Lillie Mae Bell Ruffin – July 2016
Lillie Mae Bell, grandmother to one of our amazing cooks, Daron Ruffin, was born in St. Mark, Haiti in 1919, four years after it was occupied by the United States. She was orphaned by the time she was 16 years old and in 1935 moved to America with her two siblings hoping to find a better life. Having heard stories of discrimination in the south, they headed north and settled in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. That’s where Lillie Mae met and married her husband, Bill Ruffin when she was 18 years old.
In 1955, Lille Mae’s eight year-old daughter, Christine (Daron’s mother) went to a diner with her dad and sat at the counter. A few minutes later Bill went to use the restroom, and while he was away the police came in and told Christine she couldn’t sit there as it was only reserved for whites. When she didn’t move because she was waiting for her father, the police arrested her and took her to jail for resisting. That was a pivotal moment for the family, and they decided it was time to move to Kentucky to be near other family members. In 1970, Bill decided he wanted to try his hand at shrimp boating and the family moved to the Gulf Coast.
Lillie Mae decided a better life might be had for the family in a university town, so in 1979 her family of nine (Lillie Mae and Bill had seven children) moved to Oxford, Mississippi. Lillie Mae got a job with the University of Mississippi where she worked for 20 years, and her husband became a Baptist pastor.
Lillie Mae was an excellent cook and made traditional jerk turkey or pork at every holiday. It was always served with pikliz (a coleslaw made with pickled vegetables), so Daron never even knew there was such a thing as coleslaw with mayonnaise until he was in his teens. One of Daron’s favorite memories of his grandmother is when she’d send him and the other boys out to pick blackberries and muscadines. They’d be busy sweating and working, only to come in and find their sisters lounging around sipping sweet tea. The reward for their hard work was a delicious pie and a wonderful muscadine jelly, so it paid off in the end. Another other pay-off is Lillie Mae’s good cooking genes have been passed onto Daron, and we’re enjoying the delicious fruits of his labor every day!