Photo: Courtesy of Beth Kirby
Four years ago, Local Milk food blogger Beth Kirby was in rehab for the second time, the culmination of a decade’s worth of destructive behaviors. At their wit’s end, Kirby’s family members gave her an ultimatum: Get help or lose us.
“I love my family, and I didn’t want that to happen,” Kirby told Yahoo Food. “That was the only reason I was there. I didn’t want to get better. But then, something clicked.”
Kirby saw clearly, for the first time, that her life had spiraled out of control. “When you’re in college, everyone parties pretty hard,” she recalled. “But six or seven years later, you start engaging in behaviors that even your hard-partying friends aren’t doing, and it’s scaring people.”
Avocado and arugula soup. (Photo: Courtesy of Beth Kirby)
Kirby prefers not to go into specifics about her addictions, lest she give anyone any bad ideas. “I would say hard drugs, and people can use their imagination,” she said. Yet Kirby is exceedingly vocal about what addiction did to her: She’d been a creative child in her Tennessee youth — painting, reading, and writing — but drug abuse made those hobbies all but impossible.
“I went through a lot of ups and downs,” she recalled. She lost friends and went through a divorce. “When I was at my lowest, I couldn’t read. I couldn’t write. The one thing that I could continue to do when I was in a depressed stupor was cooking. It was the one thing that didn’t give me anxiety.”
But cooking didn’t save Kirby’s life, which she’s quick to make clear. It was rehab, plain and simple, that taught her to look at herself honestly during personal crises rather than turn to drugs and alcohol. Rehab enabled her to live a life that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible if she was on drugs — one that allowed her to pursue her passion for cooking. “[Cooking] certainly gave me something to hold on to and enjoy when things were pretty bad,” she said.
Lavender, blueberry, and ricotta turnovers. (Photo: Courtesy of Beth Kirby)
In April 2012, a newly sober Kirby started a blog to document her cooking experiments, calling it Local Milk. Kirby describes her culinary style as “eclectic with Southern roots,” which explains the frequent appearance of buttermilk and cornmeal in recipes ranging from buttermilk honey bread to cornmeal brown butter scones draped in a lavender peach curd. Kirby is also influenced by her travels — particularly a trip to Japan, which manifests in dishes like a farro and avocado breakfast bowl drizzled with miso vinaigrette.
The recipes have resounded with readers, who also tune in for the site’s beautiful, atmospheric photography. It’s hard to believe the images are the work of someone who’d barely touched a camera before three years ago, but Kirby practiced. Her efforts paid off: In 2014, Local Milk won the Best Photography distinction in both the reader and editor’s choice categories of Saveur’s annual blog awards.
Since then, Kirby’s readership has exploded. She boasts more than 500,000 followers on Instagram alone, not to mention thousands more on other social media platforms. She now hosts photography and food-styling educational retreats around the world too, which help scratch Kirby’s travel itch.
Apple and rosemary buttermilk quick bread. (Photo: Courtesy of Beth Kirby)
To say that Kirby is thankful for her success is an understatement. She knows that if circumstances were even slightly different, she might not be here at all. Particularly painful is the memory of her roommate from rehab, a stunning, athletic woman with golden hair and a story nearly identical to Kirby’s.
“She had the exact same resources as me, and was a lot more beautiful and popular than me,” Kirby recalled. “A year out, she was dead and I was alive.” In 2013, Kirby poignantly blogged about first hearing the news:
“It’s easy to forget where you came from, forget the gravity, and how cold and wet and dark it is out there. How the end is always the same. And to forget what a gift life is, especially for me. Sitting there, hearing that news, all I could imagine was a parallel universe where our lines were switched, imagined her standing there, clean and sober with her love and her family around her in a warm kitchen. I imagined her mother furrowing her brow and telling her ‘I don’t know if I should tell you this, but Beth Kirby died on Monday.’ All I know, all I can say, is this: There but for the grace of God, go I.”
Kirby hopes she might help others by being open and honest about her experiences. It’s the least she can do, she said. “I can’t give anyone a secret formula,” she said. “People say, ‘You’re so brave and honest,’ and honestly it doesn’t feel like that to me. To me, it’s like, why not talk about it if it’s going to help someone? I just don’t have any fears surrounding it.”
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