True Grits

updated 06/07/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/07/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Faith Ford's potential as a mini Martha Stewart became evident at age 6. "She came in one day and informed me that I needed to get a new stove," says the Hope & Faith star's mother, Patricia, 66, a retired elementary school teacher in Pineville, La. "And I said, 'Why? My stove is not old.' And she said, 'Well, it just doesn't cook purple hull peas the way Grandma's does.' And I said, 'Honey, I must tell you, it's not the stove, it's the cook. So get Grandma to tell you what she does with purple hull peas, and that will be your responsibility from now on.' "

It's a responsibility that Ford, 39, took to heart. Along with Grandma's secret for those purple hull peas, she has collected 124 more of her family's southern recipes over the years—from fried catfish to creamy cheese grits—and put them in a new book, Cooking with Faith, coauthored by Melissa Clark. "Her recipes are very scrumptious," says Frasier's Jane Leeves, who roomed with Ford in L.A. in the late '80s. "You never went hungry when Faith was around."

Just ask her castmates. "All of her food is kind of sensuous and it's incredibly comforting, but her cooking is very fresh and light," says Candice Bergen, who got to sample Ford's biscuits, jambalaya and pecan tarts for 10 years on Murphy Brown. When Hope & Faith began shooting last August, Ford "started bringing in little pastries she stayed up all night baking," says costar Kelly Ripa. "I'm her carbohydrate-eating friend, so she likes to test things out on me that have bread and potatoes, but she makes alternatives for her non-carb-eating friends."

For her part, Ford says, "the whole point of the cookbook was to preserve my family recipes," while making them attractive to health-conscious consumers—including herself. "I believe in cutting back on things," she says. "If I'm going to have something fried, then I'm always going to have a big old salad."

Her interest in health isn't casual. In 1996, the same year she was going through her divorce from first husband Robert Nottingham, a talent agent, Ford experienced a flare-up of Graves' disease, an overactive thyroid disorder with which she'd been diagnosed in 1990. Her metabolism "went crazy and crashed," she says. "I gained weight. It was the first time in my life I had to worry about what I was eating." Medication helps keep the condition under control.

Today she's happily cooking for second husband Campion Murphy, 41, a personal trainer turned screenwriter whom she met on vacation in Arizona when her first marriage was ending. "I wasn't looking for love and neither was he, so that's probably why it happened," she says. "We just hit it off." For their 1998 wedding, they rented Clint Eastwood's Carmel, Calif., ranch.

With Hope, which is shot in New York, wrapped for the season, Ford can spend more time in L.A., where she and Murphy share a Cape Cod-style house with their dogs Tess and Bosco. As they approach their sixth anniversary, Ford hopes kids will soon enter the picture. In the meantime she pursues her first love, holing up in the kitchen for hours, "cleaning, chopping and preparing," she says. "Even if I've had the most stressful day ever, I'll cook, because it's therapy for me."

Michael A. Lipton. Monica Rizzo in Los Angeles

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