Vera Beck found opportunity and a career as a test kitchen cook in Cleveland

Vera Beck found opportunity and a career as a test kitchen cook in Cleveland
Vera Beck went from humble beginnings in Limestone County to working with some of the biggest chefs in the world and developing a loyal following in Cleveland, Ohio. (Erin Harney / Alabama NewsCenter)

Carolyn Williams’ pride in her mother’s accomplishments runs as deep as the flavors that infused Vera Malone Beck’s food.

Beck, who as a girl cooked for her parents and eight brothers on a farm in Limestone County, moved to Ohio and worked her way into a job where she cooked with famed chefs like Julia Child and James Beard and shared her recipes with hundreds of thousands of newspaper readers.

Beck, the daughter of Louis and Lillie Mae Malone, left Athens in 1955. She was one of 6 million African-Americans who fled the South during what is known as the Great Migration (1916-70). They were seeking better lives free from harsh Jim Crow laws, backed by often-violent racists, that enforced segregation. Beck found opportunity in Cleveland.

“There weren’t very many jobs,” Williams said of Beck’s decision to move to Ohio. “She left here in 1955 in pursuit of a better career because there were really no jobs, just private homes (as domestic help).”

Vera Beck’s daughter recalls her mother’s legacy of cooking and caring from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Beck started at a laundromat, then worked at cafeterias in Cleveland. She took a food preparation course at Stouffer Foods, which Williams said opened doors for her. Beck worked in Cleveland State University cafeterias and in 1975, took a job at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She started in the newspaper’s cafeterias and became a cook for its test kitchen, eventually retiring as the head of the kitchen.

Vera Beck brought Southern food to Ohio and they ate it up. (courtesy of Limestone County Archives)

Williams said that even in a northern city at that time, it was unusual for Beck to work in the test kitchen and become a “face” of the newspaper. “A lot of readers would call in and they said, ‘you know, we’re so happy because we could see (and back then they said colored), we could see a colored face,” Williams said.

Each week, Beck shared her recipes with readers and brought a taste of Alabama – fried chicken, black-eyed peas, barbecue, peach cobbler, cornbread, even chitlins – to Ohio. “Soon after the newspaper featured her recipe for chitlins, Cleveland markets began stocking them,” according to “Holding the Fort,” a history of Trinity School where Beck graduated in 1950.

“She absolutely did,” Williams said her mother’s Alabama influence on Cleveland. “In all the articles that Toni wrote that she mentioned my mom in, she said she would not have connected with her Southern roots if she had not met my mom.”

Toni is Toni Tipton-Martin, who became the newspaper’s food editor after Beck’s hiring and would go on to write the James Beard Award-winning book “The Jemima Code.” Tipton-Martin’s 2015 book documents the influence black women and men had on America’s cuisine, and in it she exalts Beck, who became her mentor.

“Vera called to mind one of those African-American matriarchs familiarly thought of as saints – a woman in her twilight years whose culinary expressiveness was like a gift she bestowed on the people she loved,” Tipton-Martin wrote in “The Jemima Code’s” introduction. “Whenever I think of her – and it is often – I see a proud, generous, loving, tenderhearted, talented, exceptional cook.

“She made the best biscuits, chowchow, fried green tomatoes and Mississippi mud cake I have ever tasted,” Tipton-Martin wrote.

Williams good naturedly took issue with Tipton-Martin’s assessment of Beck’s biscuits.

“I remember one time she came home and I made biscuits better than she did. She never did live that down. I would always tease her about it,” Williams said, laughing at the memory.

Her secret weapon was lard, which she had learned to use from her grandmother. Beck “wouldn’t dare put lard in. She went to Crisco.”

Tipton-Martin also described Beck as “a self-taught kitchen genius armed with recipes handed down by word of mouth through generations of rural Alabama cooks.”

When Beck was learning to cook from her mother, she worked to capture that oral tradition in writing.

“Cooks didn’t do much measuring back then,” Beck told The News Courier of Athens in an Oct. 7, 1998 story. “Mama would pour out some salt into the palm of her hand and I’d say, ‘Give that here.’ I’d pour it into a spoon and measure it and write it down. That’s how I learned to cook.”

By the time Beck was in her early teens, she was preparing lunch – what many rural Southerners call dinner – for her family, Williams said.

“When she was in the cotton field and hearing the 10 o’clock train go down south or going north, she would hear that and that was her key to leave the field and go get dinner done for her brothers to eat, and they would all go back to the field after she had done that,” Williams said.

Beck retired from the Plain Dealer in 1994, but not from cooking. She returned to her roots in Athens and fed people ­– at church, the senior citizens center, when visitors stopped by her home.

Beck died unexpectedly in May 2000.

“Mama was never sick in bed. It happened one day and that was it,” Williams said. “I think that’s the way she wanted it. She didn’t want to lay around sick and couldn’t cook, or do the things she loved to do, which was sharing a meal with someone.”

Williams is filled with memories of her mother:

  • Beck teaching grandniece Keona how to walk properly, which is how she walks to this day. “When she walks across the floor, that’s Vera,” Williams said.
  • Williams’ youngest daughter, Chiquita, learning how to cook Beck’s potato pancakes.
  • Beck’s niece Beverly (Keona’s mother) being able to can fruits and vegetables like Beck did. “I didn’t pick up that trait,” Williams said.
  • And there’s a cherished collection of Beck’s recipes taken from the pages of the Plain Dealer.

“Now that she’s gone, I go back and look at the recipes and everything,” Williams said. “I just imagine sitting down and eating that food. … I can tell you on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, those black-eyed peas came alive, they came alive. They did.”

Williams also remembers how Beck struggled to get her to eat vegetables when she was a little girl.

“I didn’t eat very many vegetables,” Williams said. “She had to try to make me eat them. ‘Please, I’m going to cry if you don’t eat them.’ … I wish I had some now.”

During Black History Month, Alabama NewsCenter is celebrating the culture and contributions of those who have shaped our state and those working to elevate Alabama today. Visit throughout the month for stories of Alabamians past and present.

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