Made To Share: Katrina Carpenter’s holiday spreads bring a rush of childhood memories for the ‘cornbread kid’

By David ArkinNovember 10, 2023November 13th, 2023No Comments

Made To Share: Katrina Carpenter’s holiday spreads bring a rush of childhood memories for the ‘cornbread kid’

By Tori Couch
Photos by Jill Johnson

When Katrina Carpenter prepares any type of meal, whether it’s for a large family gathering or just a few people, she wants everyone to have a memorable experience, one where every single bite leaves a lasting impression. 

“That’s where I get the joy is knowing that you didn’t just eat it for consumption, but you really enjoyed it,” Carpenter said. “And when you ate it, it felt like somebody gave you a hug.” 

That hug envelops guests from the moment they walk through the door. 

Stepping into the small entryway of Carpenter’s Cafe & Catering, you wonder which dishes produced those mouthwatering smells wafting through the dining area. Looking at the holiday spread Carpenter laid out for 360West, one could start placing those smells. 

Butter glistens on the rolls, multiple cheeses bubble in a large pan of mac and cheese, and something sweet from the candied sweet potatoes hit the nose first. Pasta salad, collard greens, a toasted Cornish hen with rosemary-dusted fingerling potatoes, cranberry sauce and cornbread dressing cap off the tastefully laid out spread. 

These foods are considered staples of holiday gatherings in Carpenter’s family, with some being added over the years. The pasta salad might be swapped out with potato or pea salad and the greens can be collard, mixed or mustard. But make sure you do not mistake the food in the circular, glass dish for stuffing. 

“You’re gonna have your traditional cornbread dressing, not stuffing,” Carpenter said. “And you can quote me on that.” 

Making these foods brings childhood memories. Around the age of 10, Carpenter started helping her mother and grandmother prepare food for family gatherings. She became the “cornbread kid” and cut up countless raw veggies over the years. 

And while the location of family gatherings might change, food is almost always involved. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Carpenter’s cafe served as the host for “Savory Sunday” on the first Sunday of the month. Those Sundays with family brought back more cherished memories and kept the kitchen a sacred, communal space. 

“We don’t get that on a day to day where everybody’s in the kitchen,” Carpenter said. “The feels, the smells. Knowing that this will be so good and then we’re all sitting down together enjoying it. This is the type of food that does bring back memories and it stirs up emotions. That’s for sure.” 

Carpenter’s love of cooking grew over the years as she made food for parties and events like baby showers. All those opportunities started weighing down the pocketbook, though. When a friend suggested selling food, Carpenter slowly ventured into the business side. 

One of Carpenter’s first stops was in 2017 at a farmers market in Dallas. She set up shop armed with 15 pounds of smoked chicken salad. 

Little did she know, that would not be anywhere near enough food. “We didn’t last a whole hour,” Carpenter said. 

Carpenter continued selling chicken salad through popup stands in places like a friend’s barbershop. The menu eventually grew to include chicken salad sandwiches, wraps and leaf salads with chicken salad on top. An option between original and spicy smoked chicken salad emerged, too. Once Carpenter offered catering, the workload exploded. 

At the same time, Carpenter was working as a data analyst for Fort Worth ISD. She started with the district in 2012 as a substitute teacher, then taught English I and proctored trainings before moving into the data analyst role.

Carpenter left her job at FWISD in 2019 and opened Carpenter’s Cafe & Catering in February 2020, just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shut restaurants down. The risk Carpenter had taken after a year of discernment and discussion with her husband took on a whole new look. 

Like many restaurant owners, Carpenter wondered if her cafe could survive. She had vacated an Airstream trailer food truck in Fort Worth’s SOMA district after six months — a much shorter time than her two-year plan — and subleased the former Z’s Cafe space on Pennsylvania Avenue in December 2019. Customers were still searching for the new location when the pandemic hit. 

If not for a chance connection with the Meta (formerly Facebook) Data Center near Alliance off I-35, Carpenter wonders how her cafe would have survived. Someone in the Fairmont neighborhood recomended Carpenter to Meta. 

Carpenter’s team of four delivered pre-packed breakfasts, lunches, dinners and second shift-lunches for employees in all five buildings. Her son, daughter and mom helped out as often as they could. 

“I really didn’t think we were going to make it through,” she said. “We landed a really nice contract with Meta, the data center in Fort Worth, and they kept us busy. That’s really what carried us.” 

Since then, she has been busy nonstop. Carpenter is working on a recipe book and said she found inspiration through “Black Food: Stories, Art, and Recipes From Across the African Diaspora” by Bryant Terry. Each recipe in Terry’s book is accompanied by an essay or poem. 

“It’s not just a book of recipes, there are stories behind each one of them,” Carpenter said. “So, what’s your recipe to decompress? It’s not just about the food aspect. It is nurturing. How do you feed your soul in other ways, too.” 

To prepare for her book, Carpenter has started journaling. She also started slowing down when cooking to record measurements for the recipes.

Only select recipes will make it into the book, but Carpenter wants to share her love of cooking with others, especially her twin teenagers. 

Carpenter’s daughter has already inherited a knack for baking. When Carpenter’s Cafe & Catering partnered with MELT Ice Creams on a Texas Sheet Cake ice cream a few years ago, her daughter made the 20 pounds of cake used. “Everybody was saying that cake that you made, ‘Oh, my God,’” Carpenter said. “It’s not me, it’s my daughter.” 

The cafe is set to undergo a couple construction projects soon, starting with a facelift to the front awning and patio area. The awning’s target completion date is late November, and Carpenter said she will bring back lunch hours after the awning project is finished. The cafe is currently only open for breakfast. A mural is being painted on the side of the building as well, Carpenter said.

She does plan to expand into the building next door. Changes to the space include a dining area that can seat 45 people, a couple on-site meeting spaces where people can eat a catered lunch from Carpenter’s, and a prep kitchen. Spring 2024 is the target completion date. 

After the cafe’s remodeling projects are done, a celebration that has been delayed nearly four years might be in order. The cafe never had an official grand opening because the pandemic and then a massive snowstorm disrupted the initial attempts. 

“What keeps me going is the odds have been stacked and we’re still here,” Carpenter said. “It’s more than just the business, it’s more than just food. It’s a ministry, and we’re here for a reason. If we weren’t, we would have been gone a long time ago.”

Carpenter used the word “ministry” several times to describe how her business fits into the larger Fort Worth community. She loves sharing the gift of cooking with others and watching how the food brings people from all walks of life together. 

Even if the cafe never has that elusive grand opening, Carpenter will find opportunities to unite friends, family and the community through food. Upcoming holiday gatherings, for example, will put Carpenter’s signature touch on display. Everyone can expect to receive a hug and nourishment for the soul.

“There’s something about the food bringing us all together and it’s the type of food, too,” Carpenter said. “It has to be something that speaks to your soul. People will ask, ‘What’s your definition of soul food?’ For me, it is anything that I ate that made my soul rejoice.