There is no person on the planet who more universally encapsulates the best things about the American South — and is more universally loved — than Dolly Parton. She’s a country music legend, to put it mildly, a successful actress, a business mogul, and prolific philanthropist who’s donated millions of dollars to causes including childhood literacy and the development of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. She is also, famously, deeply devoted to Southern food, from the cozy chicken and dumplings at her Dollywood resort in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, to her 2006 cookbook Dolly’s Dixie Fixin’s: Love, Laughter, and Lots of Good Food.
In 2022, Parton teamed up with Duncan Hines to create a line of Southern-style banana and coconut cake mixes. They were an instant hit, selling out online in less than five minutes, and now they’re headed to supermarket shelves along with some new mixes, including “fabulously fudgy” brownies, sweet cornbread, and buttermilk biscuits. Just in time for the launch, Eater sat down with Parton to talk about all things Southern food, her most memorable cooking mistake, and her big plans for future collaborations in the frozen food aisle.
Eater: Your new line of baking mixes includes a sweet cornbread mix, but cornbread can be pretty controversial in the South. Some people like it sweet, others insist that there should never be sugar. Why do you think that people feel so strongly about cornbread?
Dolly Parton: Because we did so well with the cake mixes, we started thinking about what our next lap was going to be, and the public started saying that they really wanted some cornbread. So Duncan Hines got to do their research about whether people like sweet cornbread or the regular, and I guess the sweet won out. I grew up eating the other, but we’re really trying to be true to the South and do the things that the majority of people want. But it’s also got a recipe on the back so you can make jalapeno cornbread if you don’t want it so sweet.
You also developed a buttermilk biscuit mix, which feels very Southern. What do you like on your biscuits — do you prefer sweet jam or honey or savory sausage gravy?
Everybody makes biscuits, but how many people make buttermilk biscuits unless you really are from the South? I love it all. I eat gravy and biscuits at least once a week for breakfast with sausage or whatever. With the same pan, I’ll get a biscuit and put apple butter or jam or jelly on there. Whatever looks good. There’s no bad way to eat a biscuit.
Your box mixes also include recipes to spice them up, like adding pudding to your banana cake or adding cheddar and chives to the biscuit mix. What was the thinking behind that?
Duncan Hines has this history of great recipes on the back of their boxes; you know you can rely on them for foolproof cooking. When we started talking about making the biscuits, we thought that it would be nice to have recipes that you can mix and match and flavor them up a little bit, depending on your taste for that day. You can add a little bit of this or that, if you know what you’re doing, and it just makes it more special.
What’s something that absolutely ruins a dessert for you? Are there any flavors or ingredients that are just off the table?
Well, no. I’m a big eater, so I’ll pretty much eat anything. My husband doesn’t like caramel, but I do.
What’s your favorite dessert to eat — and to make — at home?
I’ve had a lot of good luck with my coconut cake; everybody loves coconut cake. But I still love a good chocolate cake, with the deep, thick chocolate frosting. That’s one of my favorite things. Banana pudding has always been one of my favorite desserts.
What made you decide to get into the business of Dolly-branded cake mixes?
We’ve all relied on Duncan Hines in the past: When you don’t have time to start from scratch or [you] don’t really know how to cook, you get mixes like these, and you can’t make mistakes if you follow the directions. I just wanted to do something that was good for everybody, and what’s better than cornbread and biscuits? I like cooking, and I wanted to get involved in things outside of the music business, and it turns out I can make a lot of dough with this biscuit dough or cornbread batter.
Speaking of cooking mistakes, what’s your most memorable cooking mishap?
Back in my Tennessee mountain home growing up, we always kept things in big crocks — the salt, the sugar, the flour, the cornmeal. And it’s easy to mistake salt for sugar if somebody’s accidentally switched those crocks around. I remember baking a cake for a pie supper where I was trying to make an impression on a boy, hoping he would buy my pie. But turns out, I put salt in it instead of sugar. He still bought the pie, but it was not very good.
From cornbread to your cookbooks, your perspective on food is so influenced by your childhood. Can you talk about what it’s like to make this very old-school style of cooking still feel relevant in 2023?
Everybody knows that I grew up in that big family, and I’ve often talked about my mother’s cooking. At Dollywood, we have restaurants all over the park and we serve things that my family used to eat, like ham and beans. We have Southern meals, you know? We also have this new resort, the DreamMore Resort, with top-of-the-line chefs who make absolutely wonderful food and serve it beautifully. But I always try to incorporate the things that I grew up with, and make it special. It’s just good food, something you can always count on.
How has the food of your childhood influenced your music?
I really have talked a lot about food in my songs. Like in “Tennessee Homesick Blues,” there’s that line where I say I wish I could have some of mama’s homemade chocolate cake. I write so many songs about my past, and many of them refer to mom’s cooking or what I’m craving.
Do you think your mom would have used your baking mixes?
Actually, she did use a lot of mixes after we all left [home]. When we were all home, she loved to cook — and we didn’t have the money to buy these kinds of things. But after she got older, I was making enough money to buy her some mixes if she wanted. She would’ve been more apt to use them than start from scratch, but I’m sure she would add her own little touches to it. She would never not throw her own love in there. A good cook knows what you can add without messing it up.
Now that you’re officially in the baking aisle, are there any other food collaborations that you want to put the Dolly stamp of approval on in the future?
Oh, yes. I’ve always wanted to have a line of frozen foods, to cook up Southern dishes that people love, like chicken and dumplings. I don’t know what Duncan Hines is interested in doing with me, but I will definitely be doing more things to bring good Southern food to the people who love it.
Do you feel a responsibility to preserve these old-school recipes for people who didn’t grow up with a mom making good biscuits in the kitchen?
I think of it like country music. I want to keep the old, original country music going. And you may not grow up in the country, but a lot of city people can still sing good country songs. To me, it’s important to keep things like country music and Southern food in their natural form. People are more health-conscious now than they used to be, back when everything was made with all that butter and grease and lard — all the stuff you need to make things good. But with something like cake mix, you can blend the past and the present and make it work well. There will always be a want and a need for this kind of stuff, because there’s a lot of big eaters out there, and I’m one of them.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.