Thelma Willis thinks back on the first meals she ever prepared.
The very first wasnt much -- fried doves, gravy, biscuits, pear preserves -- but then it was. There were lessons to be learned: how to treat people, how to cook, how to live.
It was the mid-1940s. She was maybe 14, working for a white family on a farm near Davisboro, between Sandersville and Louisville.
She was Thelma Curry then. Her mother had died when she was 5, and her father moved the family from South Carolina to Georgia. He died when she was 13.
To avoid digging sweet potatoes, peanuts, pulling corn or chopping cotton on the farm where they lived, she worked in the house with the farm owners wife. Young Thelma liked her.
The farmer had told her if she worked in the house she wouldnt make any money.
I didnt care, she recalled. I didnt want to be in the field.
When it came time to make biscuits, Thelma did what her Aunt Rosie had always done. She mixed the dough with a big wooden spoon.
Thelma, the farmers wife told her, you cant mix that flour up with your spoon. Make it up with your hands.
Trouble was, one of the familys kin she was cooking for had made it known he didnt want black hands touching his biscuits. But the farmers wife insisted. So Thelma dug in. The biscuits were eaten without complaint.
Now 81, Willis, a mother of 10 and a grandmother of 39, has served up thousands of meals. She has worked as a housekeeper for much of the past half century, and shes still at it, catching city buses to work most weekdays.
I have arthritis and all kinds of aches and pains, she said, but I think if I stopped, I would get stiff.
At St. Luke Baptist Church in east Macon, where she has been a member for 60 years, Willis retired as kitchen coordinator in December. For decades she fixed meals and goodies for banquets, weddings, funerals and church socials.
She once cooked for Jesse Jackson at a presidential campaign stop in Macon. (He wanted these little potato pies and chicken, Willis recalled.)
On Sunday afternoon, St. Luke will honor her for her service. And, no, she wont be cooking. Therell be heavy hors doeuvres, a gospel choir and gifts.
She loves that church, friend Thelma Dillard said. Whatever she does, she gives her all to it. I cant imagine anybody not loving Mrs. Willis.
Willis had to quit school when she was about 15. But she didnt stop learning. She cooked, cleaned and quilted.
I wasnt educated, she said, but I knew how to do stuff. ... I dont complain about cooking.
Willis late son, Melvin, ran Melvins Home Cooked Meals, and she sometimes cooked there. Her grandson, George Foster, played football at Georgia and professionally. A framed photo of him in his UGA jersey, one of scores of family portraits that wallpaper her living room, faces her front door.
Most Sundays after church, there is a crowd at her house on Morningside Drive for lunch. Her late husband, Joseph, who died in 2006, used to say of the gatherings, I just love to see my children come together.
Tons of taters
For church functions, Willis used to peel 100 pounds of potatoes by herself. People helped sometimes, but itd get on her nerves if they didnt do it right and peeled off too much potato.
I always like to cook my own food if Im gonna serve it to somebody, Willis said. I dont want somebody to say something aint good or aint right.
At home, she has three refrigerators. Theres food in all of them. The city bus drivers who pick her up and drop her off at her front steps know this. They also know about her Sunday dinners.
What you got left in there? theyll ask.
Most times shell go in, fix a plate and have it waiting for them on their next pass through the neighborhood.
One day all she had was soup. Thatll work, the driver said. The next day, there was a new driver. As Willis stepped off the bus, he said, You know, I like soup, too.
Willis children rave about her peach cobbler, her chocolate cakes and her vegetable casserole.
Ask her whats in the casserole and shell say, Mixed vegetables, water chestnuts, cheese, onions, mayonnaise and whatever else she drops in. But Willis is quick to note, Aint no secret. I dont care about secrets. Anybody want a recipe from me, I give it to them.
Of course, she doesnt much care for recipes or, say, measuring cups.
I dont like nobody asking me, What you put in that? Because I might put anything in there. No telling.
She isnt much for biscuit-making anymore, but she bakes them on occasion. She all but refuses to buy canned ones at the store.
They dont taste good to me. If you eat one when its hot, you can kind of eat it, she said. But Id rather have the real thing.
So whats the trick to homemade biscuits?
Crisco or some kind of shortening, buttermilk and flour. Of course, Ill make them out of any kind of milk I got, Willis said. I learned to use what I have.
The other day at her house, some of her children were sitting around talking in her living room. The conversation turned to mamas biscuits.
I put the same thing in mine, daughter Beverly Ficklin said, but they dont come out like hers.
Another daughter, Debra Washington, said, Its in the hands.