A little more than 35 years ago, in August of 1978, Thelma Parker, Madewood’s housekeeper at the time, and I were gathering what seemed like a bushel of sweet potatoes, corn and tomatoes from the garden that caretaker Chester Freemen and son Warren, then Madewood’s groundskeepers, carefully tended.
Preparing for a visit from then-Times-Picayune food writer and rising star Renee Peck — now my editor at NolaVie — we were on our Ps and Qs, as we wanted to be sure all our dry measurements, as well as pints and pounds, were in order.
Have I mentioned before in this column that I adore redheads?
When the red-tressed, Brenda-Star-cub-reporter-like Mrs. Peck arrived, we were ready for anything and everything, and were both enchanted by her presence.
Sounding the death knell for the Scarlett-O’Hara 18-inch waist while lauding Thelma’s corn pudding, Pumpkin Lafourche, cakes and candies in her column, “In Good Taste,” Peck wrote:
“Like many expert cooks, Thelma learned by doing. ‘When I got married at 17,’ she remembers with a laugh, ‘all I could do was fry chicken and make candy. So we had chicken and candy every night until my husband told me I had to learn to cook something else.'”
I met Thelma when I was 10 and she was 24. My family was staying at the Munson family’s Glenwood Plantation House in Napoleonville, which fell prey to a kitchen fire in the mid-1950s. She was cooking for the Jaubert family, whom my parents had met, and one night their son, wild-child Corbett, looking for an excuse to get his hands on the family’s 1954 Chevrolet Impala coupe, white with a red stripe down the side, offered to drive Thelma home.
Huddled in the back seat, with Thelma anchoring shotgun, my brother Don and I shuddered as Corbett swerved onto the Canal Road and swiftly accelerated to 85 miles per hour down the twisting, two-lane country road. It was the only time I ever saw Thelma exhibit even an inkling of fear.
Famous for her fried chicken, Thelma appeared on chef John Folse’s cooking show, where Popeye’s ended up being substituted for Thelma’s signature dish. (Read my column about that here.)
Once, when there wasn’t time to prepare cornbread from scratch for a group of Assumption Parish schoolteachers having lunch at Madewood, Thelma suggested we try Jiffy corn muffin mix.
When a teacher asked Thelma for her cornbread recipe, she replied that it was a secret. That was fine, the teacher replied, she just wanted Thelma to know that “I love your cornbread ’cause it’s sweet like Jiffy.'”
Thelma shot back to the kitchen to be sure the lid was on the trash can holding empty Jiffy boxes.
Thelma’s husband, “G’int,” who predeceased her in death, taught me an important lesson in Mardi Gras propriety. With a niece making her debut at a church on the bayou, he was distressed to learn that he had to “rent a tuck for the occasion.” I hadn’t realized till then that “tux” is obviously plural.
We lost Thelma last week, at the age of 81. Her service was held at the New Zion Baptist Church in Houma, where Thelma had lived since the turn of this century. The family reproduced my previous column about Thelma, as well as artist Sharon Weilbaecher’s spot-on watercolor portrait of Thelma, in the program. I was, to say the least, moved, and honored.
Rev. Hayward Sims, Jr., promulgated a passel of jubilation from the pulpit of the modest, packed church, where crystal chandeliers hover above forest-green carpet and polished hardwood pews — all leading to a mural of baptism in the river Jordan that framed the dynamic preacher in his verbal celebration of Thelma’s life.
With the skill, speed and control of a Virginia tobacco auctioneer, he counseled the electrified congregation on the teachings of the Apostle Paul and the Bible, how Thelma’d lived the life, and “didn’t go lookin’ for no ticket on Amtrack, didn’t search out no Greyhound to go home. No, Mother Thelma knew where she was headed, into the arms of Jesus.”
Suddenly wiping his brow, the pastor implored, “May I? I say, may I? Yes, may I sit down now?” But family and friends would have none of it, and praise of Mother Thelma continued as the funeral director removed the flattering rose-colored light that had illuminated Thelma’s placid demeanor in the open casket at the front of the church.
As we filed out the door, I touched Thelma’s hand and bid a final good-bye.
Mother Thelma, we loved you — as Miss Adelaide sings in the Broadway musical, Guys and Dolls — a bushel and a peck.