The answer is Dessie, because her aunt – and surrogate mother – died in December 2009 after a four-year battle with dementia and failing health.
“My aunt was what I called a master baker,” said Woods, 53. “She was a master at cooking. She is the one who gave me the desire to want to cook from scratch.”
Woods was born in Pittsboro, but has spent most of her life in Tupelo. After both her parents died, Odessa and her husband, Joe, helped raise and educate Woods and her six siblings.
“My beloved aunt believed a lady could keep her house, cook for her family and still look like a million dollars,” Woods said with a laugh. “And she used to preach moderation. Eat a piece of cake, she’d say, not the whole thing. As Mississippians, we’re paying for that overeating now. If you want the biggie size, have it, but then you’ve got to go to the gym.”
Woods said she learned to cook by watching her aunt in the kitchen. Her first real cooking responsibility was to make a pan of cornbread.
“I wanted mine to look just like hers, golden brown and tall,” Woods said. “So I thought I needed to use lots of baking powder. Being an inexperienced cook, I made a mess in the oven. But I cleaned it up and kept at it until she would ask for my cornbread instead of hers.”
Odessa also taught her namesake how to make delicious desserts, especially pound cakes.
“To me, if you’re going to eat something sweet, you want something really good,” Woods said. “You don’t want to waste calories on something bad. No Splenda. No reduced-fat anything. Just decadence. But just one piece.”
Woods, an avid cookbook collector, retired in 2005 after spending 20 years with the Girl Scouts in Tupelo. She thought she might start a job baking cakes for the public, but then her aunt got sick.
“You never know what life has planned for you,” she said. “I ended up taking care of my aunt in my home for four years. Now, I’m open to whatever comes my way. It’s time to get back out there now. It may be a 9-to-5 job, and it may not.”
Since her aunt’s illness, Woods and her husband, Sylvester, have started taking better care of themselves.
“Being in our 50s now, we don’t burn as many calories as we once did,” said Woods, who has one son, Joseph, who lives in Tampa, Fla. “I’ve changed my cooking and eating habits so I can have a healthy second phase of my life. I’m conscious of salt, I use olive oil or canola oil, I bake or broil or grill. I don’t fry very often. We still love our desserts, but I make sure there are some guinea pigs around to eat them.”
Woods said she watches what she eats during the week – chicken, fish, salads – so if she and her husband entertain on the weekends, she can make the good stuff and feed others and then send it home with them as leftovers.
“When you come to my house, I try to have something for everyone,” she said. “Some are watching their diets; some are vegans. I try to feed people the way I want to eat.”
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 email them to email@example.com.