David Lauderdale

How Hilton Head's Ellie Bollin fed our stomachs and our spirits

Ellie Bollin is retiring from the kitchen, and who could blame her after almost 40 years of catering on Hilton Head Island?

But it feels like the end of an era that no one wants to go away.

Bollin represents a congenial time on Hilton Head when most people knew each other and neighborhood hospitality flowed as predictably as the tides. It was the era of growth, when a tone was set and a culture was developed. Much of it was pinned to gracious hospitality and "the good life."

One delectable ingredient was the creative swirl in Bollin's heart and mind.

Ed McDonnell of Baynard Park Road describes it. He was one of Bollin's first clients on the island. At the time, he was worldwide president of Seagram Spirits and Wine Group.

"We've lived in Brazil, England, New York," he told me Friday. "This was always our second home. We brought people here from all over the world, and naturally, we entertained. Ellie always handled it, and it was always done to perfection. Everyone adores Ellie. No one did it better."

Bollin and her small core staff could wow the owners of Seagram's French champagne brands, or the countess who lived here and in a castle back in Germany. They could add style to the daily 6-to-8ers of the island social circuit, where invited guests arrived precisely at 6 p.m. and left fat and happy at the stroke of 8. And in 21 years of preparing all meals at First Presbyterian Church, they could lay out a Sunday brunch with two entrees and 12 handmade desserts, and the simple lunches for the day school.

Through it all, Bollin was driven to never do anything in an ordinary way.

WORD OF MOUTH

Nothing about her has been ordinary.

Ellie and Charles Bollin built the fourth house in Port Royal Plantation after buying an oceanfront lot in 1964 for $10,000. In 1970, they moved in with four children in tow. Charles sold real estate and Ellie taught reading at Hilton Head Elementary School.

But soon her reputation as a caterer found her. Islanders from Augusta, Ga., discovered she was here. That's where Bollin started her avocation, almost by accident.

She was a home economist with the Georgia Power Co., showing customers how to use their new electric ranges. The company president asked Bollin to make his daughter's wedding cake. Bollin said it was a three-tiered work of art, and by word-of-mouth it turned her into a caterer on the side.

Bollin's mother taught her early in life to cook well with little. She's a native of Stony Brook, N.Y., where her father tinkered with inventions. Bollin earned a bachelor's degree in home economics at the Pratt Institute, working summers at Ted Hilton's Vacation Hide-a-way in Moodus, Conn., where she once boosted her pay by baking 40 apple pies in an hour.

She was the first woman to earn a master's degree in the psychology and sociology program at N.C. State University. She would later earn another master's degree in education. She taught in college, and for more than 20 years in the Beaufort County schools.

She plays piano and paints watercolor landscapes.

Most of Bollin's culinary art is self-taught. She reads cookbooks like others read novels. Her favorites are by Helen Corbitt, Marlene Sorosky and Martha Stewart. She swears by Augusta's "Tea-Time at the Masters."

But she always improvises, making recipes work for her tastes -- and for the ingredients she has on hand.

FAMILY TEAM

Bollin was once called the most unflappable person on Hilton Head, and it may be true, but her kitchen can be a madhouse. It has helped that all the players know each other well.

Her son, Bill, has run Ellie & Bill's Catering for years. Daughter Anne Bollin often worked in the business, and Caddell Bollin Czura of Bluffton says all the Bollin children, including sister Joan Johnston of Atlanta, were grating cheese before they were old enough for kindergarten.

When Ellie & Bill's closed shop last week, Frances Green of Hilton Head had worked with Bollin for 30 years. Sheila Robinson, a native of Daufuskie Island, was there for 28 years. Edie Olson helped for years with the Sunday brunches. Besides that, Bollin taught all three of Green's children. Robinson put her three children through college, in part due to all those mad dashes she and the others made to a client's home in a station wagon full of glasses, silver trays, beef tenderloin, bouillabaisse salad, crème brulèe or coffee punch.

"We're all family," Czura said. "This has been one big family."

They were family to early clients like builder Robert Graves, and real estate agents who wanted to sell a classy lifestyle. They were honored to serve the New Year's Eve parties for philanthropist Brock Rowley, and they were family at countless Heritage parties, almost since the PGA Tour tournament's beginning.

The economy has slowed things down, and people don't know their neighbors like they used to, but Bollin insists islanders still love to gather around good food that's well presented.

Still, when the First Presbyterian congregation honors Bollin's team at a reception following the 11 a.m. service today, an era will end.

"We've done it long enough," Bill Bollin said. "We can't do it any better. The parties we did this fall were perfect. We leave grateful and with no regrets."

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