CORDELIA LOUISE Hodges confessed that she couldn't boil water when she was married, but she taught herself to be an outstanding cook.

Her secret: Speed.

Cordelia was a busy woman, with full-time jobs in the garment industry and her work with the elderly and handicapped, and she didn't have a lot of time to fuss over the stove.

"You can't think about what

you're cooking when you do it quickly," said her daughter Sandra Steptoe, describing her mother's culinary philosophy. "You just cook it.

"She would throw her meals together, using whatever was in the refrigerator. There were always leftovers; we didn't waste leftovers."

But obviously her meals did not look or taste like they were just thrown together. From an inability to boil water, Cordelia became an instinctual cook, never using recipes, and making great dishes only she could create.

Cordelia Hodges, who spent 35 years in the garment industry in Philadelphia, a former Bayada nurse who gave over her weekends to provide home care to the needy, died June 5. She was 77 and lived in Wynnefield.

She was born in Indian Neck, Va., to Dora and Andrew Hill. She graduated from high school there, and in the '50s moved north, first to Camden and then to Philadelphia.

She worked for such garment companies as Modern Coat Co., Botany 500 and the government clothing installations, including the Defense Supply Center, in South Philadelphia. She retired from there in 1994.

Cordelia had enough foresight to realize early on that the once-thriving textile industry in Philadelphia was literally going south. So, she left the civilian companies to join the government agencies that made uniforms and other garments for the military.

She was a devoted worker, often arriving at her sewing machine at 6 a.m., having traveled by public transportation to the job.

"She knew the city public transportation system so well she could go anywhere," her daughter said. "She didn't get a driver's license until she was in her 40s, and then bought her own car."

Cordelia was diligent about getting to work on time, her daughter said. "She wanted to be up and going. She didn't want to be late."

"She was very strong-willed," Sandra said. "She was a real person, down to earth. She always had a strong mind, and she prayed often."

Cordelia started her religious life as a Baptist, but converted to Catholicism in the '60s. She was a devoted member of St. Barbara's Church, in West Philadelphia.

"She liked to try different experiences," her daughter said. "Like nursing. She thought she'd try it and see if she liked it. When she saw that the garment industry was drying up, she went to the government."

Cordelia was also a member of the House of Ruth, which provides shelters and programs for women who are victims of domestic violence.

She always had good advice for her family, frequently crediting her mother with various aphorisms.

"She would say, 'My mother told me . . .' " her daughter said. "And she used her own life experiences to give us advice."

As a cook, Cordelia borrowed some of the experiences of her husband, Rudolph Hodges, a career Navy man who served on ships as a steward. They were married in 1966; he died in 1982.

He taught her about what he called "gilli-gilli," basically the art of throwing various foodstuffs, mainly leftovers, into a pan and frying it. She always used cast-iron cookware.

"She could cook meat very well," Sandra said. "You know how sometimes you get meat that is dry? Hers never was. And she was a fantastic gravy maker."

Besides her daughter, she is survived by another daughter, Okima Amaya; a brother, John F. Hill; two sisters, Catherine Nobles and Rachel Lee; and two grandchildren.

Services: Funeral Mass 11 a.m. tomorrow at St. Barbara's Church, 5359 Lebanon Ave. Friends may call at 10 a.m. *