Bessie Orage is Hilton Head Island’s Dessert Queen.
For more than 40 years, she has been making the desserts at Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks, one of the island’s oldest and most popular restaurants.
At 77, she’s still going, always first to arrive in the kitchen, usually around 5:30 a.m. She works in thick shoes, her rheumatoid arthritis often spearing a shoulder with pain.
With 250,000 diners annually, and about one in four saving room for dessert, people from around the world gobble up tens of thousands of slices of her Mud Pie (“enough for two”), key lime pie, and the one named in her honor: Bessie’s Peanut Butter Pie with crushed peanuts and whipped cream and sweetened condensed milk and swirls of chocolate syrup.
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“It’s an easy pie,” said the lady who makes them 30 at a time.
And to hear her tell it, it’s been an easy life in a Gullah world that was turned upside down, oddly enough thanks to the throngs of visitors who wait in summer lines nursing sunburns and children for their turn to slide a fork through the sweet pies “Miss Bessie” didn’t invent, but sure perfected.
Little Bessie Mae Jones was raised off Wild Horse Road by Rebecca Jones, an aunt of her mother, and then Ruth Jones.
“Rebecca made me what I am today,” said Orage, who grew up to be a shrimper’s wife and mother of four, besides being the Dessert Queen.
What she is today is a quiet institution, said Andrew Carmines, who runs the family business that leans almost into the waters of Skull Creek off Squire Pope Road.
As a child of Brian and Gloria Carmines, who bought the restaurant from the late Benny Hudson in 1975, Andrew was sometimes watched over by “Miss Bessie” as his parents worked.
And now his children are watched over by Orage in her moonlighting job. For more than 20 years, she has worked in the nursery on Sunday mornings at First Presbyterian Church.
“They don’t make people with the work ethic like Miss Bessie anymore,” Carmines said.
The Dessert Queen was born on a quiet island with no bridge, just as a world war was about to explode far across her gently lapping Atlantic Ocean.
She attended a one-room schoolhouse with Hannah Barnwell, the island’s first nurse, and Olivia Wright her teachers.
At her family’s Gullah compound, all the children stayed busy helping plant or harvest okra, tomatoes, onions, squash, peas, butter beans and watermelon. Marsh tacky horses served as their tractors, and their ride to First African Baptist Church in a wagon one Sunday a month.
They had hogs, chickens, ducks, guineas, dogs, cats, “all of that,” she said. They gathered pecans to sell. They had a neighborhood store in William Brown Jr.’s home, where they could get grits, rice and some meat. They called it “Mr. Boney Brown Store.”
“We raked the yard,” Orage said, “and kept the house clean.”
When they got older, they got to go to the beach — Singleton Beach, where kids from all around came to dance to “the little music box.”
Despite all the hard work and isolation, “That was a great life,” she says.
They had something more valuable than today’s iPhones.
“When we were coming up, we didn’t have all these problems they do now,” Orage said. “Back then, them older people, they would talk to you, now. And you better listen to them, too.
“Now they don’t pay any attention to adults. I’ve said, ‘Wait a minute now, do you know who you are talking to?’
“Them old people would stop that right then with a butt spanking. Today, if you spank a child, they say you are abusing them. You could go to jail. But that’s why kids are getting so wild, because they’re not getting any firm teaching.”
It’s not easy being a shrimper’s wife.
In 1963, Bessie Jones married Arthur Orage. He was a bit older, and died in 2012 at age 88, perhaps the last person on Hilton Head to practice the ancient art of weaving cast nets by hand.
He captained the Tidal Wave shrimp trawler, and later boats called the Surf and the Arthur J. Funk. He got to the Hudson’s dock, or the dock at the old Hilton Head Island Fishing Cooperative, at 4:30 a.m. He’d get home that night, or maybe he’d head to Key West for a longer stay.
Arthur and Bessie moved to Key West at one point, living among the sea of shrimp trawlers for several years.
In his off time, Arthur was a gardener. They never lacked for fresh seafood or vegetables. Arthur and Bessie were always busy.
Bessie Orage was hired by the late Benny Hudson not long after he turned an old oyster factory into a seafood restaurant in 1963.
“Benny was Benny, that’s all,” is how she describes one of the island’s great all-time characters. His family still runs the Benny Hudson Seafood retail store on the docks down the creek from the restaurant.
When Benny Hudson heard that Bessie Orage had moved back from Key West, he came to the house and said, “I need you.”
And they still do.
Besides making the desserts, which today she limits primarily to the peanut butter pie, Orage “helps them set up the line back there, cut the tomatoes, onions and lettuce, cook the grits, cook the red rice, help them set up the soup line, cut up the broccoli. Sometimes I help with the shrimp on the machine to peel and de-vein them for shrimp cocktail and butterfly shrimp.”
She’s quiet, but will fill your ear about people who don’t want to work.
“If you want a job, you sure can have a job somewhere doing something,” she said.
And that turns out to be the secret ingredient in the sweet life of Hilton Head’s Dessert Queen.