That beautiful smile and belly laugh. They always come to mind whenever the widow of Bernie Mac reminisces about the late comedian and actor. “When we would be joking or kidding, he had this huge gut laugh. He got so tickled, and I really miss hearing that,” says Rhonda McCullough-Gilmore.
More than nine years have passed since Bernard Jeffrey McCullough’s wife stood by her high school sweetheart’s hospital bed, begging him not to die. Complications from pneumonia took his life at the age of 50 on August 9, 2008, but not the love they shared for 30 years. “He was the biggest love of my life, and there really isn’t a day that I don’t think about him,” says McCullough-Gilmore.
Memories of Traditional Soul Food
One of the Chicago native’s most indelible memories is cooking for Bernie, including serving him breakfast in bed. “Oh my gosh. girl, you talk about somebody that loved to eat,” says McCullough-Gilmore in a burst of laughter. “When I would bring the breakfast to him in the room, he would ask me, ‘What do you think we can have for lunch?'”
As an old-fashioned cook, McCullough-Gilmore made the soul food dishes Bernie adored. He knew exactly what he wanted to eat and how he wanted it served. “If I did pinto beans he’d say, ‘I want ham hocks, fried chicken, rice and cornbread.'” She made it all and put it on the table with a relish tray and a bottle of hot sauce.
McCullough-Gilmore doesn’t cook traditional soul food dishes as much now. She got remarried on New Year’s Eve in 2010 to the man her youngest sister predicted would be in Rhonda’s life. Charoni Gibbs called her big sister in February 2009 and said, “Rhonda, I just met your next husband.” She was referring to Horace Gilmore.
At the time, she was still grieving and had no intentions of marrying again or even dating. Gilmore’s wife had died not long after Bernie. When Rhonda and Horace met at a party given by a friend of her mother, love blossomed. “We went out on our first date and it lasted 13 hours,” says McCullough-Gilmore. “When he came into my life, I said God sent him to me.”
As it so happens, divine intervention sent another husband with no cooking skills. “I have found two good men and neither one of them could cook. They’re good men. They take care of me. But maybe I’m supposed to do the cooking ’cause they can’t cook a lick,” says McCullough-Gilmore.
In fact, Gilmore thought his soon-to-be wife could not throw down in the kitchen until she invited him over for dinner. “I made short ribs of beef, macaroni and cheese, greens, sweet potatoes and cornbread,” she recalls. “He was like, ‘Oh my God!'”
The Lighter Side of Soul Food
The couple’s meals tend to be on the lighter side now that McCullough-Gilmore is entering her sixth decade and has lost 60 pounds. One ingredient hasn’t changed. It is the love that goes into the dishes she makes. “When I’m cooking, I feel the love because I want everybody to come celebrate, enjoy and have some good food.”
One of the desserts Bernie Mac enjoyed the most was the yellow cake with chocolate frosting that she made for him. He liked it served in a bowl with milk poured over the top. Her second husband favors her 7UP® Pound Cake and when she makes a big meal as she did for her family last Easter, Horace does something Bernie never did. “He cleans the kitchen,” she says with a chuckle. “He washes the dishes, puts the food away and sweeps.”
McCullough-Gilmore spends much of her time out of the kitchen supporting the Bernie Mac Foundation. She has stepped into the limelight to increase awareness about sarcoidosis, the inflammatory disease Bernie Mac was diagnosed with in 1983. “When I first started, I was afraid to talk in front of people,” says McCullough-Gilmore, the foundation’s president and CEO. “I used to pray to God to give me the strength to stop shaking. Now, I take a deep breath, relax and go on and do what I’ve got to do.”
The foundation raises money to educate the community about the chronic disease and helps to fund the Bernie Mac Sarcoidosis Translational Advanced Research (STAR) Center at the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System. McCullough-Gilmore and her team are working on a fundraiser to be held in Los Angeles next year. Bernie Mac is among the 2018 honorees for the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His star will be awarded posthumously in the Live Theater/Live Performance category.
For more information about the Bernie Mac Foundation, visit www.berniemacfoundation.org or Facebook. If you would to taste one of Rhonda McCullough-Gilmore’s cakes, enjoy this recipe for her 7UP® Pound Cake.
7UP® POUND CAKE
3 cups cake flour
1 pound of butter (4 sticks)
6 large eggs
1 pound box of confectioners’ sugar
6 ounces 7UP®, room temperature
1 ½ teaspoons of pure vanilla extract
1. Remove butter, eggs and 7 Up (if cold) from refrigerator at least an hour before making cake. Let the butter soften and eggs come to room temperature.
2. Lightly butter the inside of a pound cake tube or Bundt pan, including sides of the center tube. Dust lightly with cake flour, shaking pan to remove any loose, excess flour.
3. In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar until smooth and fluffy (about 3 minutes). Add sifted cake flour 1/2 cup at a time, alternating with eggs one at a time. Make sure you start and end with the cake flour, mixing on medium speed after each addition of flour and egg until combined. Stir in vanilla extract, making sure to scrape down sides of the bowl. Then slowly pour the 7UP® into the batter, mixing on low until smooth.
4. Spoon cake batter into a tube or Bundt pan that has been buttered and lightly floured. Bake at 350°F degrees until the cake is nice and golden, about 50 minutes to one hour. When a toothpick stuck in cake comes out clean, it is done.
5. Let cake cool in the pan for 15 minutes. Turn out onto a cooling rack or plate and let cool completely for about one hour.