Wineka column: Bertha Miller's food was as beautiful as it was delicious
Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 28, 2011
SALISBURY — For Mayor Susan Kluttz, it was Bertha Miller’s chocolate cake roll, with the homemade chocolate sauce.
For Betty Dan Spencer, it was the cheese biscuits — cheese wafers, Miller liked to call them — with the half-pecan on top.
For Raemi Evans, Miller’s Cornish hens could not be topped anywhere in the world.
“She was a culinary institution for Rowan County,” Evans says. “She went beyond Salisbury. That’s the way I would describe her.”
Bertha Kelly Miller, cook and caterer extraordinaire, died Monday at her residence, which was most surely the best place to wrap up her 94 years on earth.
“It was one of those houses that smelled so good,” Kluttz says. “She was cooking something all the time. She had food everywhere that people were coming to pick up.”
Kluttz remembers attending a fundraising event for Councilman William “Pete” Kennedy in 1995. Not long after walking in, she looked at the spread of food and remarked to Kennedy that he must have had Miller prepare it.
“He said, ‘Well, of course,’ ” Kluttz recalls.
For decades and over generations, Miller’s food became the expected fare at parties, book clubs, bridge clubs and receptions.
“I consider her an artist, a culinary artist,” the mayor says. “Her food was as beautiful as it was delicious.”
Miller told the Post in 1984 that her cooking skills were self-taught, gleaned from hundreds of cookbooks jammed into shelves at home. A key moment in her self-made culinary career occurred in the 1940s, when Mr. and Mrs. Walter Woodson Jr. asked her to cook and bake for the large square dances the couple would have at their place on High Rock Lake.
Guests of the Woodsons’ dances and parties asked who had prepared the food, and soon Miller was introduced to a whole new part of Salisbury society, catering parties both large and small.
Often, her customers called in their orders and would pick them up later at Miller’s house. Daughter Doris Roberts served as a key assistant. Miller’s husband, Arthur, died in 1982.
If she had any secrets, Miller told the Post years ago, it was her belief that a chef should cook with butter, not margarine. She often used fresh vegetables and fruit (she had her own fig tree) from her own garden and did a lot of canning and freezing. Her house had at least three refrigerators and a freezer.
Longtime customers often gave her gifts.
“She definitely was well liked — and so were her many dishes,” Evans said.
When Evans and her husband, Fred, were first married, they lived across the street from Miller. “A very fortunate situation,” Raemi says, especially for Fred, who often was able to sample Miller’s food.
“That kitchen had everything in it,” Raemi Evans says of Miller’s Lloyd Street home. “She was just a chef. Anything that involved cooking, she was superb.”
When the Evanses would travel to Virginia to see family, Miller often sent food with them, out the kindness of her heart. “It wasn’t just a business — she was a thoughtful person,” Evans says.
Spencer agrees that Miller was “a beautiful person, much beloved,” who probably catered for Salisburians some 70 years.
“Nobody could have a function or party in Salisbury without Bertha’s being involved,” Spencer said.
In 1995, Miller gave Spencer her recipe for the cheese wafers that Spencer and many others in Salisbury loved so much. Spencer wrote it down and has relied on it all these years, with this notation:
“Bertha is a Salisbury treasure. She has lovingly prepared delectable food for her multi-generation clientele for over 60 years. Her cheese wafers are unrivaled. She verbally gave me her recipe and assured me that it is simple to execute.”
Miller catered events for both sides of Mayor Kluttz’s family and her own, when she and husband Bill returned to Salisbury in 1975. Whoever was the host for bridge club had that night’s responsibility for soft drinks and dessert.
It became tradition, when Kluttz’s turn for hosting came around, to provide the players with Miller’s chocolate cake roll.
“It was so wonderful,” Kluttz said, “… and I would have to get extra for my family.”
The mayor said she considers Miller an important part of Salisbury and its recent history.
“I will miss her very much,” she adds.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com
Bertha’s cheese wafers
8 ounces New York extra-sharp cheddar cheese (preferably Kraft), grated
1 cup butter, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon salt
Big dash cayenne pepper
3 cups all-purpose flour
Combine cheese, butter, salt and pepper; mix with hands. Add flour. Dough should be firm and smooth.
Form dough into six rolls, about the diameter of a 50-cent coin. Wrap in waxed paper and refrigerate.
When ready to bake, slice rolls and press half a pecan into each biscuit. Put on greaseless cookie sheet 1 inch apart.
Bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes.
Yields more than 100 wafers.
As told to Betty Dan Spencer by Bertha K. Miller. (1995)