By Thomas Sellers Jr.
Every summer I’ve paid tribute to the great food I’ve eaten throughout the TSSAA sports calendar.
From August to May, I’m normally blessed to be invited into hospitality rooms, cafeterias, homes and banquets to feast on some of the most delicious treats.
But the 2017 version of the Best in Food will pay tribute to one special woman. She has contributed to the various categories over the years with love, dedication and a spiritual purpose. Her practice of feeding an army of children, then community and later those she spread the gospel to made her an expert in the kitchen.
Her key ingredient of love is why the 2017 Best in Food is solely going to the late Elizabeth “Betty” Ann Eckenrode Hale.
Best Foreign Food
The woman I grew to love as “Mama” Hale introduced me to many wonderful dishes over the years. A native of Maryland, she enjoyed seafood. But living in Millington for so many decades, she perfected Southern cuisines. So when she introduced her meatballs to me, I was pleasantly surprised.
Of course the word meatballs bring to mind big chunks of beef rolled up into a ball. Here comes the Mama Hale twist. It’s like an Hawaiian interruption on the basic item. The sauce coating the meatballs have a sweet tangy flavor. Then here comes the real robust flavor courtesy of bell peppers and pineapples swimming in the sauce. Trust me, anyone at a Munford Volleyball Tournament in the late 00’s will read this description and smile reflecting on those meatballs.
Mama Hale and her family adopted me as a son, brother, uncle, cousin, etc. So I was on the guest list back when the late, great Brian Hale celebrated his 50th birthday at his home church. His bride Nina was a beautiful as ever. His daughters Kelsey and Brandi were gracious hostess along side the rest of the family in surprising and playing tribute to Mr. B.
Now normally March is either cool or freezing. But the weather was ideal for a spring day and a refreshing beverage was necessary. That’s when I met the I Love You Berry, Berry Much Punch. It’s a fruit salad coated in delicious juice. The foundation of the punch is one of my favorite pieces of fruit — strawberries. It was liquid dessert.
In her last days, Mama Hale would team up with her daughter Tricia to create a buffet straight out of my dreams. All the colors would be on the table… starting with my favorite — green. That color was represented in the form of green beans favored with bacon. Mama said bacon makes everything better. Orange was covered with sauteed carrots tailored made for either mash potatoes (white) or the beef in gravy (brown). Back to those hand-whipped mashed potatoes. The delicate additions of salt and pepper to every creamy inch of the bowl was an artistic vision. It was like watching Van Gogh paint Starry Night. I know a masterpiece when I see one… or taste one in this case.
Oh back to the rainbow on the table. We can’t forget yellow represented by delicious sweet corn. The juice from the corn would creep over toward the other items on the plate making it simply better.
Mama Hale was experienced in all phases of a meal from appetizers to entrees to dessert. So it’s the dessert round that brings us to her Creative Genius.
This is going to be simple. Banana pudding meets Nutter Butter. Trust me, tear-to-your-eyes good.
Honorable mentions in this category are her strawberry cake, carrot cake and Butterfinger frozen cake. I don’t even like Butterfingers but Mama Hale has a gift to make the average great and the bad phenomenal.
Best Tournament or Special Spread
Remember when I mention earlier Munford Volleyball Tournaments. Those days were known for the Gables, Sectional runs, two trips to State, great players and one Hale of a cook.
Once again the Lady Cougars earned the right to host the Region 7-3A Volleyball Tournament. Most times with such a quick turnaround, a school hosting might not even have a concession stand for the volleyball tournament. But Munford High School is always first class and going to feed their special guests.
The administration of Munford put together a solid spread. But the highlight of the layout was courtesy of the Hale family. Ms. Nina brought some sweet homemade snacks. The ideal compliment to the dishes of Mama Hale.
During a Regional volleyball tournament, there are three games in one day. I missed two of the three. I confess, I was busy in the hospitality room eating enough for my entire family.
This great meal was in time for my weight loss of 120 pounds. I was trying to put it back on in one night. I got introduced to a couple of new Mama Hale dishes that evening.
I was sluggish by the time the Lady Cougars took on the Bartlett Lady Panthers for the title. My tummy was still grateful for every bite.
The 2017 Waits Family Award goes to me. No, I did not pull out some charcoals and set up a flame. I was just smart and fortunate enough to have an All-Star meal for the ages. Back in 2009, I got one of Mama Hale’s surprise visits. She would swing by The Millington Star office with a basket full of goodies — just for me. The Star just moved to the Church Street location and it was her house-warming to warm my stomach gift.
So I did snack on some of the items that late summer Friday night. I was saving room for whatever was going to be on the grill with the Waits at the Millington Football game. So with my basket secured in the backseat, it was onto the game. I went from the wonderful aroma of the basket to the smokey air of the Waits grill.
Now I think I ate alligator that night. Whatever it was, I enjoyed it.
The game concludes and I do my interviews. Then Mr. Terry comes over to me and says, “We still have some chicken left. Do you want some?” Terry is a smart man. But that was a dumb question. Of course I wanted those three wings left just for me.
The Waits wings in collaboration with the Mama Hale sides were a Dream Team. And I was the genius to make sure the two met on that plate in order to greet my belly. Making me the winner this year in honor of Mama Hale and the late Rex Waits.
Best Hot Dog
Speaking of a collaboration, I can only imagine what a Mama Hale homemade yeast roll would taste like wrapped around a Tipton-Rosemark Academy Rebel Dawg. Usually the traditional treat of TRA wins this category. But this year is all about Mama Hale. And the winner is using a Mama Hale roll split open with a piece of her fried chicken between it. Mama Hale used to say her fried chicken wasn’t the best. She was too humble. She would make the chicken and create her signature chicken gravy. She believed in making gravy with her meats. Beef gravy for the roast and light brown chicken gravy with the poultry. Those rolls also made great dance partners with the selections of gravy over the years.
I just went off course there a little bit called Delicious Memory Lane. I apologize. But the hot dog style, chicken in a bun was fabulous.
Trend chicken, finely chopped veggies, rightly seasoned and a creamy coat. Anyone who has enjoyed Mama Hale’s chicken salad know what I’m talking about. Not only the favor made it special but the dedication and time it takes to make it. Mama Hale has left the recipe in her cookbook. And Ms. Tricia makes a mean interruption of the dish. But Ms. Tricia would be the first to say, “It’s not Mama’s.”
Whether it was sandwiched between light bread or spread on a cracker, that chicken salad was a taste of Heaven. I know when she arrived to the Golden Gates on May 11, St. Peter asked where was the chicken salad. And I bet Mama told him it was reserved for God, Christ, her husband Walter, daughter Rebecca and sons Bill, Robert and Brian.
Best Food Moment
Was it the first time I ate her mashed potatoes? No.
Could it have been the magic I felt once I ate her savory green beans with bacon? Close.
The obvious answer would be the first time I had some of Mama Hale’s food. But that’s not it either.
My Best Food Moment has to go to the first time Mama Hale and family surprised me with a birthday cake. My fellow Virgo told me birthdays are very important and birthday cakes are essential. I’ve always felt the two most important parts of any birthday are a cake and well-wishes.
Over the years it would be a team effort of Louie and Mary providing me with a cake. Brian and Nina would do the honors. And Bruce and Tricia would get the sweet symbol of another year in my life. Even Beth and her hubby Andy would bring me cake from Cordova… Maryland.
The most meaningful cake was a front page replica of The Millington Star. Mama Hale and the family wanted to thank me and illustrate the entity that brought us together.
Over the years I’ve covered the Hales from graduations in Brighton and St. Benedict to them continuing the family tradition of participating in the Millington Arts and Recreation baseball.
That was more than a cake. That was a symbol of our bond.
The woman was valedictorian of her graduating class at St. John’s Catholic High School in Westminster, Md. She married a Southerner creating an honorable, loving and proud military family. Mama Hale made time to invest back in the communitites she called home. She was an organizer, creator and natural leader. She had a impact not only on stomaches but hearts. She spread herself like her chicken salad over a warm bun. She could be as tough as the beef she would buy to make her famous roast. And by the time she was done, that meat was tender and easy to enjoy like several of the bands she helped fund raise.
Mama Hale would be creative and the complete package like her meatballs. The meatballs met the requirements for most of the major food groups. And when Betty Hale was one a mission, she would take on multiple task to get the job done.
At the end of the day, she was sweet like one of her wonderful desserts. Although her cooking was nearly perfect, she admitted her faults. She once told me she could be stubborn, mean and narrow sighted.
I admire her even more for confessing some of her problem areas in order to try to make me a better person. My last time seeing her was this Spring. And she told me to take care of the children and she loves me.
If I do half of what she did for the area youth, it will be a tremendous blessing. And when it comes to love, Mama Hale taught me its an action. Her cooking was just a fraction of her way of showing that.
Thank you for loving me Mama Hale. I will end this tribute to you with two words… Mashed Potatoes.
By Thomas Sellers Jr.