Ever since her initial appearance on A Chef’s Life, Miss Lillie Hardy has emerged as a series favorite. Fans from all over the country have fallen completely in love with Miss Lillie’s “it’s all about me” charm. Her dishes, especially those buttermilk biscuits, make us all long for the invention of smell-o-vision. Miss Lillie’s generosity is exemplified in each episode where she shares the wisdom of old foodways with Chef Vivian at a kitchen table that seats 2.5 million viewers per episode.
In her own words, Miss Lillie shares stories about growing up in Eastern North Carolina and the “celebrity” status that ‘in nearly 70 years of life,’ she could not have predicted.
Where am I from? LaGrange North Carolina. Well, I got married and moved to Jason, but it wasn't that far. But I've been around the area all my life. As a little girl coming up, I worked in the fields with my daddy and my momma, 'putting up' tobacco and stuff like that. After I got married, I worked at a nursing home for about 30 years, but I worked in the fields all my life.
I was about 5 years old when I started working in tobacco because my momma and my aunt had us out there. I was probably younger than that because everywhere they went, they had to take their kids with them. I started in tobacco, but I tried to pick cotton. I couldn't pick no cotton. Then, my daddy had a small farm. We had to pick cucumbers and I hated that because I was scared of snakes. Every time I'd go to the cucumber patch I'd find snakes.
When I first started working in tobacco they showed me how to wrap it, I can loop it too, but you do it faster if you wrap it. Wrapping is just putting it on the stick with one string on both sides. I can show you better than I can tell you! Ain't no tobacco around here now, girl!
Getting to Know Warren and Chef Vivian
Where I grew up at, Warren and them was across the field from me. I knew Warren's daddy because we used to go pick strawberries for some money. And Warren's daddy had strawberries. I came back to this area after I retired from the nursing home and one of my friends said, "Come on over here and see Warren." I've been knowing him now about 6 years from working with him. We just got back connected. Every. Day. We don't got no season. We work spring, fall, summer, and winter. I help him out year-round. Warren used to send me with produce to Chef and Farmer, her restaurant. Somebody said, "This is Vivian. This is the chef." I said, 'Who?' "They said that's the chef right there."
Growing Her Own
I like to grow collards because I like to eat them. Whatever I like to eat I grow, well, I try to grow (chuckle). I can't grow things where I'm at. I stay in a trailer park. It's not the right kind of dirt, but I have a little garden over my mom's house. I grow some collards over there. I grow some tomatoes over there. I grow a couple eggplants over there. When we get through “setting out,” if we have some seeds or something left, I take them over to my mom’s.
Holiday Food Memories
When we were little kids, my daddy liked duck but I liked ham or turkey and the pies, and the cakes. [Thanksgiving] would be just like Christmas almost---you get to eat what you want. Momma always had sweet potato pies and some cakes-- she would have a pineapple cake and a chocolate cake, that was most of the kinds we got. I had 3 more siblings besides me. I have one now, my baby brother Jerry, but the rest of them passed away. Just me and my siblings at Thanksgiving.
Christmas we'd have apples and oranges and nuts and stuff. We didn't have that at Thanksgiving. We only got that once a year--the apples and oranges and stuff like that. And momma used to make her---what she called---sweet bread. It's like a plain cake but we called it sweet bread. It's shaped like cornbread but she cut it up into little blocks. [If you want the recipe], I have to get with Momma (laughter). Because that's something I haven't tried to make. If we would do it now, we'd call it more like a sheet cake. When the chickens were laying, you could just walk right out to the hen house and get you some eggs to make it.
That Infamous ‘All About Me’ T-Shirt
That was my momma's birthday. She just turned 89 and I wanted to do something for her. I cooked everything. Well, my daughter made the banana pudding. I [also] cooked pig feet. Vivian said she never had no pig feet. She said she liked it, but that's all it is is fat and bone. I boil it until it starts to sud, then I pour it out and put some more water in there and just let it boil, then add salt and pepper. I wear the shirt because it's all about me! I'm the one in the kitchen cooking!
Playing Bingo is Therapeutic
Well, lately I've been going about every other night and then I like to play the sweepstakes. I went Tuesday night to Kinston. I go to Goldsboro out there on [Highway] 13. How many years? My husband be dead 10 years [as of] December 31st--about 15 years I been going. I've been going a lot here lately, you know, when you be sad you got to do something to get your energy up.
A CHEF’S LIFE & Celebrity
I like everything about being on the show, ‘though I don't get to see it that much. Most the time I'm on the road or doing something. Like, Sunday when it came on, I don't know where I was, I think I was at church, but I thought about it and was like, "Oh my God, I missed the program!" But I got one of the videos of it and most everybody in the world say they like when I told Vivian, "You just stop and go wash your hands!" I just like getting the recognition where people say, "I know you," and it's people I don't even know. I say, "From where?" And they say, "It's the TV show." I show them how I make homemade biscuits, how I cook the turnips, and the rutabagas. But I don't tell 'em the [biscuit] recipe!
My daughter's got a Facebook, so I go over her house and she tell me, "Momma, you got three or four hundred 'likes.” I never thought I would be on TV, not in almost 70 years--no; never ever would have thought that! The minister I used to work with at the nursing home called me in his office. He said, “I seen you on TV.” He said, “Girl I didn’t know you could do that!” I said, “I know you didn’t!” I said, you never tell everybody what you can do. I got a lot of remarks from people I work with saying, "Will you make me some biscuits?" I say, "No. Not unless you pay me." And see, I don't measure nothing. I know what I'm doing with just a handful of this and a pinch of that; mix it together 'til I get the get the right feel that I like. A little po' country girl like me, coming from the bottom, I ain't to the top yet, but I'm coming on up that way. Slowly but surely.