An old family recipe’s legacy of love

I didn’t know Dot Hill for very long—just a few years—but I can tell you that she was my oldest friend. She was 90 when she passed away on April 15.
We became friends because of a recipe. Everyone in Ms. Dot’s circle in Rockmart knew she made a mean chocolate pie, and in 2007 she wrote the AJC to share the recipe. I was freelancing for the newspaper’s food section then, and my editor asked me to give the lady a call. But the phone would just ring and ring. So I wrote her and asked her to call me when she could.
She called, and we talked about the pie (her mother’s recipe), and how she’d make them in batches for her grandchildren and deliver them around town to her brother Mac, her preacher, her hairdresser, and the doctor of her husband, who had Alzheimer’s—which was why she couldn’t always answer the phone, because she was caring for Ed, her “sweetheart of 67 years.” It was a good conversation, and a few days later she called again, just to see if I had made the pie yet, and whether I liked it. A few weeks after that she called to tell me about her corn bread dressing. (We put that recipe in the paper, too.)
Ms. Dot and I stayed in touch by phone, and occasionally letters, through the death of her husband and some minor health problems of her own. I went on a trip to New York and mailed her a ceramic thimble, which she had told me she collected.
Then one day her daughter called. Dot had had a heart attack; she wasn’t well. She wanted to know if I could visit her. Who says no to an elderly heart attack victim who wants a visitor? I drove to Rockmart.
More visits followed, more phone conversations, more cards and letters with each health setback. Our conversations often included detailed discussions about what we had eaten that day, what we were going to eat that night, what recipes we liked to make, what I was going to cook next—Dot wasn’t cooking much anymore, she said.
Dot’s daughter Patricia moved in to care for her mother with the same fierceness she showed bad tenants and household dirt, and I soon discovered she had inherited her mother’s love of cooking. No matter how hard I tried to not put her out, visits always involved a feast. Patricia would make her homemade “cat head” biscuits, green beans, stewed tomatoes, potatoes, pasta salad … a whole meal made without any meat, because she and her mother silently accepted my vegetarian ways. They always made me feel like an honored guest and, simultaneously, like family.
Dorothy Louise Campbell Hill was born in Polk County and grew up in Rockmart, and even though she had lived closer to Atlanta (in Decatur, then Covington) before moving back to Rockmart, she was a true small-town Southern lady—the kind whom relocated Yankees like me rarely get to meet, because such ladies usually avoid us. But Ms. Dot embraced me like one of her own, and she taught me a lot about purity of spirit and genuine acceptance. All she asked of her friends was that they give her a call or stop by for a visit every now and then. She’d show her appreciation by recalling details from previous conversations. She told everyone she knew that she loved them, and she meant it. And each phone message came with a little gift: her signature at the end, the way you’d sign a letter.
“Hey, sugar, it’s Dot. Just calling to see how you and your boyfriend are doing. Call me back. I love you. Love, Dot.”
Ours was a friendship that began because of a much-loved family recipe, grew over our love of cooking, deepened through our shared value of cooking as an act of love, and finally became a true friendship based on love itself. Although I never actually ate an entire meal she cooked—I came along too late for that—in my mind Ms. Dot will always personify Southern cooking at its very best: sincere, unfussy, rooted in place and family. In Dot’s day, “local food” wasn’t a trend that required exploration and discussion; it was a way of life. Even her name sang with poetic simplicity. Dot Hill. 

The last Patricia-feast I had with her, Dot made her chocolate pie. I ate two slices.
Thank you, Ms. Dot, for sharing your recipes and for being my friend. I love you too, and I’ll miss you. Love, Deborah.

Image: Dot and Ed Hill, courtesy of Patricia Guerrero and Elizabeth Bannister