By Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal
BOONEVILLE – At 42, Neola Cleveland had been married a dozen years. She had three small children and a nice home. But she was uneducated.
So, she decided to go to college.
“All my neighbor friends, all they wanted to do was sit and drink coffee and gossip. I wanted more than that, so I went back to school,” said Cleveland, 83.
In the mornings, she’d drop her kids at school and then drive to Blue Mountain College for classes in elementary education. She could be back home in time to meet the school bus in the afternoons.
With a bachelor’s in hand, she got a job teaching second grade at Wheeler, but she wanted more. Her advisor at Blue Mountain had said she had a knack for administration.
“I believe the words were, ‘You are a born leader,’” she said. So she headed to Ole Miss, where she received her master’s – and then her doctorate – in educational administration.
“I was 52 when I got my doctorate,” she said. “I retired from teaching in 1985. I never did get a job in administration, I think because I was a woman. But things are different now.”
At one point, she did get a job as a principal at a county school, but she didn’t get the money that came along with the title.
“They ended up giving me a $300 bonus,” she said. “I took that money and went to the grocery store and spent it on food to feed all the staff at the school – 54 people. I served a boneless beef roast, pork loin, ham, several vegetables and casseroles, three sheet cakes and two cobblers. People said it was one of the best meals they’d ever had.”
Cleveland had learned how to cook just after high school, when she went to live with her grandparents, who were invalids.
“I taught myself to cook there,” she said. “I didn’t really use recipes.”
And now, whenever she has the inclination, she cooks for others.
Which is just about every day.
Five days a week, including Sundays, she prepares an elaborate lunch for her son and his wife.
One day this past week, she had hamburger steaks with onions and gravy, baked beans, rice casserole, slaw, fried okra, strawberry salad, sourdough bread and apple pie.
Another day, she fixed grilled pork chops, green bean casserole, a potato dish, sourdough bread, chocolate pie – and fried okra.
“A neighbor brought me an ice cream bucket full of frozen okra,” said Cleveland, who was born and raised in Belmont. “I never turn down vegetables people give me. I’m about to run out of freezer space.”
She also had fried okra when she and her husband of 53 years, Webster, entertained their couple’s bridge club last week. She also served Chicken Roll-Ups, Frozen Strawberry Salad, Spinach Madeleine, pinto beans, skillet cornbread, cheese cubes and a German Chocolate Upside-Down Cake.
“I like to try new recipes once or twice a month,” said the petite grandmother of seven. “Webster likes to look at recipes. He’ll read them to me when he’s watching TV and I’m doing handwork.”
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 email@example.com.