COOK OF THE WEEK: Pontocola cook keeps homemade meals under wraps

SHANNON – The first two months Octavia and Ken McVay were married, she called her mother every night.
“I realized I didn’t know how to cook,” said McVay. “I realized I didn’t know how to make cornbread or stewed potatoes. My mother and her twin sister helped me learn to cook by phone those first two months. Then, I realized I had to learn to cook the way Ken liked to eat. So I started calling my mother-in-law.”
Eventually, the 46-year-old mastered all the family favorites, and she prepares them every Tuesday night for her husband, her daughter Leeanna, and her daughter Kendra and her husband, Jake.
“It’s the kids and whoever they want to bring with them,” said McVay, a deposit liaison at BancorpSouth. “I’ve been doing this since Kendra got married. I hadn’t planned on doing it, but now I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
One recent Tuesday, she prepared hamburger steaks, baked beans, fried potatoes, cole slaw and cornbread at her home in the Pontocola community between Shannon and Pontotoc.
“In the summertime, we grill a lot and in the wintertime, we eat a lot of chicken stew and chili,” she said.
McVay never knows how many will be at her table, a tradition that dates back to when her girls were teenagers.
“At the end of the day, before I left work, I’d call home and get a head count – to see how many were going to show up,” she said. “Usually, there were at least 12.”

Precious skillet
McVay’s daily home-cooked meals may be one of the best-kept secrets around.
“People don’t know I cook unless they sit at my table,” she said. “I don’t cook much and carry to church or to work.”
She gets her recipes from two cookbooks: “More Magnolia Mixin’,” which her mother, Mary Goff of Verona, gave her as a wedding gift; and a homemade cookbook prepared by her mother-in-law, Anna Sue McVay of Pontocola.
“Anna Sue made this cookbook for all the daughters and daughters-in-law, and then about 10 years later, she made a second edition for all the granddaughters,” McVay said. “This is what we call Pontocola cooking. There’s probably 200 recipes in it.”
But McVay’s cornbread recipe came straight out of her mother’s head. It’s the one she learned how to make 26 years ago, by phone.
“I make cornbread just like anybody else – cornmeal, milk and eggs,” McVay said. “But my kids say mine is the best and that even though they do exactly what I do, theirs doesn’t taste the same. I think it’s my skillet. The girls are already fighting over which one is going to get it.”

Do you know a good cook? Send your nominations to Ginna Parsons, Cook of the Week, P.O. Box 909, Tupelo, MS 38802. Or you can fax them to (662) 842-2233 or e-mail them to

Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal

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