By Jeff Keeling
When considering the relationship between Ellie Chestnut and the caregivers in her life – physicians, pharmacists, nurses and the like – one could be forgiven for asking the question, “who is taking care of whom?”
It’s a Monday morning, and the 82-year-old Chestnut is up early, moving about her kitchen from mixing bowls to refrigerator to oven. She doesn’t have a doctor’s appointment, but that isn’t reason enough to prevent her from whipping up a batch of her own special hush puppies, some soup beans and a pineapple upside down cake.
“I’ve been cooking ever since I got in the kitchen as a little kid,” says Chestnut, who grew up in the Oak Grove community as Elloree Harrison, the eleventh of 11 children of Parlee Adams Harrison and George Newton Harrison. “Lots and lots of things I got from my mother. We could stand in a chair and wash dishes, but when we got old enough to cook she put us to it.”
Chestnut glides across the floor in black slippers, each adorned on the top with rhinestones in the shape of a peace sign. She busily dips into the corn meal batter, laced with fresh diced tomatoes, green peppers and onions, frying up three patties at a time.
A few hours later, she delivers the goods to her primary care physician, Dr. Mark Williams, and the other nurses, doctors and staff lucky enough to be on Williams’ hall at Johnson City Internal Medicine. The pineapple upside down cake is a favorite of Williams’ son Alex, now a 20-year-old aviation student at Liberty University.
The cake will get eaten without Alex’s help, and it’s clear that Chestnut is a bit of a rock star around here – as she is at Blankenship Pharmacy, where Wayne Copp and the other staff often benefit from Chestnut’s kitchen wizardry.
Chestnut’s renown even extends to North Carolina’s research triangle, where she started going 44 years ago when she was diagnosed with Raynaud’s phenomenon. Her doctor at Duke University Medical Center, John R. Rice, was so smitten with Chestnut and a special beef jerky she used to make that he, his wife and their dog have made several trips to Johnson City, staying in their camper in Chestnut and her husband Harry Meece’s back yard, just to visit. Chestnut has a quilt sewn by Rice’s wife, with a special inscription, as evidence of the couple’s affection for her.
But it’s much more than food that draws people to Ellie Chestnut, says Wayne Copp.
“She’s been a great friend to my family, and my dad especially before he passed away,” says Copp, who’s looking forward to his next visit from Chestnut that is sure to be filled with smiles and good food.
“I know she started cooking when she was very young, and I think her ability to do it and her enjoyment of people is what makes Ellie special – and her concern,” Copp says. “She knows that I live by myself, and since my dad passed away (about three years ago) she’s always made sure she invited me to their house for Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter. That’s just who she is. I’m sure she does it for folks other than me.”
Chestnut talks as she cooks. About having grown up on what is now Buttermilk Road, of leaving school four weeks into the eighth grade, and working behind the counter in the Kress “dime store” in downtown Johnson City at 17, and marrying at 19.
“I’m proud of it, because I’m well educated and I’ve got a great memory,” Chestnut says of her schooling.
She worked many jobs while helping raise another man’s daughter, putting her through college before he left her, and for 34 years she and Harry have had a lovely life together.
Meece is sick now, and Chestnut is slowing, but not much. “I still do a lot even though my age and my health is not so good,” she says. When asked why, she says simply: “Listen – my mother taught me this – you can’t outgive yourself. The more you give, the more you receive.”
Williams thinks that approach is keeping his patient healthy, in addition to keeping him well fed for 17 years now.
“She’s a delightful, very happy lady who likes to cook for people, and fixes food for sick people and people in need,” Williams says. “She just enjoys life. I think any time you can do something positive for other people it affects your health in a good way. It keeps your mind active and your body active. You don’t worry about your concerns so much as you worry about somebody else. It’s a wonderful thing.”