She's arranged too many meals to count and has collected a countless number of recipes from 843 different cookbooks, thanks to years of traveling.
Though Harlan County has been her home since before her first birthday, Volena Craft spent several years on the road during the 1960s and ‘70s with her husband, J.W. Craft, whose profession as a dentist and trustee for the Kentucky Board of Dental Association required attending several meetings and conventions throughout the nation. It was during that time Craft began collecting her recipes - recipes with roots from Bouton Rouge, La., Chicago, Philadelphia and Nassau, to name a few.
The second-oldest of nine children, Craft said she developed an interest in preparing meals and “menus” at a young age. She credits that, in part, to her large family.
“Both sides are good cooks. ... My mother was a good cook,” she said. When her mother became sick when she was still young, she said she helped decide and prepare meals for her younger siblings.
“I would plan menus and I would put the meal on the table. And my sisters would be courting and bringing in their boyfriends to eat,” she chuckled.
Born in Jellico, Tenn., Craft's family came to Harlan County when her father took a job with Blue Diamond Coal Company. Raised in Cawood, she was a member of the 1947 graduating class of Hall High School.
Craft began teaching school in Harlan County in 1954 after graduating from the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, known then as Cumberland College.
It was 12 years into her teaching career that she took time from the profession to travel. But her time on the road made way for another profession of sorts.
She is proud to share that she has not only single-handedly published her own cookbook in recent years, but has prepared “every recipe” in that book.
“You can write a cookbook, but can you cook what's in it? I cooked what was in my book,” she said.
She has also contributed to several other cookbooks published by various groups in the county, including the Harlan Woman's Club and the Harlan County Homemakers Club.
And she has been passing those recipes and others along to family, friends and her local newspaper.
Craft assisted with the collection and publication of recipes submitted to the Enterprise by Mabel Collins in the 1970s and was proud to be a part of the weekly insert, “What's Cookin' In the County,” she said.
Carrying on that tradition today, Craft submits recipes for the Enterprise's weekend editions. Baklava, a mixture of nuts and syrup, is among her favorites. The recipe, she said, came from the “World's Fair in Knoxville in the 80s.”
“That's my favorite well-kept secret recipe,” she said.
Craft said she makes an effort to share “simple” recipes, not lengthy or complicating ones that may be difficult or too time-consuming, she said.
“People say, ‘I don't like a long recipe,'” she said. “But now, I've got some good long ones.”
During her time away from teaching, Craft worked in her husband's dentistry practice until his death in 1980. Five years later, she began to teach a variety of subjects to high school students in Evarts, an adjustment from her previous fourth-grade students at Cawood, she said. She taught until 1991, when an accident permanently halted her career.
But the former president of the Harlan Woman's Club, Garden Club, Professional Women's Club, the Southeastern Auxiliary Dental Society and the United Methodist Women of the Barbourville district relished in her recipes, cooking and preparing menus and sharing the ingredients of her favorite meals and desserts.
“I'm just doing what I like to do,” she said.
After all, she still has her first cookbook from 1954, with its crusty, yellowed pages.
But she has divided her other books among herself and her three sisters. And she still has plenty left to share, including a “rare” pie recipe.
“There's a lot yet to come,” she said.