A Special Family Recipe And The Beloved South Carolina Veteran Who Inspired It

This Veteran's Day, we pay tribute to Willie E. Conyers, a Purple Heart recipient, talented cook, and 40-year Southern Living subscriber.

<p>Courtesy of the Conyers family</p>

Courtesy of the Conyers family

For the Conyers, an African American family living in Chicago's South Side during the 1950s and 1960s, several monthly magazines were eagerly anticipated with the arrival of the mail, but one stood out from the others. "For as long as I've been reading," recalls Cassandra "Sandy" Mason (nee Conyers), Southern Living held a most important and respected place on my mom’s living room cocktail table. Recipes, home decor, and articles about the South helped shape the 'chic woman of style and hospitality' that I see myself as today."

Mason particularly looked forward to the December issues, which often featured a luscious white cake that she would bake to delicious results. "It was kind of a rarity back in the late 1950s and early 1960s that Black families would subscribe to such a magazine [like Southern Living] that hardly, if ever, featured a Black face in an advertisement or a Black person as the subject of an article," Mason said. But her father, Willie M. Conyers—a chef and decorated Army veteran—was a 40-year Southern Living subscriber. As a teenager, she dreamed of following in his footsteps and cooking professionally. Today, she carries on his legacy through a very special recipe.

Willie's Early Life

On September 22, 1917, Rebecca Conyers gave birth to Willie when she was 55 years old and living in Manning, South Carolina. Both she and her visually-impaired husband, Rev. Cyrus Conyers, were enslaved in their youth. Willie was the thirteenth out of the fourteen children they raised. Economic circumstances required Willie to drop out of school after the fifth grade in order to support his family through sharecropping. At 17 years old, Willie joined the Civilian Conservation Corps ("CCC"), a work program that President Franklin D. Roosevelt formed in the 1930s. These camps recruited many young African American enrollees, though they lived and worked in segregated camps.

During this time, Willie learned much about the culinary arts, outdoor forestry work projects, and other such resourceful learning that stayed with him for the remainder of his life. The CCC hired mostly uneducated and untrained men who were paid $30 monthly, and workers typically sent $25 to their families. Despite these tough circumstances, Mason remembers, "My dad often exclaimed ‘I had money in my pocket and food in my belly!’"

The money that Willie sent home was a lifeline for the family, especially since his parents were now caring for six grandchildren, due to the deaths of some of their own children. Mason remembers hearing his nieces and nephews sharing that if it had not been for "Uncle Willie’s big heart" they would have starved and probably died of cold exposure in the winter.  They had shoes and coats because of his goodness.

"Mason remembers hearing his nieces and nephews sharing that if it had not been for "Uncle Willie’s big heart" they would have starved and probably died of cold exposure in the winter.  They had shoes and coats because of his goodness."

Serving His Country

Willie enlisted into the U.S. Army in the early 1940s and served four years. He was spurred to do so because of the unbearable conditions in his hometown of Manning, South Carolina. He’d seen so many lynchings, and he also served water to chain gang prisoners who sought and received prayer from his father. While doing this task, he witnessed the grueling and repressive treatment by the prison guards to these men. Willie once told Mason the story of a prisoner who yanked his ankle and said to him tearfully, “Boy, don’t let this happen to you!”

Willie served in Italy, Africa, and the Philippines. As a soldier, he faced a lot of racial discrimination as he was placed in an all-African American unit. Typical of military service at that time, Willie was assigned as a cook for the kitchen that catered to the area's commanding officers. In those military kitchens, he apprenticed under skilled Black cooks and refined his culinary skills. He greatly expanded his repertoire from home cooking delicacies that he learned in South Carolina: "perlow" (also known as pilau or perloo), a chicken, rice, and seafood dish that his family served on Sundays, she-crab soup; okra and shrimp gumbo file; butter beans and okra; and lima bean soup. He quickly distinguished himself and eventually became the general's preferred chef. Willie loved to regale his family and friends with amazing stories of the various dishes he prepared and the experiences he had amongst the civilians, military staff, and soldiers.

His military service was not all about cooking, for he sustained two battle injuries during his service time in Italy, with a gunshot to his knee and another gunshot that detached an ear. While in a trench in France, Willie also saved a fellow soldier who survived bullet injuries by protecting him and using first aid procedures. This soldier was so touched by Willie's heroism that he named his first-born son “Conyers."

"While in a trench in France, Willie saved a fellow soldier who survived bullet injuries by protecting him and using first aid procedures."

For his bravery, Willie was ultimately awarded a Purple Heart. He retired from the Army in 1946 with the rank of Technician, 4th Grade. After his war years, he moved around the East Coast and finally settled in Chicago in 1947 and met Juanita, a registered nurse from Eatonton, Georgia, also a transplant from the South. Willie and Juanita loved Chicago and made the city's South Side their permanent residence for over 50 years. They lived in the Chatham Community, a neighborhood known for its prominent Black residents. The Conyers proudly raised two daughters, Sandy and Patricia, who lived out his dream for them to be educated and accomplished Black women.

His Legacy Continues

In 1981, the Chicago Defender, a well respected African American newspaper, offered a recipe contest sponsored by Hunt-Wesson Foods. The contest required entrants to use tomatoes, and Mason remembered the tomato dishes and sauces that her Georgia and South Carolina-born parents made. She submitted a recipe inspired by Willie that replicates many of the traditional Gullah cuisine family meals that he made, which included catfish, buffalo (a type of fish), shrimp, and various other types of seafood. Mason likes to think of it as "somewhat of a Carolina-style bouillabaisse stew." Mason's "Catfish Conyers" recipe ended up taking fourth place in the Main Dishes category.

Willie died on December 20, 2000, and was laid to rest at the Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver, Colorado. Mason relishes the opportunity to celebrate her father's legacy and "fabulous culinary expertise." His story is a tribute to military cooks whose influence and legacy have largely gone unnoticed but deserve to live on.

The Recipe

Catfish Conyers

For the Fish:
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. Lawry's seasoned salt
1/2 tsp. paprika
1/8 tsp. black pepper
Dash ground red pepper
2 lb. fresh or frozen catfish steaks (thawed if frozen)
2 to 3½ cups vegetable oil

For the Sauce:
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup chopped onions
1 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper
1 cup sliced green onions
1 garlic clove, minced
1 (28-oz). can stewed tomatoes 
1/4 cup ketchup
1 (6-oz.) can tomato paste
2 Tbsp. fresh chopped parsley
Dash hot sauce (such as Tabasco)
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1 1/2 tsp. Lawry's seasoned salt
Hot cooked white rice, for serving
Biscuits, for serving

  1. Prepare the fish: In a large bowl, combine flour, seasoned salt, paprika, black pepper, and red pepper.

  2. Add fish, coat with seasoned flour, and set aside for 15 minutes on a plate.

  3. Fill a deep fryer, at least three inches deep with the vegetable oil; heat to 350˚F degrees. Add fish in batches; fry until lightly browned on each side. Remove and drain on a paper towel-lined plate; set aside.

  4. Prepare the sauce: Heat the oil in a Dutch oven with a lid over medium. Saute onions, celery, green pepper, green onions, and garlic. Continue to cook over medium heat until tender.

  5. Stir in stewed tomatoes, ketchup, tomato paste, parsley, Tabasco, 1/2 cup water, pepper, and seasoned salt. Reduce heat to low.

  6. Add reserved cooked fish to the mixture, one piece at a time. Cover; cook for 30 minutes.

  7. Serve fish and sauce over rice with biscuits.

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Read the original article on Southern Living.