Bud Kennedy

50 years ago, Fort Worth woman baked her way into soldiers’ hearts

Lucille Bishop Smith with 330 fruitcakes, one for each Tarrant County soldier in Vietnam
Lucille Bishop Smith with 330 fruitcakes, one for each Tarrant County soldier in Vietnam UT Arlington Special Collections

Fifty years ago, chef Lucille Bishop Smith of Fort Worth sent every local soldier in Vietnam a Christmas fruitcake.

But the woman baking and sending 330 fruitcakes was not just any chef, and the cakes were more than just sweet.

In her 50-year career, Smith was a pioneer chef, baker, teacher, food-service professional and also chief cook to generations of girls at a storied summer camp in the Texas Hill Country.

After her death in 1985 at 92, the fame of “Lucille Smith’s Chili Biscuits” faded, along with the sign on old Smith’s Cafeteria on Evans Avenue.

But a new generation celebrating the history of women entrepreneurs and forgotten African-American chefs has rediscovered Smith’s rare Treasure Chest of Fine Foods cookbook set and the story of a businesswoman who came from East Texas timber country owning only a cook’s white uniform, but went on to bake for presidents and champions.

When she joined a national “gift lift” effort to send soldiers fruitcakes and other local foods as memories of home, Smith was 73 and her biscuits were sold in supermarkets and served in the Johnson White House and on American Airlines.

“It was a natural project for her, because she had made all these connections with powerful people in Fort Worth and Texas and used her connections to promote and uplift the community,” said historian and archivist Carol Roark of Fort Worth. Roark helped rekindle interest in Smith through the 2007 collection Grace & Gumption, Stories of Fort Worth Women and a later cookbook.

In 1965, the Star-Telegram published photos and asked readers to donate postage for the fruitcakes baked by Smith and friend Fannie Houston.

The “gift lift” also unified civic efforts to support all soldiers a year after the Civil Rights Act, with local race relations unsteady and school desegregation incomplete.

Smith, teacher to generations of professional cooks at Prairie View A&M and local high schools and beloved camp cook to Anglo girls at Camp Waldemar, insisted the fruitcakes were “for all of our soldiers.”

“I have never worked for a race, always for people,” she said: “I’m not interested in color but people. I see much deeper than skin.”

The next year, Mayor Willard Barr declared “Lucille B. Smith Day” and hosted a dinner at Sycamore Recreation Center.

Vietnam veteran Sgt. Joe Moore said: “Mrs. Smith, you’ll never know just how we appreciated those fruitcakes.”

It was her greatest recognition for a Fort Worth career that began in 1912, when the native of Kennard and graduate of what is now Huston-Tillotson University in Austin moved here with her husband, chef and barbecue pitmaster U.S. Smith.

In 1927, Lucille Smith started as a vocational education teacher for $56 a month. U.S. Smith was the traveling barbecue chef for early rodeo promoter Col. W.T. Johnson of San Antonio, and by 1941 Lucille Smith published her first Treasure Chest.

By 1949, she was selling her “Lucille Smith’s All Purpose Hot Roll Mix,” considered the first commercially packaged mix for dinner rolls. She made appearances for Caloric gas stoves and developed chili-powder biscuits that became her signature after U.S. Smith died in 1956.

Great-grandson Chris Williams’ Houston restaurant, Lucille’s, has unearthed photos of Smith serving biscuits to 1940s heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis and shaking hands with Martin Luther King Jr. at his 1959 appearance in Fort Worth. She also cooked for Elliott Roosevelt and his mother, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, when Elliott owned a ranch east of Benbrook.

After one of several national Mother of the Year awards, she wrote to the Star-Telegram:

“Thanks to the wonderful people who have observed me in my efforts to aid in building a better society in this city, state and nation.

“Thank God, my dreams have come true and He and people have overpaid me — a black woman, so honored!

“Vocational education was my choice of a career. Character-building was my aim. In pursuit of this goal, little by little great doors of opportunity would open. For this help, I want this city, state and nation to know I am grateful to them and God.”

She baked that love, spirit and faith into every fruitcake.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, bud@star-telegram.com, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.