Going to jail is usually not a good experience.
And the food — usually depicted in movies and television as lumps of mush shoveled out three times a day — has a reputation for being even worse. Except in the city of Kennesaw.
There, cook Nannie Wylie, or “Ms. Ann” as she’s affectionately called, has cooked up homemade meals for inmates for more than 20 years. And she has no intentions of slowing down. Rumor has it that wrongdoers in other parts of the county have been known to request lockup in Kennesaw just to get a taste of Ms. Ann’s cooking.
“I try to fix for them food that I like and that I like to cook, and that they like, too,” says Ms. Ann, who turned 80 in January, and received her 20-year service award from the city last month. “It’s been interesting.”
For Ms. Ann, who went to high school with Elvis, traveled the country opening restaurants and befriended Jerry Lee Lewis along the way, interesting is an understatement.
The Olive Branch, Miss., native got her culinary start at age 17 cooking for a Memphis area Walgreens drug store, back when the company operated restaurants in their stores. She was called to fill in one night for a sick cook, managed to successfully feed hundreds of visiting military servicemen from a nearby naval base with just her husband and busboy for help, and the rest is history.
Ms. Ann soon left her home just outside Memphis and was selected, along with her eventual husband, to open Walgreens’ restaurants throughout the country, including the restaurant in Atlanta. When the store restaurant model changed and her husband became sick, Ms. Ann settled down and found the more stable position at the Kennesaw jail.
“I have a hard time saying no to her cooking because it will fatten you up,” said city police Chief Bill Westenberger. “It’s definitely the old-style way of cooking. She’s got jokes about how much butter she uses.”
That old-style way has seen her through decades of cooking for crowds, from her restaurant days when she would cook as many as 50 strawberry pies in a single day to early years at the city when she cooked all three meals for not only inmates, but also city police and jail staff. When her daughter was killed years ago by an 18-year-old drunk driver and Ms. Ann took in her two toddler grandchildren, the cooking was there. And when her second daughter died last year at age 54 of a heart attack, the cooking was there then, too.
“Cooking’s all I’ve known, from when I began helping my mother in the kitchen as a young girl, I’ve always cooked,” she says remembering those tough times. “It wasn’t easy, but I did it. I had to.”
That resolve has carried over to Ms. Ann’s granddaughter Stephanie “Sissy” Valencia.
“Listening to the stories that she told me and teaching me the knowledge, [cooking] just came easy to me,” said Valencia, who remembers her grandmother juggling her work and grandchildren all while caring for her wheelchair-bound husband.
Valencia began her professional cooking career at age 15 and is still at it 18 years later. She now manages an Arby’s in Cobb County.
“They say I’ve got ketchup in my blood,” says Valencia, who began cooking with her grandmother around 3 years old.
Ms. Ann’s jail schedule has been scaled back to part time now, with her working only on Saturdays and Sundays. Still, she begins those days before 4 a.m., and makes three meals and desserts for inmates before leaving about five hours later. She still lives by her cooking mantra: always keep something going. And she still makes their favorites: homemade biscuits and cakes, Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes and baked chicken.
“Over the years, this place became a home away from home for me,” she says. “I’m staying here as long as they [city officials] want me and as long as God gives me strength.”
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