By Donna Cornelius
Journal features writer
Virginia Hornbuckle loved attending the University of South Alabama—except for one thing.
“I didn’t like college food, so I’d go out to eat,” she said. “My parents were generous, but that got expensive, and my dad told me I needed to learn to cook.”
Hornbuckle, who is from Memphis, Tenn., said that although her mother is a great cook and that her grandmother loved to entertain, she had to begin her own culinary education by cooking “basic stuff.”
“Then I started having people over and having dinner-date parties,” she said.
She was in her last year at USA when she realized the major she’d chosen wasn’t going to translate into the right career for her.
“I majored in social work,” Hornbuckle said. “When I was doing my senior project, I realized I wasn’t cut out for that.”
Her father, Ken O’Dell, helped her change directions.
“I told him I liked cooking and having people over, and he asked, ‘How can you make that a career?’” she said.
Today, Hornbuckle has answered her dad’s question. She went to culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Charleston, S.C. She’s owned her own catering company, worked as a food stylist and in test kitchen development at Hoffman Media and now comes up with recipes for eMeals, a comprehensive meal-planning resource.
Hornbuckle and her husband, Bill, met in college. They live in Vestavia Hills with their two small children.
“Bill had job offers here, so that’s what brought us to Birmingham,” she said. “I first came here to do an internship for Cooking Light magazine, and I stayed for Bill.”
While Hornbuckle knew she wanted to work in the food industry, she wasn’t interested in having a restaurant, she said.
“I managed a Taziki’s for a while, which was great management experience,” she said. “But it’s hard to have a restaurant job, because you have a lot of work at night and on weekends. I wanted something that would give me more time with my family and friends.”
That’s when Hornbuckle started her own catering company, Delicious, in Cahaba Heights.
“I loved it, but I was working 70 or 80 hours a week. I didn’t want to turn anyone down,” she said.
One of Hornbuckle’s most popular creations at Delicious led to her next venture.
“I had sold so many pound cakes, and I begin to sell them to Western, Piggly Wiggly, Murphree’s Market and some specialty shops,” she said. “After about a year of that, I was at the point where I was going to have to become a commercial bakery, and that had a whole new set of guidelines and would mean a big financial investment.
“Also, I was about burned out on pound cakes.”
Hornbuckle looked for other ways to use her culinary skills. She worked at Hoffman Media for about five years, she said, in recipe development and food styling.
“That was a fun job for me,” she said. “There was a new focus every day, and there were always new things to learn, which is one of my favorite things about cooking.”
After the couple’s second child was born, Hornbuckle began doing freelance work and now is able to work from home for eMeals. She writes meal plans, including a slow cooker plan, for the website.
“I have a small kitchen, so slow cookers can be very useful,” she said.
When you’re feeding a crowd, it’s wise to be realistic about how much you can cook in your oven and on the stove and how much space you have in your refrigerator, she said.
Hornbuckle said her family typically celebrates Thanksgiving at her mother-in-law’s house.
“My husband is the youngest of six children, so we usually have about 30 people plus a few extra guests,” she said. “My mother-in-law is a great cook, and she always makes the dressing and her sweet potato casserole. Everyone usually brings a side item or signature dish.”
Virginia Hornbuckle recently put on a holiday entertaining workshop for PALS, which raises money for the children’s department at Vestavia’s Library in the Forest. She’s an active member of the group, she said.
“PALS has lots of good events,” she said. She advised visiting the group’s website, www.librarypals.org, to find out about more workshops and fundraisers.
Hornbuckle shared some of the tips she presented at the workshop plus more ideas for stress-free holiday celebrations.
Keep your get-togethers fun; the point is to enjoy yourself with family and friends. Tailor your celebration, whether it’s formal or informal, to your crowd so they’ll be comfortable and at ease.
A stressed-out host is no fun. Ask for help, whether it’s bringing a side item or dessert someone is known for or even getting help cleaning your house before the holidays
Know your limitations and work within them. If you’re short on time, on a budget or have limited oven space, plan accordingly.
Pre-cut and measure items that will keep for a day. Put them in marked, individual containers for easier preparation on the big day.
Buy menu items when they are on sale and freeze them. Both Western and Piggly Wiggly run great sales on items like beef tenderloin. Have it cut or cut it yourself and then wrap and freeze it for the holidays.
Expand your idea of what a holiday party should be. Try a cookie decorating party or holiday brunch.
Plan menu items that use different forms of cooking. If the turkey is in the oven all day, sauté your green beans and use your slow cooker. A slow cooker is for much more than Rotel dip; it’s a great way to cook without a lot of extra fat and also keeps your oven and stovetop open.
Work family heirlooms into the decorations for a special touch. “I fill an antique punch bowl that has been in my family for generations or my great-grandmother’s soup tureen with flowers for almost every get together,” Hornbuckle said. This is a great way to use slightly more delicate china that might not be used often. Just make sure to put a watertight container inside in case there are any cracks and so the arrangement doesn’t damage your family heirloom.
Use what you have to keep costs down. Cut some greenery from your yard, use an uncut pumpkin you decorated with for Halloween to make a vase, spray-paint some pinecones gold to add to your arrangement. Work with what your yard offers
Citrus fruits and greenery are classic for Christmas and a less expensive way to fill out a table or bowl.
Think about who’s coming. If you’ll have lots of small children at your party, make sure your arrangement is out of reach or does not contain any poisonous plants. “Little kids will eat anything,” Hornbuckle said.