by Don Bingham
The 501 area is full of interesting people and when it comes to unique entertaining, Ouida Sumner is sure to surpass your expectations.
Before moving to Conway, Ouida cooked for 10 years on the river traveling vessel “The Eleanor Gordon” – 54 feet wide and 195 feet in length. The vessel consumed five gallons of fuel per minute with a 190,000 gallon capacity.
The “tow” vessel would leave Memphis, travel up the Mississippi to the mouth of the Ohio River to Metropolis, Ill., then on to Paducah, Ky. – under the flag of the Mid-South Towing Company. Mid-South was a part of the TECO TRANSPORT companies and supplied an inland river fleet of 760 barges on the Mississippi, Ohio, and Illinois rivers and their major tributaries.
Ouida was up, daily at 2 a.m., to begin her day with coffee and prep for the boat’s crew meals. By 2:45 a.m., she would have pie crusts completed, beans cooking, and pans of biscuits, sausage, bacon and country ham ready for the crew’s “eggs made to order.”
Cooking for a crew of 12, three meals a day, plus treats throughout the route, was Ouida’s job as ship cook – for 10 years! There was always homemade bread (she never used mixes) and even the donuts were from “scratch,” Ouida never was afraid of anything, day and night on the “tow” – except for the one narrow escape with an incident involving the Vicksburg bridge.
“We would travel two trips – that was the regular schedule – stopping along the way to pick up fresh vegetables, milk and perishables all up and down the route,” Ouida explained. The captain wanted the crew “well fed” and every meal was a big spread. Christmas and Easter were the only two days that “leftovers” were permissible; all other days were feasts of everything from rib-eye steaks to red-eye gravy made with bacon drippings and coffee.
It was nothing for the crew to load and unload 5 ½ tons of coal onto seagoing vessels for shipment elsewhere. On a normal day, you would see birds, flowers, old homes and live oak trees with Spanish moss all along the river route. Sometimes there was fog, cold blowing winds, and changes in the muddy Mississippi River. Ouida’s job was to have three meals of sumptuous home-cooking ready for the captain, the crew, and any guests the captain may have invited for dinner. Ouida Sumner has lived in Conway for six years. Her home is full of memorabilia from the “tow cooking days” – even flags from the ship, a hallway filled with pictures and even the dinner bell from the barge.
Ouida still cooks – in facts she cooks for all her customers. After a completed life of hard, fulfilling work on “The Eleanor Gordon,” Ouida enrolled in the Phillips Country Junior College and graduated as a certified nail technician. Soon to be 77 years young, she works with amazing precision and efficiency doing pedicures and manicures at Keisha’s Nails on Medical Drive in Conway. Her expertise is performed on men and women alike. If you’re really fortunate, you might get a chocolate pound cake delivered to your front door.
Chocolate Candy Cake
Combine and set aside:
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon soda
Bring to boil and stir into flour mixture:
1 cup water
1 cup butter
¼ cup cocoa
½ cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
Bake in a 13- x 9-inch pan at 350 degrees. While hot, spread with frosting.
For frosting, heat ½ cup butter and ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons of Pet Milk and bring to a boil. Add 1 box of powdered sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla and ½ cup pecans.