LEBANON - Friends, family and fans don’t know which is sweeter, Patricia Seay’s personality or her chocolate pie.
The cook and server, 73, who has pleased Lebanon palates for over 52 years, is famous for her chicken salad, but her legend rests on her marvelous chocolate pies with fluffy meringue on top.
Seay has entered her pie five times at the Wilson County Fair and won the blue ribbon the last three times, thus she no longer competes.
How good is her celebrated dessert?
Well, a piece of her chocolate pie fetches $6 at R.S.V.P. at the Club and commands $7.50 a slice at Sammy B’s.
Lucky family members get to bite into her pies for free but occasionally get picky.
Seay shared that her granddaughter, Shannissa Richardson, recently told her, “Granny, somebody was talking about your chocolate pie. I know what I want for Christmas. Your chocolate pie but without the white stuff on top.”
The 1967 Wilson County High graduate began her career preparing school lunches for kids at Highland Heights Junior High. After two years there, she switched to McClain Elementary. In the mid-1970s, she went to work at Lebanon Golf and Country Club.
“Mom (Juanita Rhodes) worked there already. I started there as a waitress and when my mother had to come out to have a kidney removed that was when I started cooking,” recalled Seay, who works Saturdays at R.S.V.P. at the Club and Monday-Friday at Sammy B’s Restaurant, helping a bit in the kitchen but mainly as a server.
What has she enjoyed most about cooking for the public?
“I guess just a joy that I get out of it, and if somebody cannot do it their self, I feel good that they trust me to do it for them. People ask me ‘how do you do this?’ I just put it together and hope it comes out right,” she said modestly.
Lessons on the stove
Born in Lebanon to Juanita and Leroy Rhodes, Seay grew up with sisters Gale and Gloria and a brother, Charles. Her mother cooked for the public until she was 80, and her father worked at Barry-Carter Milling Company for over 30 years. She and her late husband, who worked at Wynn’s Precision Rubber for 42 years, have three children and three grandkids.
Her knack in the kitchen was passed along from her mom.
“I guess the very first thing she taught me to make was probably fried chicken when I was around 10 or 11 years old, and I helped her when she made desserts. We had the old wood-burning stove so she wouldn’t let us get around it too much. Mother was always a cook (for the public) and sometimes did house cleaning,” said Seay. “One of the first places I remember most was Mr. Chicken out on North Cumberland in the 1960s, and she worked at the country club about 25 to 30 years.”
As for foods her mother made that she loved most, Seay said, “One thing she cooked for me, something I can’t do good, is chicken and dumplings. And green beans. She had a recipe for green beans that people still talk about to this day, and she had a cornbread recipe. I’ve still got that. When you had her turnip greens or cabbage, you couldn’t have it without that cornbread of hers.”
Among other culinary mentors, Seay named Lottie Cowan, Fred Jones, Linda Swafford and Jim Stradley. She has worked for Stradley for over 25 years, and her mom cooked in his establishments about 10 years.
Addressing Seay’s work ethic, Stradley said, “She’s always on time and is always there when you need her. She’s outstanding. The only time I’ve seen her miss at all so far has been for illness and one time for a car accident. I can always count on her being there and being there on time and being pleasant. She’s got one speed but it’s always moving forward.
“She comes in Sammy B’s and from 8 to 10 a.m. works in the kitchen and makes some of our cheese spreads, does some of our baking, as well as making chicken salad, and from 10 to 2 she is a server out front. That’s how she’s always worked for me and done both over the 25 years.
“I asked her if she would like to go back to the country club for a day a week, so every Saturday she goes to the country club, and we reinstituted the chocolate pies on Saturday, something that’s always been her trademark. So, every Saturday morning since, she goes over there and makes chocolate pies.
“She’s one of a kind. After so many years at the country club, she knows the heartbeat of Lebanon and knows everybody in town. Her demeanor is always kind and she does have jokes and always says kind things to people.”
On a recent Saturday morning, Howard and Ray Lynn Crutcher of Lebanon dropped into R.S.V.P. at the Club and Seay took their orders for the New York strip with salads.
“Patricia is the most genuine and sweetest soul you’ll ever encounter,” said Ray Lynn, who also described her pie as “smooth as silk and heavenly.”
Another longtime fan of Seay’s is Margie Andrews, has known her for 30 years and also knew her mom.
“She’s very quiet, very unassuming, sort of meek and gentle,” said Andrews. “Patricia cooks and waits. Her chocolate pie is what we all like to order. She and her mom used to cook country ham for people here in Lebanon before Christmas. You’d buy the ham, and they’d cook it.”
Now you are cooking
Seay still does a bit of cooking for the public and said, “Sometimes during the holidays I get orders for dressing and a few casseroles: green-bean casserole and sweet-potatoes casserole.”
However, it’s her family that really gets fed like royalty when the holidays arrive.
“One of my main things is Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner when I always use these scalloped oysters. Everybody waits for that. I don’t use cranberry sauce. I get fresh cranberries and do that,” said Seay who usually has 10 to 12 relatives sitting around her table.
“For Thanksgiving I make boiled custard, turkey and dressing, ham, green-bean casserole, mashed sweet potatoes, oyster casserole, and then I have corn and deviled eggs. Desserts are banana pudding and cherry cheese pie.
“I cook my country ham for Christmas dinner, and I still cook it up the old-timey way and cook it in a lard stand. Then I wrap it up overnight with a heavy quilt or blanket and unwrap it the next morning and take the skin off of it and bake it for about 30 minutes.”
All work and no play make Patricia a dull girl, but the gambler in her will not allow that to happen.
“I like to play bingo in Kentucky. I used to go every Sunday after church, and I like to go to the casino (Tunica, Miss.). I go maybe once or twice a year. Since they have lottery here now, I can play scratch-off and the pick-three numbers, so I don’t go as much as I used to. I have won as much as $500. This evening I stopped at the store and spent $20 or $25. It’s a bad habit, but I do it to myself,” she said while laughing.
“During fall I like to do a lot of canning: pear preserves, pear relish; and for a while I was canning tomatoes and making okra pickles. That’s one of my pastor’s favorite things: my okra pickles and pear relish,” she said about her preacher, Robert Spickard, who mans the pulpit at Hamilton Chapel Church in Gladeville.
Seay is also a collector and has accumulated approximately 100 owls and more than 300 cookbooks (as if she needs any).
“I put the cookbooks on shelves for a while and then I got a cabinet. Every time I go to a garage sale or community help center, I see one different and I get it. I do cook from them sometimes, maybe three or four times a year,” she said.
What is her best piece of advice for someone hoping to become a good cook?
“Find something you feel comfortable with doing and just go with that. Never get in a hurry. Once you’re satisfied with the outcome, then you’ll be ready for the public.”
Asked what skill is the most important to have while serving diners, Seay said, “Have a great smile. Know how to greet the people. The main thing, sometimes you have to just go along with what they’re saying. Never try to change what’s on their mind.
“I really love waiting on people and enjoy meeting different people. It’s just a pleasure. I’m gonna stay as long as I can,” said the pie maker/server with the great smile, who practices what she preaches.