By Esmeralda Bermudez
Los Angeles Times.
Auntie Fee wants a close-up, but her pork cracklings are popping grease and her cameraman doesn’t want to get splattered.
“Mother @#$%&!” she yells, stone-faced. “You gonna be scared or you not gonna be scared? Get yo’ ass over here!”
The homemaker from South L.A. is in her kitchen taping another of her cooking videos.
Last summer her son Tavis Hunter, who’s also her cameraman, posted a four-minute clip of her online and the piece went viral. Auntie Fee ended up in blogs, magazines and newspapers. She was a repeat guest on Steve Harvey’s talk show and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
Foodies still may not know her name and critics may dismiss her, but Felicia O’Dell boasts nearly half a million followers online. They send her praise daily, from Texas to Norway:
“Auntie Fee can come cook at my house any day.”
“Why am I not watching Auntie Fee on her own cable cooking show?”
“Auntie Fee please adopt me!”
The fanfare isn’t so much about her pork roast or her fried bread. Or her low-budget tips, like how to feed seven people with $3.35.
People tune in because she’s as unpredictable as a car chase. You never know what’s going to come out of her mouth.
“I feel everyone has somebody like this in their family,” Hunter said. “There’s no filter. No sugarcoating.”
Growing up, Hunter and his brothers, Jamie and Marlon, used to warn their friends about their mother, whose most frequent use of that word is as an obscenity.
They’d say cursing was her way of showing love. Some understood. Those who didn’t were shown the door.
That’s the thing about Auntie Fee, as she’s known to family. You either get her or you don’t.
And now that she’s got a bit of stardom, she’ll be damned if she’s gonna let it go, at least not before she makes a little money.
She’d love her own reality show, but she’s too raw for prime time, perhaps even cable. So she posts videos on YouTube.
She cooks and Hunter records with his cellphone. His simplest questions often set her off:
“What do you call that?”
“@#$%&! I don’t got no @#$%&! name for it yet, @#$%&!”
“Why you gonna put sugar in (the macaroni and cheese) for?”
“@#$%&! For the kids!”
“Why is that a little burned on top?”
“No, no. Damn it. It’s not @#$%&! burnt, Tavis. Don’t start.”
As soon as her videos go up, viewers roll in. YouTube cuts Fee a check each month based on those clicks.
Her sons decided to post the first video on a whim to tease their mother. Her recipes, Marlon told her, needed to be recorded for after she’s gone.
“Why do I gotta die?” Fee said. “Why can’t I just go blind or senile?”
The last six months have been a roller coaster ride of emotions and growing pains for the 57-year-old.
She’s still not sure how to log on to Facebook.
And all the negative comments she receives?
In the beginning she wanted Hunter to find the commenters’ home addresses so she could drive to their doorsteps and set them straight.
They call her illiterate, unsanitary, scripted, a bad example for other black folks. They say her dishes will send you to an early grave.
But Fee stands by her food.
She packs on the butter, the sugar and the grease.
She loves bacon, and she’s really got a thing for lard.
“I’ll marry lard,” she says. “Lard is the Lord.”
Her father, James O’Dell, a carpenter, plumber and electrician, ate everything he ever wanted and he lived to be 99, she says.
Out of 10 siblings, Fee was the most like him. She was bullheaded, she loved to cook, and she loved to curse.
By age 9, she mastered his best recipes: gumbo, hog headcheese and red beans and rice.
“I’ve been trying to please that son of a @#$%&! my whole life,” she says. “I never could.”
When she turned 15, she told him she was pregnant. He never forgave her.
The topic still makes her eyes well up.
His words have guided her in life: “Never say, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ to anyone.” “Always have yours so you don’t have to ask nobody for nothing.”
In other words, hustle.
It’s what Fee has done since she dropped out of high school during senior year.
First she gravitated to drugs, she says. She became a crack cocaine addict and served a few years in an Arkansas prison for operating a drug ring out of her home.
After her release, she got sober and opened a housekeeping business.
Then, she picked up a glue gun and got crafty. She’d buy jean jackets for cheap and transform them with chains and beads. She’d glam up sandals with rhinestones and make soap dispensers shaped like stilettos.
She never had much luck selling her wares. People always preferred to see Fee in her kitchen.
Her house is a revolving door of hungry people: friends, siblings, nieces and nephews. They come, Fee says, for “dinner and a movie.”
Fee is the movie, loud, politically incorrect and rated R.
Her random phrases are splashed like hot sauce across the Internet. (She also sells them on T-shirts on her website.)
Her take on cheese?
“Kids and fat people like a lot of cheese.”
On her cooking skills:
“Fee don’t burn a damn thing.”
On using Patron tequila as an ingredient:
“You put as much Padrome as you want to put. It’s. Your. Damn. Padrome!”
Hunter has big plans for his mom: a book deal, a show, a movie perhaps. Fee is game, so long as no one asks her to change who she is. (When the crew for Steve Harvey asked to wax her hairy upper lip, she refused. Without it, she says, her face looks crooked.)
“I’m gonna keep it 100 and be me,” she says. “Ain’t nobody gonna tell me I gotta do this, I gotta do that.”
Some days, she thinks, she might have been happier without the limelight. So far, it has caused more harm than good and created a lot of bickering with relatives.
“I thought the whole family, the whole house, was going to be in an uproar of happiness, but it hasn’t been,” she says.
To lift her spirits she visits her admirers on Facebook.
She calls them her “penpals” and they call themselves her “Fee-mily.” She greets them good morning and sends them messages via video (with Hunter’s help). Sometimes, she catches them off-guard and calls them on the phone. A few weeks ago, she flew to New York to attend one’s funeral.
These strangers thank her for making them laugh. They say her videos have helped them grieve over loved ones, tolerate chemotherapy, avoid suicide and, on days when money was short, put food on the table.
“I want them to feel comfortable,” she says. “They don’t have to dress a certain way to see me or talk a certain way to come in contact with me.”
“This is their house and they don’t have to put up a front for nobody.”