Martha Pearl Villas, expert cook

Her exacting Southern recipes were an inspiration for her son, writer James Villas.

01/29/2009 12:00 AM

01/28/2009 8:47 PM

A battered notebook of recipes, a feisty disposition and a firm conviction about everything from flour to shortening brought Charlotte's Martha Pearl Villas to national attention in the 1990s.

Well, that and three books, written by her son, New York-based food author James Villas, about his mother's enduring love for Southern cooking.

Starting with “My Mother's Southern Kitchen” in 1994, the books took the Villases to “Good Morning America” and the Food Network, and even to Venice to teach at the Cipriani Hotel Cooking School alongside Julia Child and Italian cooking expert Marcella Hazen.

Martha Pearl Villas died Tuesday at age 93. Born in Fourth Ward in 1916, she was a mainstay of the city most of her life. She and her husband, the late Harold Villas, raised their children, daughter Patricia and son Jimmy, on Clayton Drive in Dilworth. Harold Villas' father was Greek and owned a downtown diner called the New York Café.

While Villas was an accomplished cook, she called herself “just an old Southern housewife.” It was her son, Jimmy, who changed that. Villas has written more than a dozen cookbooks and published his first novel, “Dancing in the Low Country,” last year. He also writes for food magazines such as Saveur and Gourmet.

He said he got the idea to write a cookbook with his mother when he worried that her recipes would be lost.

“It always really bothered me that this ugly black recipe book that Mother had, I had always worried it was going to go into oblivion,” he said in 1994. “And so I really wanted to preserve it.”

In an interview in 1998, Villas said her life revolved around three things – “family, church and food, in that order.”

She was famously specific about ingredients. For years, when she traveled to New York in the summers to stay with her son, she would drive so she could take her own supply of White Lily or Red Band flour for biscuits. And when she went to Venice, her packing list included Crisco shortening, Karo light corn syrup and her own measuring spoons.

“She was one of the stalwarts, the sure champions of Southern food,” said Damon Lee Fowler, author of “Classical Southern Cooking.” “It didn't need to be tarted up, it didn't need to be reinvented. It just needed to be done and done right. And she knew how to do it right.”

In addition to her son, Villas is survived by her daughter, Patricia Royal of Garner; her sister, Jane Pierson Theiling of Charlotte; her nieces, Martha Lynch, Mary Theiling and Betty Anderson; two grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

A graveside service will be held at 2:30 p.m. Friday at Forest Lawn West on Freedom Drive. Memorials may be made to Christ Episcopal Church.

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