on you. Everybody got a different trick. And for me, they took away everything I had. Like, you went up, you checked your prep, all of the stuff you'd prepared to do your demo. And there were like 500 people in this garden. And so you were gonna do a cooking demo for all these people.

So, I did a grouper in parchment paper. It's just something I find easy to do for a party. It can serve a lot of people, you can do it in advance, and it doesn't take long to cook. And it's impressive. So anyway, I get up there, check everything, then I go off stage, and they call me back up. And they're like, "Here's Martie Duncan. She's making this grouper in parchment paper."

So I look around. I didn't have any grouper. I didn't have any parchment paper. I didn't have any sheet pan. I didn't have anything. They had hidden every single thing for my recipe. It was gone.

But what they failed to realize was that I had done a lot of these cooking demos already, many, many, many times. And I know it's always better if you have several stages. So if you have the raw and then something in the middle and you have something already cooked.

So while I was prepping, I went ahead and made one that was already cooked, and then I had a couple that were like in the middle. I had put that under the shelf, so they didn't see it. They just stared at me like, "What? How did you even do that?"

So, that was when I think, the fearless thing came into play because I just laughed and went on about it, and they were very shocked that it didn't bother me one bit. Not one bit.

JASON Well, I'm sure that all of your experience on stage had prepared you for that one, too. Also, I think some of your earlier career probably did, too. You've mentioned on previous interviews that you were a police officer.

MARTIE I was.

JASON And that you were in the wedding business for a while.

MARTIE I'm still in the business, in a way.

JASON Well, also, the wedding industry led you to consulting on some big movies. Tell us about that. 

MARTIE I was working in Chicago and had been there for a while, working for a client there. And one day I got a telephone call, and the secretary said, "Martie, there is a man on the phone that wants to talk to you. He said he wants you to be in a movie." I'm like, "Oh, silly, that's some friend of mine acting crazy or something." So I pick up the phone and he said, "Martie, you don't know me, but this is Michael Butler."

Well, of course, I knew who Michael Butler was because he was the producer of the very first "Hair," you know, on Broadway. And I knew him because he was very big in the polo world. So he said, you know, "I have a lot of friends in Hollywood, and I'm here in Chicago at the Drake Hotel with Dick Sylbert."

He said, "Dick has won Academy Awards for set decoration for 'The Manchurian Candidate' and 'China Syndrome," and he named a long list of things. And he goes, "He wants to talk to about a movie. Would you come over here?"

So I left my job. I went over to the Drake Hotel, sat down with Michael Butler and Dick Sylbert, and we talked about his movie. He was making a wedding movie called "My Best Friend's Wedding" with a director who had never made a big-budget film before. And this was for Tri-Star. And he said, "Listen, we're all men. We don't know the first thing about a wedding. So the next thing you know, I am the technical expert for this film."

JASON I know you've told me before about Julia Roberts cooking for you.

MARTIE She did!

JASON Was it on that movie?

MARTIE No, it wasn't. It was during "Mona Lisa Smile." They found out it was my birthday. And her husband, Danny Moder, went to town and got me a cake. And then Julia made a chicken and some pasta. And when they invited me over, trust me, I was as shocked as anybody. She was cooking. I don't think she necessarily cooking for me. I think she's just cooking. And so, she goes, “You're staying for dinner, aren't you? We made pasta, and we've got a chicken roasting.” And she said, “How about a drink?” And she opened up the freezer and took out some Jack Daniels that she had in the freezer and poured me a drink.

JASON That's incredible. So, when you and Carla Hall talked on Homemade, one of the things that y'all talked about was your mother's cast iron skillet and her grandmother's cast iron skillet. I know that your cast iron skillet goes with you when you travel. Is it true that you take it through airport security in your carry on?

MARTIE I do. And my mother's rolling pin, too. There's a couple of reasons for that. First of all, if you need cast iron for whatever demo you're doing, the chances of them really having a good, seasoned cast iron is probably not gonna happen. So I take mine just to be sure I'm going to have what I need. But I also take my mom's rolling pin, even if I don't need it because I know she'd want to go if she was still here. So it just makes me feel like I'm kind of just taking her with me because I know she always wanted to go somewhere. So I always just throw it in there just in case.

JASON Oh, I love that. So what are some dishes that your mom made with her cast iron?

MARTIE So my mother would make the best fried chicken in that — I call it the chicken pan, but it's a Dutch oven. It's got to be 60-something years old, for sure.

She would make fried chicken on every third Sunday. And the fried chicken would come with rice and green beans. But then she would make pot roast in the rotation. And then that would be, of course, with carrots and onions and potatoes in that same big Dutch oven. I still make it in there to this day. And then the third thing she would make would be a rump roast. And she would have to save her money to buy the rump roast because it would be expensive. And the rump roast you would get with mashed potatoes and English peas. And then with that, you would get yeast rolls. With the fried chicken, you'd get biscuits. And then with a pot roast, you get cornbread. My mother made fresh bread with every single meal and also made a dessert with every single meal.

JASON So, you farm. And you live on your farm, and you've mentioned growing blueberries. What do you like to make with your fresh blueberries?

MARTIE My dad was the blueberry man and a lot of people called him "the blueberry man" because he would grow these blueberries and then just enjoy picking them to give to friends. And he would go to all the widows from the church or the lodge — he was a member of the Masonic lodge — and he would take blueberries to everybody and to the neighborhood and wherever. But they were his blueberry bushes. In just, in the last few years, have helped him care for them and pick when he got a little bit older. And then this year, I just wanted to keep his legacy going so I did my very best to remember everything he'd ever taught me about 'em, and I had a pretty good haul. I was very happy.

I always like to make pies. That's sort of my thing. Blueberry pies, we just never really had growing up. So, it's not something I knew how to make, really. So I would make a combo of peach and blueberry. And to me, those are delicious. So, that's my favorite thing to do. But I also like to make biscuits and make a blueberry compote. Then I usually put in like a little Chambord. I always like to put some booze in there, you know. Cook the blueberries down a little bit, put a little bit of vanilla from a pod, you know, scrape a few seeds in there and then, at the very end, like, flame up a little bit of a Chambord. And that's delicious.

JASON Sounds wonderful. So you're topping your biscuits with that?

MARTIE Mhm. Yes.

JASON Are you adding anything to thicken it up a little bit or?

MARTIE I just cook it down and make the blueberries kind of explode and thicken. I don't put any cornstarch or anything like that, and I just kind of let it do its thing. But sometimes, I will make like a peach pie, like a crostata, and then put some ice cream over the top and then put that warm blueberry compote over that and let it melt down. Ooh, so good.

JASON I need some right now.

MARTIE I will make you some. I will absolutely make you some.

JASON You’re listening to Homemade. Martie and I will be right back in just a minute.

I’m Jason Burnett, and my guest today is Homemade’s regular host, Martie Duncan.

You were gathering food stories before Homemade, before the podcast. What's one of your favorite food stories that you've heard?

MARTIE Oh, my goodness. OK, so there were just so many. When you think of Alabama, at least that's been my experience, when I travel the world, that the first thing when they hear I'm from Alabama, the first thing they say is either, "Life is like a box of chocolates." Or they will say, "Run, Forrest, run!" Because they just relate Alabama to "Forrest Gump" somehow.

So, I have two favorite stories. I want to tell both because they're both so important to me. Because the people that told them are so dear.

So I'm gonna tell you the "Forrest Gump" one first. "Forrest Gump" was written by Winston Groom. And in the book, he does a dedication to a couple of guys I know. And one of 'em's a guy named Jimbo Meador.

Well, Jimbo was a shrimper. And he's a fascinating individual. So when I asked him about his favorite food memory, he said, oh, it's easy for him. Now, I gotta do the accent 'cause if I don't, it's not the same. So I said, "Jimbo, what's your favorite Alabama food craving or your favorite food memory?" And he said, "Oh, Martie, that's easy." And he said, "When we was kids, we'd go down to the Grand Hotel, Ms. Gertie Pearl be out there cooking up softshell crab on her cast iron skillet, right on the beach. We go up out of the water, we get me one of them softshell crabs on a paper towel, and there ain't nothing better."

JASON That's incredible.

MARTIE And he told it a lot longer than I just did. But I was about to laugh because my accent was just so bad, I couldn't help myself.

But, my other favorite story — so part of the time we were traveling with Mo Davis, who was the photographer that worked with me on the book. That poor girl had to drive around in the car with me for, like, almost 5,000 miles. And I just drug her from place to place to place to place. And we just ate and ate and ate and laughed and took pictures and sang.

And we both discovered that we have an affinity for music from Muscle Shoals. She grew up with it. Her mother played it in the house. I grew up with it. I absolutely love music from Muscle Shoals. So we went to Muscle Shoals to get some recipes for the book, we found out that there was going to be a birthday party for one of The Swampers.

Now, you know the song "Sweet Home Alabama." You know, there's a line in it that says “Muscle Shoals has got The Swampers. They've been known to pick a song or two.” It's about the guys who started and owned the Muscle Shoals Sound. And one of 'em is a bass player who's considered to be one of the best bass players ever in the history of rock music, a guy named David Hood. So they were having his birthday party and they called it Hoodstock. And so we got ourselves an invitation to Hoodstock, and they sat me right in front of one of my legends, like legends, Spooner Oldham.

Spooner is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He wrote so many songs, but, like, “I'm Your Puppet” is one if you remember that from the '60s. But Spooner is just a dear, sweet, precious, but so talented guy. So, he was playing and then he came sat down right behind me. And so I turn around to him and his wife and I said — his wife was talking to somebody else, she really wasn’t paying attention. I said, "Hey, Spooner, I'm working on a new cookbook. Would you give me your favorite Alabama food craving or your favorite food memory?"

And about that time, his wife whirled around, and she goes, "I'll tell you one!" 'Cause I didn't think she was listening, right? "I'll tell you one." And she said, "When Spooner took me home to meet his mama, I walked in, and she was making biscuits and chocolate gravy. I knew right then I'd met my people." And I'm like, "Oh, my God, that's the best story I've ever heard."

Now, for those of you who don't know, biscuits and chocolate gravy is sort of a north Alabama thing, but it's a farming community thing. You don't see very much in middle to lower Alabama. But in the northern part of the state, it's a thing. Everybody's mama made it. They would take the leftover biscuits after breakfast after the farmhands had all gone back out, and they'd put them away. And then that night, for supper, most of them would use Hershey's cocoa and sugar and butter, and they'd make a gravy. And then they would pour that over some warmed up, toasted biscuits. Believe me, I can see why she loved it because that is de-lic-ious.

JASON It's decadent. They are wonderful.

MARTIE I'll tell you what makes it better. OK, so I get my mama's cast iron skillet out right? And I melt some butter in it and just get it almost to the point of not, you know, just going over. And then I stick those sliced biscuits, and I stick them down in that hot butter, and then hold them down and let them get a good sear on them. Then you flip them over and you pour your chocolate gravy over the top. Now they're even better with the kind of brown butter.

JASON Oooh.

MARTIE Sounds terrible?

JASON No. It sounds like heaven.

MARTIE I don't eat that very often, y'all. I'm just saying I have done it. I just don't do it every day.

JASON You are a champion of Alabama food and the official state dessert of Alabama is a lane cake. What is the lane cake and what makes it special to Alabama?

MARTIE If you ever read the book "To Kill a Mockingbird," they talk about it. Scout talks about the lane cake in "To Kill a Mockingbird." And she said that the neighbor made a lane cake so full of shine that it made her tight. And what that means is just, they fed the cake, because they would make the cakes way in advance and they would feed the cake, like the British do, with booze in order to make it moist. And so her neighbor had fed the cake with so much moonshine it made her drunk. You remember that from "To Kill a Mockingbird"?

JASON Yeah. It was the cake was so shiny it made her tight.

MARTIE Yes. So shiny it made her tight, that's right! 

JASON So, who is one of your dream guests for Homemade?

MARTIE OK. Just because I know I'm gonna be friends with her, if she will let me, and I will just quit stalking her: Trisha Yearwood.

JASON OK.

MARTIE Yes! Dolly, too. Like, Dolly and I would definitely be friends. And I have a great Dolly Parton impersonation that I feel like is somewhat flattering, but maybe not. So anyway, I would love Dolly to come on Homemade and Tricia, I'm a big fan of their music. I know they both cook their socks off. So I would love to have both of them.

I just recently found out that Stanley Tucci is quite a cook and has cookbooks. Who knew? And he's been in some of my all-time favorite movies, so I would like for him to come on. I got a long wish list of people, musicians, and of course, Joanna Gaines. I'm fascinated with her and her children and how she does what she does and how she stands that crazy husband of hers. Like, I'm gonna have to lock him outside. He's always playing jokes and tricks on her and everything.

JASON All of those are fantastic. I'm crossing my fingers. Let's bring them in. Well, Martie, thank you so much for letting us turn the tables on you today. And I can't wait to hear who you're going to interview next.

MARTIE Oh, my goodness, I'm so excited for these next 16 episodes. So, if y'all have some suggestions, I would love to hear them. You can come to the Allrecipes page and leave us a message there, or you can go to my website and leave me a message. But we would love to know your suggestions for future guests and topics and fun questions to ask everybody.

JASON And you can hear more from Martie on Homemade every week here at Allrecipes.com and Apple Podcasts and Spotify and wherever you listen to your podcasts. And also, follow Martie at Martie Knows Parties and @MartieDuncan, and check out her recipes on MartieDuncan.com.

MARTIE Thank you for having me, Jason. And thank you again, Allrecipes family.

MARTIE Well, so now you know everything there is to know about me. Thank you, Jason. I’m taking back the microphone to let you know, we’ve got more great interviews coming your way soon. So, if you haven’t already, please subscribe to the podcast.

And don’t forget, you can find thousands of recipes, meal ideas, and cooking how-tos from the world’s largest community of cooks at Allrecipes.com. You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

This podcast was recorded in Birmingham, edited in Atlanta, and can be found wherever you get your podcasts.

Homemade is produced by Allrecipes with Executive Editor Jason Burnett. Thank you to our Pod People production team: Rachael King, Eliza Lambert, Tanya Ott, and Maya Kroth.

Thanks for listening! I’m Martie Duncan, and this is Homemade.