PROFILE: Meeting Mama Sue
Published 5:24 pm Tuesday, March 1, 2022
By EMILY SPARACINO | Staff Writer
Sue Garrett doesn’t mince words about her early attempts at making meals as a newlywed in 1972. “When we got married, I couldn’t cook,” Sue says matter-of-factly. “But when you have to do something, you learn.”
After botching a batch of meatloaf balls, Sue was determined to figure out the basics of cooking. She took notes from the women in her life who excelled in this arena, including two of her aunts and her mother-in-law. It wasn’t long before Sue’s meatloaf balls were not just edible, but exceptional, and she continued to expand her repertoire. “I tried to cook what we had growing up,” Sue recalls. “Living in the country, you had vegetables and ground beef dishes, whether it’s roast or hamburger steaks.”
Those and other staples are what Sue has become known for in her cooking blog, Mama Sue’s Southern Kitchen, a project that has garnered more attention than she ever anticipated. To know how the retired school teacher earned the nickname Mama Sue—and fans all over the world—let’s start at the beginning.
Sue grew up in Vincent, a community she and her husband, Harold, have always loved and the one they knew they wanted to raise their children in, too. She worked as a teacher at Vincent Elementary School for 20 years and as an assistant principal for five years, while Harold taught and coached at Vincent Middle High School for 29 years. Harold’s long hours as a coach often meant Sue was pulling double duty, teaching during the day and then making dinner for their children at night. If practice makes perfect—or nearly perfect, for us imperfect humans—then Sue had plenty of opportunities to hone her cooking skills.
And when all those years of cooking met the wide world of social media in 2020, Sue unknowingly started her path to an online cooking blog, in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I had a personal Facebook page, and I was always posting what I had cooked that day and a photo of my plate,” she says. The owners of DeLoach Farms saw Sue’s posts and asked her daughter, Amy Garrett Martin, if Sue would cook a meal with vegetables from the farm and allow them to video it for a commercial.
That project ended, but Amy and one of her friends encouraged a hesitant Sue to make more cooking videos. “When we first started doing it, we had to talk her into it,” Amy recalls. “We kept telling her, ‘This is your ministry. People are drawn to you.’ They feel like she is their mom, and they like to hear what she has to say.”
In the cozy confines of her kitchen, Sue chose dishes with simple recipes and ingredients, and Amy recorded her on her phone as she talked about what she was cooking. “Instead of cooking a whole meal, I would cook fried okra one day or a casserole, and I put the recipe up,” Sue says. “I started this to help people to learn to cook. That’s how Mama Sue’s Southern Kitchen came about.” But as Amy pointed out, the things Sue was saying to her viewers that were unrelated to food resonated just as much as the cooking tips she was sharing.
A ministry too
As Sue began to see the impact she was having on people, she saw herself as a wide-eyed newlywed trying to make dinner for her husband in her online followers. She saw that busy mother trying to throw a meal together for her kids after a long day of work. And she saw a chance to share some of what she had learned through trial, error and the great cooks before her. “I wanted them to see that my recipes are easy,” she says. “You use things you have. Most (recipes) don’t require something you’ve never heard of.”
Along the way, Sue realized what Amy had been telling her about her cooking videos reaching people about much more than just cooking. “It became my ministry,” she says. At the end of the video for the DeLoach Farms commercial, Sue had said, “Be salt and light,” a reference to Matthew 5:13-16, which reads in part, “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world.” These scriptures are ones Sue tries to embody on a daily basis, and she felt it was important to incorporate into her videos.
That faith element doesn’t go unnoticed among her viewers, either. Sue receives phone calls and messages from people regularly, asking her to pray for them. “I don’t preach to them, but I let them know that God loves them,” she says. “I think people need to know Jesus loves them, and I’m going to tell them.”
Sue’s faith she so openly shares with friends and strangers alike has also been her source of strength through a major health setback. In the summer of 2021, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and began chemotherapy treatments. Although she had to scale back on her cooking videos, she didn’t stop completely.
The videos had taken off, and people began messaging her with questions about selling a cookbook featuring her fan-approved recipes. “I hadn’t thought about doing a cookbook before that,” she says. “When I worked at the church, I did a cookbook, but people gave me their recipes. I knew if I did one, they would have to be mine or my family’s.”
Sue decided it was a worthwhile project, but when she announced that she was working on a cookbook, she refused to accept any money from pre-orders until she had it printed and back in hand. “I was thinking 200-500 copies,” she says, “But over 1,000 people said they were interested.”
Expanding her reach
The cookbooks were such an instant hit that Sue realized she needed help keeping up with people’s online inquiries. “We get thousands of comments,” she says. She and Harold hired Angela Deaver to manage the Mama Sue’s Southern Kitchen pages. The timing of Angela’s arrival could not have been better. “I know it was God because once I was diagnosed with cancer at the end of July, after my first treatment. There’s no way I could have done it,” Sue says. “I would have had to close down. She’s kept it going, and she has expanded the business. Orders are just growing.”
Angela also helped Sue expand her online presence from Facebook to Instagram and a website that doubles as a food blog, where she posts full recipes. Speaking of recipes, Sue says her strawberry cake and Crockpot cube steak are two of her most popular. It’s a humble observation, though. “I am not the best cook out there,” she says. “I watch cooking shows and share them. Brenda Gantt is awesome, and so is ‘Coffee Time with John and Momma.’ There are just a lot of good ones out there.”
The more views her videos receive, the more people recognize Sue’s face—and even her voice—wherever she goes. “I hardly go anywhere now that someone doesn’t recognize me,” she says. Harold agrees, but says he loves to see his wife appreciated by so many people: “It’s pretty nice to stand at the back sometimes.”
Now, the former teacher who for years went by “Coach Garrett’s wife” is lovingly called “Mama Sue,” and the man formerly known as “Coach Garrett” is now “Mama Sue’s husband.” And if Mama Sue ever wonders whether she is making a difference in people’s lives, she only has to sift through the thousands of pieces of mail from people all over the world to know she is.
On the Tuesday after Labor Day last year, for example, Sue received more than 500 pieces of mail. She stores the cards and letters in plastic tubs, and keeps any trinkets people send to her—bracelets, blankets, devotion books, journals and even recipes from other families’ cookbooks. No matter how many cards and letters come in, she reads every single one. “They’re so sweet,” Sue says. “I just have been blown away by the generosity of people.”
Amy sees her mom’s cooking blog as a positive outlet not only for Sue’s fans, but also for Sue as a Christian trying to minister to others. “This has just opened up doors for her,” she says. “People are comfortable with her, and people realize she is real. The Lord just works through her, and people want to have what she has.”
If anything, her fan mail is a testament to her generosity—and her ability to connect with people through cooking and positive commentary. After all, those who frequent Mama Sue’s Southern Kitchen know they will find salt and light, two ingredients Sue Garrett uses in the kitchen of her Harpersville home every time.