“I am here, and it is now.” This is a phrase that Beth Kirby constantly repeats to herself. It’s the mantra of someone who has fought demons in many forms – addiction, mental illness, self-loathing – and learned that, by simply being present and finding the sacred in the mundane, she could channel a once unhealthy energy into positive creativity. Two years ago she began the blog Local Milk, as a way of sharing her culinary creations inspired by her Southern heritage. It soon evolved to include beautiful photography, elegant prose and a rare honesty that has since helped manifest the community she always longed for. Now also a sought-after food stylist and chef – including co-hosting the recent Nashville Kinfolk dinner – she is constantly fuelled by the opportunity to share her gift with others.
Spend a few moments talking with Beth Kirby and you’ll be instantly beguiled. Her vibrant enthusiasm, lyrical turns of phrase and unyielding gratitude for life are all delivered with a slight Southern lilt, punctuated regularly with an endearing giggle. So when the sweet-natured 31-year-old reveals that, until three years ago, she lived most of her adult life virtually friendless, it’s hard to fathom. But it’s just one of many transformations that have occurred in Beth’s life since she returned to her home town of Chattanooga, Tennessee.
This month marks Beth’s third year of sobriety, following a destructive, rebellious journey throughout her twenties, fuelled by a comorbid tangle of alcoholism, addiction, bipolar disorder, OCD and ADHD. Two years ago, while trying to channel her energy into something positive, and conducive to her sobriety, she started her blog, Local Milk. At first it was simply to document the recipes she was creating, but it quickly evolved, combining raw yet stunning photographs of her gourmet creations with expressive prose that wove tales of her at once tumultuous and joyous life. Writing has always been entwined with Beth’s existence, and as a kid she kept a small folder of poetry as her constant companion.
Since the only food tradition that existed in her family was eating regularly at chain restaurants, all her memories of cooking as a child were with her grandma. “She was never not cooking – even the day she died she had gotten up and made banana bread that morning,” Beth recalls fondly. “Her kitchen was chaotic. It was messy, with flour everywhere – a very lived-in kitchen. I remember there was a black walnut tree in her backyard and we would sit out and crack walnuts. And at the farmers market she would haggle with the farmers over the price of corn and then we’d go home and shuck it. She made a very particular type of food – Southern food, like cornbread, fried okra and biscuits. I took it for granted because it was just grandma food and it wasn’t until later that I became really enamoured with it. And it’s what I focus my culinary efforts on now.”
What it means to be Southern, Beth says, is open to interpretation. “To me it’s about brokenness. It’s the bad mixed with the good, the darkness and the backwardness, but also the richness – the literature, the food, the landscape, the history. It mirrors humanity in its beauty and brokenness all at the same time. I really identify with that redemptive brokenness.” These days Local Milk is renowned for its striking photography that captures the delectable results of Beth’s epicurean toils, shot in rustic settings using natural light. And yet she began the art reluctantly. “I took up photography to share my food, but I quickly realised it didn’t matter how good my recipes were if my photos were crappy! I soon found that photography was its own thing for me, not just a means. It became a passion in its own right and I discovered I had an aptitude for it.”
The raw honesty that distinguishes Local Milk from most other food blogs wasn’t always part of Beth’s plan either, but she soon realised that, without it, she wouldn’t be true to herself. “Initially I decided to start a blog and really be myself. And then I second-guessed it, shut it down and started Local Milk with the thought of having a blog that my mum and friends could read. But I realised very quickly that there was no way to talk about my life without talking about those things. I think it’s a disservice for someone like me to go through what I’ve gone through, and get where I am, and just pretend that I’ve always been that way or that it was really easy. I think that’s discouraging to other people – to know the truth is encouraging, so now it’s just part of it for me.”
Fittingly, the place where Beth truly finds beauty is in the perfection in imperfection. “Perfection is the bane of my life,” she laughs. “I’m a perfectionist, and it makes me miserable, insane and it makes me procrastinate. So embracing the perfection in imperfection is my means to sanity, and I think that’s true for a lot of people. If you drop the ideal and start to see beauty in what’s already there, you’ll be happier and will develop new eyes for beauty where you might not have seen it before.”
Even when looking introspectively, Beth is learning to discover beauty in her own imperfections, saying that many of her weaknesses are also her strengths. “I’m an addict. I tend to go overboard and I did that with my own dissolution. But when I stopped, I put that same energy towards work and now I’m building relationships and cooking dinners, and it forces me to still live life. I’m intense about anything I do and I really have to watch myself to not take even positive things to an unhealthy extreme.” That struggle is something she deals with on a daily basis. “I think the hardest thing I’ll ever have to overcome is addiction in some form. It’s like this morphing beast and its face changes. Coupled with the bipolar, it’s kind of like this wonderful stew of psychological, mercurial imbalance. So I always have to watch myself. And sometimes I let it happen and I fight every day to hang on, stay focused and keep going. For me, the ultimate challenge will be not getting exhausted and quitting.”
Many in Beth’s position would have given up, and even she isn’t quite sure why she hasn’t. “I think it’s just this inborn survival instinct. And it’s also a desire to create for an audience and share it, not because I want affirmation or praise but because, for me, creation is an act of sharing. The people I meet, the relationships I make and things I create – they’re all fuel for me.” The tightknit creative community she has cultivated in her life, particularly in Nashville, has largely evolved through her blog. “This is the first time I’ve ever had friends,” she admits. “I was a horrible person and nobody wanted to be my friend! But now I have all these amazing creative women in my life who inspire me constantly.”
Several exciting projects are in the works for Beth, including a book and a potential TV show. Alongside one of her best friends, artist Rebekka Seale, she will also visit Australia in September to conduct a series of two-day Slow Living workshops focused on a holistic approach to creating content using food, florals, photography and textiles. “The idea behind the workshops is that to create good content, you need to live it,” she explains. That philosophy runs full circle to Beth’s commitment to living and treasuring each moment. “Be here now,” she offers as wisdom. “Every bit of fear, anxiety and regret lives in two places, neither of which exist: the past and the future. If you live in the present moment, you will do away with a good 90% of your negative emotions. It’s about living moment to moment. That’s where I find peace, living one day at a time.”