Preserving My Heritage: The Story of Mitties Kitchen

[Submitted by Melinda Billingsley, the owner/operator of Mitties Kitchen.  Melinda and her husband Danney sell prepared, processed, and baked goods.  Melinda is also an at-large member on our Cooperative Board of Directors.]

In early 2008, I decided to sell off my custom drapery business and focus my energy on other pursuits.  My mother was beginning to get up there in years, so I had planned to stay home, tend to my aging mother, and begin farming our 10 acres out near Earlsboro, OK. We had always had a big garden, so I figured we could just scale up and make that my full time focus. Also, I had a background in preserving food, so any of the excess harvest could be canned or frozen. However, on October 3rd, 2008, my plans for the future were derailed by a breast cancer diagnosis.

During the next few years, I focused on recovering from the successful cancer treatments, and taking care of my mother. Unfortunately, my mother passed away shortly thereafter, and I began thinking that I wanted her house to stay in the family rather than selling it off to some stranger. In order to make it possible for us to keep her house, I began considering business ideas again……and I thought back to my plans to grow food. Unfortunately, battling cancer took a lot out of me, and becoming a full-time farmer was now out of the question. However, self-sufficiency has always been an important goal for me, and I wanted to keep my focus there. Food preservation and cooking was an important part of my upbringing, and I have a large collection of family recipes that I could pull from. I started thinking that I would start a kitchen and make a business out of my food preservation and processing skills.

Jars ready for canning

Bread fresh out of the oven

Before my cancer diagnosis, I had found the Oklahoma Food Cooperative from an article in Oklahoma Today, which featured an interview with Bob Waldrop [Coop founder and former President] on the details of the organization. I joined shortly thereafter, and my intention was always to become involved in the Coop and begin selling food through the system. I started volunteering on Food Coop delivery day, and then I took over managing the Shawnee pickup site. I always knew that I would begin using the Coop to sell my products once I got my business off the ground. I have been involved in multiple local civic organizations over the years, but the Food Coop is really the only one where I truly felt comfortable. There is a tremendous amount of diversity, and the Coop includes people from all across the social, political, and religious spectrum. Truly, everyone is welcome, because the only goal that matters is the love and promotion of local Oklahoma food – and that is something that everyone can agree on!

A couple of years later, the house that used to be my mother’s home was soon converted into our very own commercial kitchen.  From that point on, I would use my mother’s house to prepare many of the recipes that had been passed down in my family for many, many years.

My mother’s house — now home to my commercial kitchen

Cukes ready to become pickles

I finally got the license for my commercial kitchen in the Summer of 2013, and the process seemed to take forever. Shortly after that, I worked a couple of local events that gave me the opportunity to begin selling the products of my labor. Later in the year, I was approved to sell through the Oklahoma Food Coop. I still sell at several other local farmers markets, but the sales I get through the Food Coop provide me with a stable source of income from month to month.

Baked goods ready to be packaged

Packing orders for Coop

My husband Danney is also essential to the operation of the business. He retired in 2012, and since then, he has been my biggest supporter. He is my chief taste-tester, and he soon discovered that he actually likes processing vegetables.  He is a huge help in the kitchen when I am working, and in helping to pack up for Coop orders or for farmers market.

Danney in the kitchen

Award winning canned goods

One of the biggest thrills for me is when I get to converse with my customers at farmers markets about the nostalgia they have for the food they remember from when they were growing up. I love to hear when my customers tell me that one of my recipes reminds them of something from their childhood…….”this is just like my grandma used to make.”