Sometimes, all it takes is one. One place, one person, one experience may be all the inspiration needed to chart a course for success. For Ann Taylor Pittman, the road from MSU freshman to Cooking Light magazine’s award-winning executive editor is a healthy mix of all three.

Pittman, a native of Winona, enrolled at MSU in fall 1987 as a computer science major. After two semesters, she was drawn down a different academic path. Inspired by a beloved English Composition II teacher, she changed her major to English and also pursued a master’s in the subject. The “wonderful experience” that later came with teaching in the MSU English department helped Pittman develop a passion for literature and leadership, two key ingredients in her personal and professional recipe for growth.

“I love Starkville and Mississippi State. They will always hold a very special place in my heart,” Pittman said. “I encourage students to be present in their experience and soak up as much as they can from the incredible, talented teachers at MSU. That openness to learning and willingness to accept each day for whatever it has in store can carry you into your professional career in a very good way.”

Like many proud Mississippians, Pittman also has a love for great food. Throughout her childhood in the 1970s and 80s, she accompanied her Korean mother to source ingredients at the nearest Asian market, which at the time was in Memphis, Tennessee.

“Korean food felt like a special treat,” Pittman recalled. “The flavors were just so different from the meatloaf, chicken-fried steak and pork chops of our everyday Southern table. They were bold, sometimes slightly spicy, unsubtly savory and just insanely delicious.”

“Mom would make bulgogi—salty-sweet, paper-thin sliced beef marinated in soy sauce, brown sugar and toasted sesame oil that she’d quickly char or grill, then wrap in red-leaf lettuce leaves with a nugget of short-grain rice. Or she’d make japchae, which was my favorite—translucent noodles tossed with slivers of bulgogi, sautéed spinach, julienne-cut carrots, scallions and a soy-sesame dressing. Those were the dishes she made the most.”

With two Mississippi State diplomas in hand and teaching experience under her belt, Pittman left the Magnolia State in 1998 looking for another fun, supportive environment where she could explore her childhood passion for cooking and newfound passion for writing. Twenty years later, Cooking Light magazine in Birmingham, Alabama, remains that special place.

Pittman said she has many cherished moments from her time climbing the ranks from Cooking Light editorial assistant to executive editor, but considers “Mississippi Chinese Lady goes home to Korea” as her greatest accomplishment to date. The personal essay she penned in 2012 received the prestigious 2013 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award in the Food and Culture category. It also taught her an important lesson about her craft: If you want a story to resonate with readers, you have to be real.

“When I came to Cooking Light, I started out researching and writing articles about food and culture. Later on down the line, my editor gave me the opportunity to travel and write a very personal story about visiting my extended family in Korea,” Pittman said. “It’s a very vulnerable thing to write something with your name on it and put it out there for the world, but it was a good experience for me and netted a good story for our readers.”

Pittman said her willingness to embrace new experiences is an integral part of organizing editorial content for Cooking Light’s print readership of nearly 9.4 million. Translating science-backed nutrition into innovative, everyday recipes for today’s home cook is a challenging task Pittman and her colleagues embrace with zest.

“We’ve found that if you put a personal spin on a topic, it will always feel interesting and relatable,” she said. “I love working at Cooking Light because it’s such a collaborative environment. I’ve learned so much from everyone—our four other print editors, registered dietitians, art directors, designers, production managers. We have a lot to balance, but we have a great team.”

Along with overseeing editorial content from cover to cover, Pittman has been known to roll up her sleeves and head into the Cooking Light test kitchen. There, she carefully organizes and transforms healthy ingredients into tasty meals readers can enjoy making in the comfort of their own homes.

“Recipe development is really fun because it’s a more technical sort of writing,” Pittman said. “I have to be very, very specific in order to have a recipe that people can be successful creating at home, so I have to do a lot of good notetaking on how to make food visually appealing or cook faster or better.

You may go into a kitchen thinking you know how ingredients will go together or how the recipe is going to turn out, but sometimes it throws you for a loop, so you have to be creative and willing to go there with it,” she continued. “It’s the same with writing. If the story needs to take a different direction, you have to let it.”

Away from the desk or test kitchen, Pittman has channeled her appetite for authorship into “Everyday Whole Grains,” a comprehensive cookbook of 175 flavorful recipes featuring whole and ancient grains. She also is co-author of Cooking Light’s “The New Way to Cook Light,” winner of a 2013 James Beard Foundation Cookbook Award.

“To me, cooking a healthy meal for someone is an incredible way of showing love,” said Pittman, who lives
in Birmingham with her husband and their twin 12-year-old boys. “To write about that on a daily basis and to encourage people to do that in their own lives is an amazing opportunity.”

By Sasha Steinberg | Photos by Beth Wynn