Column/A lady as sweet as the frosting on her cakes

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 12, 2007

From the time she was a little girl, Bernice Gill, 62, has always loved to cook.

As a matter of fact, some of her earliest memories involve helping her mother wrangle up many of the same dishes she makes today for her many customers and friends.

“When I was little, I was all the time trying to stir the pots on the stove,” Gill said. “I’d burn myself all the time, so my daddy made a set of wooden steps and put them in front of the stove so I could be tall enough to stir without getting burned.”

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Gill’s love of cooking later turned into a business.

She bought Bearden’s Catering several years ago and operates it from Our House Restaurant on Dallas Avenue.

From there she caters weddings, private parties and corporate lunches.

She is also re-opening Our House on Aug. 20, for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Sunday through Friday, something she used to do many years ago at White Forest Cottage with much success.

Our House is the type of place where from the moment you walk in the front door you feel like you’re at your Granny’s house.

The smell of baked fresh chocolate chip cookies, cakes, and other homemade delicacies hangs heavy in the air and Gill, who I affectionately began to call “Mom” when she chastised me for not eating all of my broccoli, stays busy at work in her catering kitchen making “miracles” from scratch.

Gill, or “Miss Bernice” as I call her, was born and raised in the “Queen City.” Her mother, a Perry County native, worked in a sewing factory “until they made her retire when she was 65.”

It’s obvious that she inherited her work ethic from her mamma. Gill can run circles around most folks, rising early in the morning before most people’s alarm clocks even wake up.

She’s a pretty lady, with a head full of silver hair and a motherly way about her that sets people at ease from the moment they meet her.

“Mother always said treat people like you want them to treat you,” she says with a certain matter-of-factness that let’s you know immediately she lives by that rule.

The road has not always been smooth for Gill, who tragically lost one of her three children at an early age.

Her son Tony, who was six at the time, was killed by a drunk driver while crossing the street on his way to the store.

She raised her two other children on her own after a divorce and her family has been marked by cancer, with her oldest grandchild currently battling the disease.

“I lost eight family members to cancer in two years and four months,” she said with a sadness in her tone that only such a loss could evoke.

Gill’s first job was at the Walton Theater, which now houses the performing arts center.

“I told a story about my age and they put me in the concession selling popcorn,” said Gill, who was 13 years old when she began earning a living. “I was so tall I guess they thought I was old enough. I worked there two years and then they put me in the ticket booth. I’ve been working ever since. Even when I don’t have nothing to do I go to work.”

Baking remains Gill’s first love. She earned her blue ribbon reputation at the Winn Dixie bakery where she was manager for 20 years. Although she has hundreds of cookbooks, she often spends hours in the kitchen conjuring up recipes using only her cook’s creative mind.

“I like to cook something that is not in a cookbook,” she said. “I like to make things myself.”

Her most well known creation, Granny B’s Tomato Pie, was named one of the “100 dishes to eat in Alabama before you die” by the Alabama Tourism Bureau.

I can attest that it was a wise choice, but few may know that its origins were actually a mistake.

“We had a tour bus coming in and I’ve always used Martha Stewart’s recipe for tomato pie,” she said. “I was hurrying to make the topping for them and I used the wrong cheese. As a matter of fact I used the wrong spice too. I thought they were going to be horrible, but we served them anyway and I got nothing but compliments.”

Gill has been working to get Granny B’s Tomato Pie, which she has patented, on every store shelf in America and has submitted an application to Wal-Mart to see if they have an interest.

“I haven’t heard back from them yet, but I’m still hoping,” she says confidently.

Until Wal-Mart comes calling, Gill stays busy catering events at banks and doctor’s offices and operating The Cafeteria, a small meat and three restaurant at Craig Air Base that is open Tuesday through Friday. She’ll continue to operate the cafeteria, along with the lunches she’ll serve at Our House. At both places you’ll be able to get home-style cooked meals that include tea and dessert for around six bucks, a small price to pay for a little culinary magic.

As for what the future holds, Gill says her goal in life is simple.

“I want to leave a mark in this world. When they talk about me I want people to think of me with good thoughts and to say Bernice was a good person and a darn good cook. Mother always said your name is all you’ve got, don’t mess it up.”

Sage advice from a woman who truly understands the meaning of dedication, hard work and self-respect.

Dennis Palmer is publisher of The Selma Times Journal. He can be reached at 410-1712, or by email: