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Island Profile: Blanche Mills

For Blanche Mills, "dumb cakes" are certainly a thing of the past.When Blanche Mills was making cake and ran out of ingredients, at her mother’s instruction, the 10-year-old would make "bunger tuffy" for the family.
"That’s like a dumb cake, when you don’t have all the stuff to make it nice," says Mills, recalling her St. Kitts childhood as the oldest of seven.
Her early experience fueled her love for good food, a passion that has influenced her career as an extension specialist at the University of the Virgin Islands.
"On Sunday mother would bake a cake, a johnnycake, a long bread … we all had our names on them," Mills recalls. "We used to do everything by hand, no mixers, nothing electric, just egg beaters and elbow grease."
Mills moved to St. Thomas in the sixties and worked on Main Street at the Freeport Shop before setting out to follow her first love: good food, prepared with care and love.
"I always wanted to do work in nutrition, with my home economics background," she says. At UVI, her work was cut out for her. She wasted no time putting her natural talents to use.
"I’m the only one of the seven of us without a college degree," she remarks. The oldest of five brothers and one sister, Mills found her hands full helping to raise the family, some of whom are now well-known Virgin Islanders in their own fields. Frank Mills is director of the UVI Eastern Caribbean Center, and Ira Mills was director of the Office of Management and Budget under the Turnbull administration.
Mills has made her own mark in the community during her 27-year career, 20 of those spent at Extension Service programs at UVI, from which she retired in 2009.
Early on, Mills worked in the housing communities, sometimes going door to door to let young mothers know about the programs available to them.
"I found most low-income families don’t know how to feed their children. They don’t know how to budget, to shop, how to discipline," she says.
Later, as a nutrition specialist, Mills worked at UVI with the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, bringing a friendly face to the federal program.
"We had a 26-week program, and when completed, the clients would get a certificate," she says. "The bottom line is that your teaching is not in vain. And teaching is such a joy."
On campus, Mills is a little engine that doesn’t stop. She is still a regular presence at the annual Agriculture Fair held on the UVI Reichhold fairgrounds.
For years, the Extension Service set up a tent with recipes and information on nutrition. In 2008 Mills decided to make their information more palatable. She persuaded Kenn of Kenn’s Food Mobile in Crown Bay to carve a turkey, drawing crowds for the demonstration. Asked for the secret to his moist turkey, he pointed to Mills who had cooked the bird.
Mills began sharing her secrets. "Two days before, you rub it in garlic and—" Mills then stopped on a dime. "It’s really my mother’s recipe," she said. "I’d love to share it, but I wouldn’t want to make a mistake."
Last year Mills and Caryl Johnson, UVI family and consumer science program supervisor, did a land office business in sorrel tarts. Handing out the just-baked tarts, folks had a one-word opinion: "Yum."
Mills says the secret is the "lovely fresh, deep red sorrel. No dried."
Actually, Mills has been doing what, according to her brother Frank Mills, she was "born to."
Speaking this week, he said, "I don’t know if she realized it, but people would articulate the idea that Blanche had taken the role of surrogate mother. After our mother passed in 1983, she held the family together.
"Her house here was the family house, just like in St. Kitts. Everybody goes there, and she always cooked," he says.
With a laugh, he notes nobody left empty-handed. "It was always what you were going to leave with. She felt offended [if you left] her house without taking something."
Frank adds, "One of the old virtues we learned from our mother, too, was that there was always something left back. Blanche picked it up without really noticing why she was doing it. We always saved something for less fortunate people, neighbors."
Meantime, Mills has raised two daughters: Paula, who attended Brandeis University on a scholarship and is now teaching in Atlanta; and Natasha, who is getting her masters in business at UVI.
Now that she’s retired, the petite powerhouse, says with no irony, "I’ve always wanted to go to culinary arts school. I might still do that."

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