Pearl Grindstaff, who worked in the Penland kitchen for 75 years (that is not a typo), passed away on October 13 at age 91. Pearl began setting tables in the Penland dining hall during the summer of 1933, when she was 11 years old. She worked at the school every year except one until she retired in 2009.
In a 1994 interview for Penland’s newsletter, Pearl explained that she took over as head cook in 1956 after the regular cook made a terrible mess and infuriated Penland’s founder Lucy Morgan by refusing to do anything about it. Pearl valiantly tried to clean it up, but when she was called to the office the next day, she thought she might get fired. Instead they put her in charge. She protested that she didn’t know enough about menu planning and bookkeeping, but she agreed to try it for a week. “Well after a week I was stuck,” she said. “If I had tried to quit then, they would have offered me more help. There wasn’t much way out of it, so I told them I’d just go day to day, and I’ve kept on ever since.”
She continued managing the kitchen until the early 1980s. After that she worked in various capacities with a succession of Penland cooks, eventually concentrating on baking and general meal prep. She almost quit in 1990, but when her husband died suddenly, she decided to keep working. “This place is more like home than home,” she said in 1994.
Pearl’s childhood home was a house that is now part of the Penland campus. In 2004, the school held a fundraiser in her honor to raise money to renovate that house. Dozens of instructors, neighbors, core students, residents, staff, and other members of Pearl’s fan club donated work to a special auction that raised more than $10,000 for the project. As part of that event, the Penland kitchen was named for Pearl. Sculptor Elizabeth Brim made a sign for the kitchen door in the form of a steel apron.
Pearl Grindstaff was a beautiful woman with a strong, determined spirit. Even after her legs were crippled with arthritis, she preferred going to work over sitting at home. She is remembered by co-workers as a maternal figure, a friend, a cook who could do an astonishing amount of work in an hour, and a teacher. “She would go ahead let you do something the wrong way until you had made a mess,” says long kitchen staff John Renick. “Then, when she showed you a better way to do it, you would never forget.” His co-worker Day Dotson added, “She could be stern when you messed something up, but she was just a likely to laugh it off. We all learned so much from her.” Students, of course, remember her cakes, pies, cookies, and those biscuits.
Some of us who knew Pearl but didn’t get to work closely with her will always remember her sitting at her counter in the back of the kitchen, steadily slicing vegetables or rolling out biscuits, unaffected by the swirl of meal prep or the loud music–but keeping an eye on things. -Robin Dreyer