Church honors Macon woman for decades of cooking

jkovac@macon.comJanuary 23, 2014 


Thelma Willis has prepared many meals in her kitchen -- some for large groups and some for family. She even prepared one for Jesse Jackson.


Thelma Willis thinks back on the first meals she ever prepared.

The very first wasn’t 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 owner’s wife. Young Thelma liked her.

The farmer had told her if she worked in the house she wouldn’t make any money.

“I didn’t care,” she recalled. “I didn’t 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 farmer’s wife told her, “you can’t mix that flour up with your spoon. Make it up with your hands.”

Trouble was, one of the family’s kin she was cooking for had made it known he didn’t want black hands touching his biscuits. But the farmer’s 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 she’s 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 won’t be cooking. There’ll be heavy hors d’oeuvres, a gospel choir and gifts.

“She loves that church,” friend Thelma Dillard said. “Whatever she does, she gives her all to it. I can’t imagine anybody not loving Mrs. Willis.”

Willis had to quit school when she was about 15. But she didn’t stop learning. She cooked, cleaned and quilted.

“I wasn’t educated,” she said, “but I knew how to do stuff. ... I don’t complain about cooking.”

Willis’ late son, Melvin, ran Melvin’s 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 it’d get on her nerves if they didn’t do it right and peeled off too much potato.

“I always like to cook my own food if I’m gonna serve it to somebody,” Willis said. “I don’t want somebody to say something ain’t good or ain’t right.”

At home, she has three refrigerators. There’s 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?” they’ll ask.

Most times she’ll 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. That’ll 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 what’s in the casserole and she’ll say, “Mixed vegetables, water chestnuts, cheese, onions, mayonnaise” and whatever else she drops in. But Willis is quick to note, “Ain’t no secret. I don’t care about secrets. Anybody want a recipe from me, I give it to them.”

Of course, she doesn’t much care for recipes or, say, measuring cups.

“I don’t like nobody asking me, ‘What you put in that?’ Because I might put anything in there. No telling.”

She isn’t much for biscuit-making anymore, but she bakes them on occasion. She all but refuses to buy canned ones at the store.

“They don’t taste good to me. If you eat one when it’s hot, you can kind of eat it,” she said. “But I’d rather have the real thing.”

So what’s the trick to homemade biscuits?

“Crisco or some kind of shortening, buttermilk and flour. Of course, I’ll 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 mama’s biscuits.

“I put the same thing in mine,” daughter Beverly Ficklin said, “but they don’t come out like hers.”

Another daughter, Debra Washington, said, “It’s in the hands.”

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