This is the time of year when parties, soirees and events in Monroe seem to be a weekly occurrence, where tables sag heavy with beautiful arrangements of meats, vegetables, rolls, pastries, sauces and desserts of every description. For me it brings back the memory of Louelle Conyers, Monroe’s acknowledged “First Lady” of food and Monroe’s first caterer.

          At her funeral service held on October 18, 1981 in Monroe, the tributes to her culinary skills were eloquent testimony to what she loved to do best: cook. Back in the day whenever a large party or gathering was being planned Louelle was the first person the host or hostess contacted.  Due to the high demand for her services, often times an event would have to be rescheduled to fit in with the busy schedule on Louelle’s calendar.  Louelle’s clients knew even if an event had to pushed ahead by a week or two, the event would already be considered a success because she was in charge of the food.

          The late Lois Grimes, one of the Tribune’s editors, once said that any accurate account of Monroe’s history would have to include a page on Louelle Conyers and what she meant to the Monroe community for much of her 94 years as a superb cook which later led to her career overseeing so many of Monroe’s social functions.

          Louelle Hill was born on Alcova Street on June 12, 1887.  In an early Tribune interview with her back in the 60’s, she remembered when Broad Street was unpaved and there were a number of saloons operating in the downtown area.  The house where she was born, in close conjunction to the property the American Legion stands on, is still standing after all these many years. 

          Louelle attended school in Monroe and married Newton County native Boyd (Buddy) Conyers, who moved to Monroe at an early age.  Back in the early 1920’s both Louelle, husband Buddy and Buddy’s brother Henry (Monk) Conyers all worked for my grandparents on Edwards Street.  Louelle oversaw my grandparent’s kitchen while Buddy and Monk worked for my grandfather at his cotton office as well as caring for the Edwards Street house and grounds.  When “Monk” died after a sudden illness at a comfortable age, it was my grandfather who paid the funeral bill to The E. L. Almand Company, of whom it was later said, “laid the old gentleman away in style”.

          Louelle explained to Lois Grimes how she came to be such a good cook.  “Both my mother and grandmother were excellent cooks, so it was only natural I took to it,” she said as she relaxed in a rocker on the front porch of the home she and Buddy shared for over 50 years on North Broad Street which has now been torn down.  She went on to explain, “My mother said that she had a natural sense of what tasted good when exactly the right ingredients were used and she based her cooking on that fact. When I began cooking for the Briscoe family, I was scared to death as it was the first real job I had and I had to learn by trial and error.  After a while I got the knack of knowing when something tasted good to me, I knew it would taste good to others and folks began noticing the food I cooked.”

          It was in the early 30’s she began her career in catering, her first job being for Mrs. John M. Nowell, Sr., for a musical event with over 80 guests assembling at the family home on North Broad Street.  Louelle remembered how nervous she was preparing the tables and food for so many folks but once she got in the kitchen and started cooking, she remembered how her mother and grandmother went about their cooking and her fears vanished.  Louelle also credited Mrs. Nowell for advising her on how to plan for large events and to see that the tables would be set for maximum benefit of the guests.  “Mrs. Nowell was so impressed over my first job with her and the compliments from her guests were so favorable she used me for years afterwards whenever she had other large events.”

          Louelle never opened up a shop of her own; she did all the planning, preparation and cooking of food for her customers in the kitchen and dining room of her small house.  After husband Buddy retired from shining shoes at Jack Ash’s Barber Shop, he built a small building in the back yard of his home and operated “The Shady Lane” Shoe Shine Shop for all his regular customers to come there for their shoe needs.  Buddy was often a great help to his wife when a bride needed shoes colored for a wedding to go along with the cake Louelle was making for her.

          At the death of her husband in January 1966, Louelle and Buddy had been married for 59 years.  She refused offers to live with relatives in Atlanta; she was not ready to give up her home or her love of cooking right then.  Even though she no longer catered for large parties or events, Louelle was devoted to many of her long time customers and special friends, continuing to bring delights to many Monroe tables on holidays and other events knowing that “food from Louelle’s kitchen” was going to be served.  Favorites from her kitchen were her delicious cheese straws, yeast rolls,  chicken casserole, squash soufflé, and most popular at bridge functions was her special sandwich filling for tea sandwiches.

          Louelle was reluctant to share her recipes with anyone as she said no two recipes ever turned out the same.  Whether they did or not was not important; if it came from her kitchen, it was sure to be a hit!

          In the late seventies health problems made Louelle aware her years of cooking were over and she was no longer able to live alone in the house she so loved.  It was time to put up her apron and let her family take care of her.  She moved to Atlanta to be with her daughters where she died on October 14, 1981 at the grand old age of 94.  Her funeral, four days later, was held from the First African Church in Monroe with burial in the Memorial Cemetery also known as the West Marable Cemetery.

          Monroe owes a large debt of gratitude to Louelle and others like her who started so long ago seeing parties and other events became special by using treasured recipes from the past which led folks today like Martha Stewart, Nathalie Dupree, James Villas, Paula Deen and Mark Bittman to ensures the legacies of the past continue into the future with time honored recipes and good memories.