Mary Katherine Hennigan venerates her matriarchs in the kitchen and beyond
Words by Nicole Letts
Like many Southern cooks, Mary Kathryn Hennigan, or “MK” as she’s called by friends, learned kitchen commandments from her grandmothers.
“Growing up, I would spend summers in North Carolina and South Carolina visiting my grandmother, my dad’s mom. She made biscuits three times a day, and I helped her make the sweet tea. She was my first instructor,” she recalls. “My mother and her mom were wonderful hostesses, always making sure that the table was set properly using the prettiest dishes and being quite creative in their tablescapes.”
It’s no surprise then that gathering friends and family is second-nature to the Fort Thomas, Kentucky, resident, and the holidays are her festival season. MK is the face behind In the Curious Kitchen, an online retail shop where Southern staples are shipped directly to your door.
Whether she’s stirring up a bourbon cocktail complete with her signature boozy cherries or whipping together a batch of pimiento cheese, MK is the consummate host, always ready for company. She’s the holiday hostess we aim to be, and thanks to her product line, achieving hostess sainthood is easier than ever.
Are you a trained chef? Did you go to culinary school? Are you self-taught? Give me a little bit about your background and training.
I'm a self-taught cook. I wouldn't necessarily call myself a chef, although I do have the passion that many chefs have. I'm mostly self-trained, and my original instructor was my grandmother.
On your website, you say you have a family of strong women that inspired you.
My dad's mom was certainly the inspiration behind the foods [I make and carry]. The hostessing came from my mom and her mother. My grandmother was quite the hostess, and she was the lover of bourbon. She enjoyed a glass of bourbon each evening, oftentimes with her friends. It became a cocktail club of sorts. I called her “Party Kat.” Like me, her name was Kathryn, but I always referred to her as Party Kat because she was always up for a cocktail, always up for a good time, and when a song came on, she would get up and dance. She was just the best.
What other traits of these women have been passed down to you and even to your own two daughters?
Opening my home to others, whether it's having people over or cooking a meal. My paternal grandmother’s home was always open. Food was how she celebrated and how she showed love. And for me, it's really the same thing. I love to cook, especially during the holidays. That's a big part of what I do to show love too.
With bourbon balls, boozy cherries, and pimiento cheese all on your menu, it’s clear you’ve been influenced by your Kentucky roots. How has your home state shaped you as a cook?
I am very proud to be from Kentucky and to be able to showcase Kentucky cuisine. The food of Kentucky is vast. The boozy cherries are dark Italian cherries in bourbon syrup, and that's my nod to our storied bourbon country. I also have cheese-based products, but the two lines come together around entertaining and being together with friends and family.
What does the immediate future look like for you and In the Curious Kitchen?
I'm introducing a new cocktail kit, the Kentucky mule, which is a bourbon version of a Moscow mule. I’ll also be adding hot pepper jelly, bourbon honey mustard, and strawberry jalapeño jam. There will also be curated gift boxes featuring other small Southern brands alongside my own.
What are the holidays like in your house, and what are some of your favorite hosting tips and tricks?
Oh, holidays are the best time in our house! I decorate early so I can enjoy the season. For me, it’s the weekend of Thanksgiving. I also always like to introduce new dishes alongside classic ones. I collect holiday editions of my favorite magazines. I have had them for years. Each holiday season, I flip through them, and that's where my inspiration comes from. For example, although I have a set list of cookies I bake, I'll throw in something “new” from one of those older issues.
Tell me about one of your favorite cookie recipes.
My grandmother would make chocolate chip cookies using the recipe on the back of the Nestlé Toll House bag. I've never tasted a cookie that was better than that. We would make them when I would visit, but she'd also send them to me when I was in college as a care package. When I make them, my twist is to add some of my boozy cherries to the batter.
Why are food items, and particularly your food items, a really great holiday gift?
Food tells a story that's familiar to people and reminds them of time spent with family and friends around the dinner or cocktail table. Food always has a bit of nostalgia to it because of that. There are so many stories around food. I want people to celebrate those food memories through my products.