Going to jail is usually not a good experience.
And the food — generally depicted in movies and television as lumps of mush shoveled out three times a day — has a reputation for being even worse.
Except in Kennesaw, Ga.
There, cook Nannie Wylie, or "Ms. Ann" as she's affectionately called, has cooked homemade meals for inmates for more than 20 years, and she has no intention of slowing down. Rumor has it that wrongdoers in other parts of the county have been known to request lockup in Kennesaw just to get a taste of Ms. Ann's cooking.
"I try to fix for them food that I like and that I like to cook, and that they like, too," said Ms. Ann, who turned 80 in January and received her 20-year service award from the city last month. "It's been interesting."
For Ms. Ann, who went to high school with Elvis Presley, traveled the country opening restaurants and befriended Jerry Lee Lewis along the way, "interesting" is an understatement.
The Olive Branch, Miss., native got her culinary start at age 17 cooking for a Memphis-area Walgreens drugstore, back when the chain operated restaurants in its stores. She was called to fill in one night for a sick cook, managed to successfully feed hundreds of visiting servicemen from a nearby naval base with just her eventual husband and a busboy for help, and the rest is history.
Ms. Ann soon left her home outside Memphis and was selected, along with the soon-to-be husband, to open Walgreens restaurants throughout the country, including a one in Atlanta. Later, when the store-restaurant model changed and her husband became ill, Ms. Ann settled down and found the more stable position at the Kennesaw jail.
"I have a hard time saying no to her cooking because it will fatten you up," said city police Chief Bill Westenberger. "It's definitely the old-style way of cooking. She's got jokes about how much butter she uses."
That old-style way has seen her through decades of cooking for crowds, from her restaurant days when she would cook as many as 50 strawberry pies in a single day to early years with the city when she cooked all three meals not only for inmates, but also for city police and the jail staff. When her daughter was killed years ago by an 18-year-old drunken driver and Ms. Ann took in two toddler grandchildren, the cooking was there. And when her second daughter died last year at 54 of a heart attack, the cooking was there then, too.
"Cooking's all I've known, from when I began helping my mother in the kitchen as a young girl, I've always cooked," she said, remembering those tough times. "It wasn't easy, but I did it. I had to."
That resolve has carried over to Ms. Ann's granddaughter Stephanie "Sissy" Valencia.
"Listening to the stories that she told me and teaching me the knowledge, (cooking) just came easy to me," said Valencia, who remembers her grandmother juggling her work and grandchildren, all the while caring for her husband, who uses a wheelchair.
Valencia began her professional cooking career at 15 and is still at it 18 years later. She manages an Arby's in Cobb County.
"They say I've got ketchup in my blood," said Valencia, who was about 3 when she began cooking with her grandmother.
Ms. Ann's jail schedule has been scaled back to part time, and she works only Saturdays and Sundays. Still, she begins those days before 4 a.m. and makes three meals and desserts for inmates before leaving about five hours later. She still lives by her cooking mantra: Always keep something going. And she still makes their favorites: homemade biscuits and cakes, Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes and baked chicken.
"Over the years, this place became a home away from home for me," she said. "I'm staying here as long as they (city officials) want me and as long as God gives me strength."