Still Stirring Things Up

A Great-great- Grandmother From Frederick Churns Out Down-home Recipes And Sells Her Books On Qvc

April 29, 2009|By JILL ROSEN | JILL ROSEN,jill.rosen@baltsun.com

For her 95th birthday, Bea Toms single-handedly cooked for nearly 300 people and then appeared on QVC to promote her cookbook, selling out - again.

The Frederick great-great-grandmother, who pulls her silvery hair into a bun, who stands 5 feet tall on tiptoes, who cooks with an apron on, who recites inspirational poems by heart and who refers to herself as "just a plain country girl," has sold more than 70,000 copies of the book she published at the age of 90, Recipes From a Country Cook.

Is it possible that with the nation's culinary best-seller lists crowded with titles by flashy celebrity chefs and prim tomes on losing weight and cooking to save the environment, Bea Toms, in some small way, is offering the comforting antidote?

With her casseroles covered in crumbled cornflakes, her liberal dollops of mayonnaise and her salads anchored by Jell-O and marshmallows, Toms is essentially offering America a folksy, soothing, grandmotherly hug.

"I do down-home stuff," she says, proudly pointing out that her recipes don't include "extra spices" and every one of her dishes is "identifiable." "I make no apologies for it."

Toms was born in 1914 in rural Virginia and sent to live with an aunt in Maryland. When Toms was 13, her aunt pulled her out of school and put her to work on another family's farm. She married at 18.

The mother of three, grandmother to eight, great-grandma of 16 and great-great-grandmother of five likes to joke that she's been cooking "since I was born." In any case, in her teens, she was preparing large, hearty meals to keep the hungry farm staff satisfied. At the farm, she says, she learned about "good country cooking."

She's refined those skills over the last 80 years.

After fixing a celebratory spread for her oldest daughter's wedding, Toms found herself overwhelmed by requests to do the same pinwheel sandwiches, little meatballs and deviled eggs for other people.

With no advertising, only word-of-mouth, Toms - who still lives on her family's working farm, though her husband died in 1975 - built an informal catering business, cooking for weddings, parties, birthdays and christenings. All by herself.

"Nobody believes this, but I make all of my food," she says, with no small measure of indignation. "I have never had a person bake a roll, a pie, a cookie or anything."

At 90, she decided it was time to share all the recipes she'd held close to the vest all those decades.

"People would ask for this and that and, in this business, you hesitate to give your recipes away," she says.

In between catering jobs, Toms found time to write four more cookbooks. She also has penned two volumes of poetry and a collection of short stories. She writes everything out longhand.

When asked if she ever takes a day off, she pauses and asks, "A whole day?"

Energy, she figures, is a state of mind. If you want to do things, you do them. Simple as that. "Work does not stop me," she says. "I've shocked wheat, I've driven horses, I've husked corn, I've driven tractors. It's who I am."

Celebrating her big birthday on live television during her most recent visit to QVC, Toms beamed as host David Venable, who's about twice her height, presented her with a cake.

Venable, getting to business, then turned to a table laden with dozens of dishes from Toms' cookbook. He zeroed in on the little round rolls with golden brown tops, the things, he pointed out, that "made her famous."

"Oh, yes," Toms answered demurely. "They call me the little old roll lady."

Venable bit deeply into one roll stuffed with country ham. "Mmmmmm. Mmmmmmm," he said. "I do like."

Later, on the phone with a reporter, Venable says that all the oohing and ahhing wasn't just for the camera.

"Her rolls are without parallel," he says. "I've never had a nicer, fluffier, more wonderful roll than Bea's."

QVC discovered Toms through a national talent search in 2005. The "little old lady" with a bun made it past thousands and thousands of competitors hawking products to win a chance at selling hers on the shopping channel.

In just minutes during her first appearance, she sold out.

Tickled by all the interest in her cookbook, Toms likes to think of all the people who might be fixing her Chicken Beatrice, her Orange Blossoms, maybe her spinach souffle, in their own kitchens.

"At my age," she says, "I think it's great to have something to offer others."

Venable thinks Toms' appeal is twofold. First, to accomplish what she has in her 90s is undeniably inspiring.

"On my best day - and I'm 45 - I couldn't achieve what she's doing," he says.

And then, there's the intangible Bea-osity. Something about the bun, the apron, the tray of fresh-baked whatever.

He says: "She's the grandmother we all dream of having."

bea toms

Birthday:: March 26, 1914

Claim to fame: : Frederick caterer known as "the little old roll lady" and QVC cookbook-selling diva

Family:: Three children, eight grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren

Vice:: Collecting antique servingware. Don't ask how much she has.

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