Nancy Phillips says she’s just a “country girl.” But to the folks of Bell Buckle, she’s much more; she’s their matriarch. So last week, when she suffered what’s the closest thing to a heart attack without being one, the whole Bell Buckle community and even strangers reached out to “Mama” Phillips with support and prayer.
Nancy Phillips says she’s just a “country girl.” But to the folks of Bell Buckle, she’s much more; she’s their matriarch.
She’s counseled with hundreds, maybe even thousands while sitting around her “prayer table,” which she says she intends to do for many more years, if it’s the Good Lord’s will.
A Bell Buckle native, “Mama Phillips” is as equally well-known for her fried pies, which are served up at the Bluebird Antiques and Ice Cream Parlor, operated by her son Billy Phillips in downtown Bell Buckle.
At 86, she’s still quick in her mind and hardly ever idle. And she isn’t afraid to counsel strangers with wisdom and faith.
So last week, when she suffered what’s the closest thing to a heart attack without being one, the whole Bell Buckle community and even strangers reached out to “Mama” Phillips with support and prayer.
“We had probably 5,000 people praying for her,” son, Billy, said; he had hundreds of Facebook, text, and voice messages in the last week. “What a blessing is that—people that don’t even know her but know her story or have eaten her fried pies. I wonder how many people can say they are that proud of their mom?” Billy said.
Those 5,000 voices have led Nancy to her recovery, albeit a “slow” recovery, she said. That is, instead of making her usual 10 dozen fried pies, she’s only been making around 3 dozen or so.
“It’s humbling,” said Nancy.
In the weeks leading up to the “snap foo,” as Nancy calls it, she recalled feeling lethargic.
Then at 3 a.m., two Saturdays ago, Nancy was taken to the emergency room at Vanderbilt. They thought it was a heart attack at first. It was really brought on by “severe trauma,” from a hematoma on her leg, which was causing intense pain, her son recalled.
“We’re fortunate she doesn’t have traditional heart problems,” Billy said. “At the hospital, they said she was one of the healthiest, if not the healthiest, 86-year-olds they’d had at Vanderbilt.”
Maybe fried pies aren’t that bad for you after all, while hearty Southern meals of beans and green are probably much better for your heart than processed food today. The Phillips agreed.
The COVID outbreak was intimidating while seeking care at the Nashville hospital.
“When they took me in at 3 a.m. into the emergency room at Vanderbilt, the only place for me was in the hall. People were coughing, screaming—it was a mad house,” Nancy said. In the hall, the doctors told her ‘Your heart’s taken a big hit.’
“My faith was strong, but still it was scary. I admit that,” Nancy said.
Yet despite the COVID patients, they were almost immediately seen by the doctor. Nancy was in the hospital for 5 days. “Things kind of run together when you’re in the hospital,” said Nancy. Between all the poking and prodding and the taking blood pressure every 15 minutes, it was hard to get rest.
That Thursday she came back, Nancy wanted to sit at the Bluebird and do her handiwork. But when Billy peaked through the back window to check on her... “There she was frying pies. She had not been out of the hospital 20 hours.”
“Well, I only made 11,” she said.
Nancy, in addition to being active in the community, is still “self-sufficient, and even lives on her own. But she’ll have to take things a little more cautiously.
“It’s odd, because I’ve never had to think like that, because she’s so self-sufficient,” Billy said. “But I’m thinking, what if she has a heart attack; what if she can’t get to a door? I’ve never had to think about that.”
Still, “Mama” Phillips says she’s certain that, “I am coming back to where I was— and even better. If everything goes along smoothly, how would we appreciate the highs and lows in life?”
Nancy Phillips was born in Bell Buckle in 1935 in a “modest house just up the street by the antique mall on the right.”
Her biological mother passed away when Nancy was only 8 weeks old. She was then adopted by her mother’s good friend who raised her.
“My mother taught me how to make the pies. And I watched her from the time I was knee-high,” Nancy said. “Then she began to show me when I was old enough to be around the stove.”
While a freshman at Bell Buckle High School, Nancy said she came to know Christ. It was also the same year she met her husband, Albert, who died five years ago. The couple have 3 other children in addition to Billy. Albert was known for his famous cast iron cobblers.
It’s all in the cast iron, Nancy explains.
“It holds constant heat rather than the other utensils you could use. So, that’s the main objective is to keep the shortening at the correct temperature, so your pie comes out pretty, brown, and even.”
That’s as much as she’ll tell you about her famous recipe. It’s a Phillips family secret that only a few know.
“Sadly, this will be the last generation,” Billy said. “They are so labor-intensive; nobody is probably going to carry that on. It sounds awful to say, but it’s the truth.”
To make two dozen fried pies it takes about an hour. “Mama” Phillips has plenty of time to make them as she usually gets up at 4 a.m.
“It’s easy because I’m a morning person.”
Those famous fried pies—those which come in chocolate, banana pudding, and peach—are what most know “Mama” Phillips by. But the matriarch’s Bell Buckle reputation is a little more.
In 1971, she and her husband purchased what is the Phillips’ General Store today— for $750.
Having suffered through the Great Depression, Bell Buckle was a small agricultural town with a row of old, abandoned store fronts at the time. Developers had plans to tear down the century-old buildings and put in a mini-mart.
That would have most likely been a reality if the Phillips hadn’t purchased the old general store.
“It is a labor of love to have these old buildings and to look at the handmade bricks over there that were made, possibly by slaves, and fired in a kiln outside. These are things you will not see again. You cannot replace it,” Nancy said.
“Mama” Phillips also did doll restoration for decades. As a child she was always looking for “tiny things,” which she would store away until needed (“like a squirrel,” she said). Early on, she said she developed a love for “putting things back together.”
Nancy recalled that she and some of the first merchants to open shop in Bell Buckle would sit outside on the street working on their crafts to demonstrate to interested passersby.
Now with Bell Buckle having grown to what it is today, Billy says the town offers financial stability for many who have shops here, while restored homes make Bell Buckle “much prettier than it was back then.”
“She really has a life-line to our little town here,” son Billy said.
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