Cook out of the kitchen after 37 years

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 10, 2005

Rashelle Burkley reaches for a whisk in a familiar place, the kitchen of Maxwell’s, on East Clay Street, where she cooked for 37 years. (MEREDITH SPENCER The Vicksburg Post)

[1/9/05]The secret of tomato aspic is the cooking time, said Rashelle Burkley, who made it for many years at Maxwell’s Restaurant but has now retired, leaving that duty to others.

“I started in 1967,” she said as she talked of her career while sitting in her Halls Ferry Road home.

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“I’m going to miss her,” said Garfield Wright Jr., the chef at Maxwell’s for many years.

He said Burkley was always the same person when she arrived every day, smiling and ready to go to work.

“She only had one speed, she wasn’t fast and she wasn’t slow,” he said, adding that she was, really, a good cook.

“She always called me Chefie and I called her my supervisor,” Wright said.

Burkley, who retired at the end of December, started working for Frank Maxwell when he was in charge of the restaurant at the old Magnolia Hotel and Restaurant on South Washington Street.

“He went in business for himself, and I followed him,” she said. “I worked out there a year, year and a half.”

Burkley, 66, said she learned to cook from Mary Douglas and Percy Tolliver at the Magnolia and then from Vera Garrett and Garfield Wright at Maxwell’s.

She learned from them how to make the tomato aspic, a spicy congealed salad flavored with tomato juice and with a center of flavored cream cheese in the middle. It’s a house favorite.

“My speciality was mainly the casseroles,” she said, naming the crabmeat au gratin and imperial and the mushroom and artichoke casseroles as examples of her work.

Burkley said she also made the homemade salad dressings for which Maxwell’s was known.

“I also did a lot of hamburgers and po’ boys,” she added.

Burkley said she was also known as an oyster-opener at the restaurant.

“I got a fifth of champagne that one of the customers gave me for my retirement for opening oysters for him. He didn’t want anybody to open the oysters but me for him. He said I was the best oyster-opener in town,” she said.

Even though she has probably opened hundreds of dozens, she does not like raw oysters herself. She said she will eat a few fried, because her late husband liked them.

One time another Maxwell’s employee persuaded her to try one raw.

“She said, We’ll put it on a cracker and put some cocktail sauce on it. We’ll put it in our mouths and just chew it up,'” Burkley said.

She said her friend ate her oyster with no problem.

“I chewed and chewed but I never could swallow mine,” she said.

She said she can also cook many of the standard Southern dishes such as greens and peas, but did not do much of that because she usually worked at night.

Making the salad dressings was her favorite work in the kitchen, Burkley said.

“I don’t get so hot doing that,” she said.

The secret of cooking, if there is one, Burkley said, is making food people like to eat. To get it to that point, she said a cook really has to taste the dish as it is cooking, to know if the seasoning is right.

A person can learn to cook from a recipe, she said, but to perfect it, a person must learn what to add or leave out to make the dish taste the way people want it.

“I (also) go by feel. I go by the way it feels in my hand,” Burkley said, adding she can measure out an ingredient in her hand and tell if its a tablespoonful, or whatever it has to be.

“Everybody asks me what I’m going to do,” Burkley said. “I tell them I have too much to do around the house and I’m going fishing. That’s my favorite hobby.”

She said she mostly fishes at private ponds and lakes and has access to many places either on her own or through friends.

In addition, she has four grown children, three of whom live outside of Vicksburg. She can visit them and many other relatives she has scattered from New York to Detroit.