Gramma Billee kept a jar for bacon drippings on her stove; she used it liberally and kept it full. But one of the most important ingredients she cooked with was intention: She knew everyone’s favorite foods and provided them. Often. Decades later, her granddaughter shares remembrance and recipes so that Billee’s descendants may nourish their own families with her “famous” foods.
As I have written about before, tastes conjure memories in a most primal way, and can transport us right back to our childhood kitchens. As such, they are excellent jumping-off points for writing or talking about your memories and crafting them into a story for generations to come (not to mention, the kids will be thrilled to have those cherished recipes actually written down).
In this latest contribution in our series, A Taste of the Past, we are treated to one family’s “famous” foods, as skillfully and lovingly prepared by Gramma Billee—and now, her descendants.
A Taste of the Past
Billee’s “Famous” Foods
By Melissa Finlay
I visited my grandmother Billee in person for the last time when she was 90 years old. I spent several days interviewing her, recording her memories and anything else she wanted to leave for posterity. She told me plenty of stories about her life and details about our ancestry, but she most wanted me to record her recipes, to pass her food legacy on to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her recipes were close to her heart, full of memories of friends and family, and preciously held knowledge of who loved which food the most.
Stories of struggle, and hope
While I recorded her recipes, I was the fortunate recipient of my grandmother’s stories, as each dish sparked memories anew.
Billee’s dishes were famous among everyone who knew her. Her recipes came to be referred to as “Billee’s Famous Enchiladas,” “Billee’s Famous Cherry Pie,” “Billee’s Famous Hummingbird Cake,” even “Billee’s Famous Hot Cocoa.” Not that her dishes were necessarily original—she liked to collect recipes from newspapers, magazines, and friends—it’s just that she made them so well, and shared them so generously. She cooked for family get-togethers. She brought overflowing platters to church potlucks and work parties (I think they may have held extra work parties to score more of her foods!). Billee knew everyone’s food favorites, and provided them.
Her life wasn’t always full of ample food, though. During the Great Depression, Billee’s father struggled to find work and her mother suffered from serious health problems. Billee’s maternal grandparents stepped in to help the family get through these lean years.
Billee recalled walking with her younger sister to their grandparents’ corner grocery store each morning on the way to school. Her grandmother gave them each a “store lunch” to take with them. After school, Billee returned to the store to work for a few hours to repay her grandparents’ generosity.
Billee’s own young family moved from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to Lake Jackson, Texas, on the Gulf of Mexico, in the mid-1950s. Here she learned how to cook with seafood, not as a premium ingredient but as an affordable protein to feed her growing children. When Billee was widowed at 47, she struggled financially while training to enter the workforce. She did her best to nourish herself and her youngest son during this difficult time.
A granddaughter’s perspective
By the time I came on the scene, Gramma Billee had a steady career and an active social life. She was constantly in the kitchen. As I watched her cook, I asked her plenty of questions. She answered every one, but never invited me to pitch in; she did the gourmet cooking and baking herself. She was the master! Cinnamon rolls filled with pecans and raisins. Shrimp quiche. Stuffed mushrooms. Tender brisket. Squash casserole. Molasses cookies. Pie, pie, and more pie.
When I was a child, her dishes always seemed luxurious to me—indulgent even. She used copious amounts of seafood, avocados, cream, pecans, butter, and shortening, ingredients not commonly used at my home. Billee kept a jar for bacon drippings on her stove; she used it liberally and kept it full. Dessert was a standard course on her menus. Yet, for all her decadent cooking, she always watched her own portions and remained slender throughout her life.
Gramma Billee introduced me to many new southern foods. I knew if Gramma made it, it would be delicious, so I tried every strange new thing she offered me. I loved so many! Billee made the only liver and venison I would ever eat, the texture and flavor superb with bacon and onions. Shrimp Victoria became a favorite with tender, succulent shrimp swimming in a rich sour cream gravy. Gramma knew it was my favorite, and made it for me often. I enjoyed the crunchy, salty bites of her fried okra. I can still recall the smells of apricot fried pies bubbling in the cast iron skillet. Nothing, however, could tempt my sweet tooth more than Billee's sweet-tart cherry pie.
I have begun to record the recipes for many of grandmother Billee’s “famous” offerings, transcribing her hand-written (often butter-stained) notes for other members of the extended family. So that her grandchildren and great-grandchildren can choose a favorite dish. So they can make it often and think of her. So her nourishing legacy can live on.
Recipes from Billee’s repertoire
I will start by sharing my favorite dishes that she made “just for me” every time I visited. These dishes still bring me the comfort of being with my gramma every time I eat them.
1 pound shrimp, peeled and de-veined
½ pound mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cube of real butter
1 tub of sour cream
Salt, to taste
Red pepper, to taste
Sauté onion and garlic in butter until softened. Add mushrooms and spices and sauté until soft. Add shrimp and sauté until just pink. Take off the heat and stir in half the sour cream. When dished up over a hot bed of rice or egg noodles, top with a dollop of sour cream. Serve with a salad and a nice loaf of French bread.
1 medium head lettuce, torn, about 6 cups
1 small cucumber, thinly sliced
1 avocado, peeled and sliced
One 11-oz. can mandarin oranges
2 tablespoons sliced green onions
In large salad bowl, combine lettuce, cucumber, avocado, oranges, and onion. Just before serving, pour on dressing and toss.
½ teaspoon grated orange peel
¼ cup orange juice
½ cup salad oil
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoons lemon juice
¼ teaspoon salt
Combine all ingredients in screw-top jar. Cover tightly and shake well.
1 can unsweetened cherries
2 tablespoons tapioca
¼ teaspoon almond extract
Mix above ingredients and let rest while making pie crust.
For easy pie crust (makes two crusts, top and bottom):
1 cube oleo, melted (Gramma’s name for shortening)
1 cup + 2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons sugar
Mix ingredients until they form a soft ball. Roll, and form half in pie plate.
Pour cherry filling into unbaked pie shell. Sprinkle filling with 1 cup sugar, generous dots of butter. Place top crust over filling. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.