Chef who served presidents an inspiration for Wilson boy
By Drew C. Wilson
The Wilson Times
Friday, February 8, 2019
WILSON — When Amauri Johnson brought home instructions for how to prepare a report about great African-Americans, he was given some examples of great Americans to consider.
The list included former President Barack Obama, legendary Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens, famed orator Frederick Douglass, civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, jazz singer Billie Holliday and others.
Amauri is a student at Sallie B. Howard School for the Arts and Education in Wilson.
Seeing the list the kindergartner had been given, Joan Pender Davis, the child’s great-grandmother, thought Amauri should know about his great-great grandfather, Jesse David Pender, a Wilson native who went on to become a chef for the most celebrated people in the country — including the president of the United States.
“He was my father,” Davis said. “I thought maybe if he understood that this was his great-great grandfather, this was his relative who did this. He is still alive and he is 103. He will be 104 on Feb. 13.”
Pender published a book “From the Cat House to the White House,” in 2007.
Jesse David Pender was born in 1915. Pender wrote extensively about his time growing up in Wilson County in Black Creek, Wilson and Elm City and also in Kenly and Fremont.
“After my stay in Elm City, I decided I’d like to hire out on a farm to work for an acre of tobacco,” Pender wrote. “They told me about it and how much money they had made, so I decided I would try it. I did it for a year and I worked the tobacco, which sold extra good that year, I didn’t have to pay anything out of it either, no fertilizer, no nothing. An acre of tobacco was my fee for helping Mr. Batts on his farm for a year. When the tobacco was sold after five weeks of harvesting in August and the cotton and corn were harvested, it was time to settle up. My share came to about $700. That was more money then I’ve ever had in my whole life.”
But Pender had had enough of farming.
“I wanted something else in my life but I didn’t know what, so I went back to Wilson, I got a room in another part of town and started looking,” Pender wrote. “I was walking down the street one day and I saw a sign in a little cafe across the street from the train station, ‘dishwasher wanted.’ I applied for the job and got it.”
Pender worked his hands raw washing dishes, but he was determined that this wasn’t going to be his job forever.
“I watched every move the cooks made, how they did different things, when I got the chance. They made their own pies. They didn’t make their own bread, but they made their own pies, and I used to watch then making pie crusts,” Pender wrote.
Pender had been there for a while when the night cook got sick with a ruptured appendix and Pender offered himself as a replacement.
“He was a big, stout, heavyset guy. I never knew his name, I just called him Jelly Butt,” Pender wrote. “I got good at turning over eggs without using a spatula; when you could do that without clopping them on the ceiling or the stove, you were pretty good.”
He learned how to fry bacon, cook sausage, make pancakes or hotcakes and other short-order items.
But his real advancement when he took on a job with Betty Powell, initially helping keep the leaves raked but also helping in the kitchen.
Pender worked with “Miss Betty” from 1934 to 1946 and “learned how to cook for white folks.”
“I had never seen a cookbook. My mother didn’t use them,” Pender wrote. “Its name, I will never forget, was ‘Great American Cookbook.’ It had everything, how to serve, how to cook, how to plan meals, how to set the table, how to do everything, an encyclopedia of cooking preparation.”
Miss Betty demanded that Pender study the book. By about 1936, the cook’s job was sinking in deeply.
“I studied so hard I began to have dreams about it at night,” Pender wrote. “In the first three years after I began to cook, I learned to adjust to a lifestyle that was to be different for the rest of my life. I was taught discipline, class, self-respect, honor, self-control and how to be a gentleman, to be the best at what I did, to be creative in my work,to believe in myself and, most of all, to stand up for what I believed.
“All this was taught me by the woman that I worked for as a cook in a sporting house, a house of the evening,” Pender wrote. “Some call it a Cat House. Miss Betty was the madam. I was the first and only male, white or black, that ever worked for her. She raised me from the age of 18. I grew up there. I didn’t have anybody to talk to because there were no blacks there except the maids. She taught me everything I know. She taught me how to be a gentleman and she taught me about life. She told me the things that would happen to me in life if I carried myself straight and did what I was supposed to do, fought for what I believed in, stood up for my rights, never took anything for granted, aimed for the best, set my priorities high and didn’t settle for second-best. She taught me all these things.”
Powell demanded that Pender finish school. She showed him the world.
Powell took Pender to Florida, New York City and Europe.
Pender joined the Army and served from 1944-46 in Oahu, Guam, Saipan, the Philippines and Okinawa during World War II.
After Powell’s death in 1946, Pender started the Veteran Cab Co. with Milton Fitch, Albert Wingate, Chris Leach and Albert Gay but decided to head to California in 1947 and worked around Palm Springs, where he still lives today.
Pender was a much-sought-after cook for some of the most famous people in the entertainment industry, but it wasn’t long before he met Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty. The couple was building a home in the desert and they hired Pender.
“Well, I was the chef for the president and Mrs. Ford and I didn’t feel out of place. I enjoyed it, Pender wrote. “There were always interesting things going on in the house. Heads of states, senators, ambassadors, royalty from England, the emperor and empress of Japan.”
Davis said she has a copy of a letter of recommendation that Gerald Ford wrote for Pender when Ford and his wife decided to retire in Connecticut.
“Daddy didn’t want to go back to the cold country and he wanted to stay in Palm Springs,” Davis said. “He attended Gerald Ford’s funeral. He had a birthday party for his 100th birthday and Obama took pictures with him. My youngest daughter has pictures of Daddy taken with Jimmy Carter.”
Davis said her father’s life is remarkable.
“He was born and raised in the same atmosphere, yet he went on to become acquainted with several presidents. I think that is significant,” Davis said. “You can be all you want to be. All you have to do is want it and work for it.
“I wanted my great-grandson to realize that he doesn’t have to be a little black boy that grows up to sell drugs on the corner,” Davis said. “He can be anybody, even president of the United States. I think education is everything, and I am hoping that if I can put some relevancy to my great-grandchildren now, they will aspire to be somebody, to make something of themselves.”