A few favorite recipes . . . from Beef Burgers to Mom's Chocolate Cake

This is a copy of my last cooking column that appeared in last night’s Abilene Reflector-Chronicle. I submitted quite a few of my favorite recipes to accompany the article but those did not appear along with the story so I’ll add links to the ones already on our blog and will be adding the others in the near (or not so near) future. The article with some of the recipes is online at Abilene-RC.com, however, you must either sign in as a guest or have an online subscription to access this link — http://www.abilene-rc.com/Articles-Living-c-2014-09-29-186878.113118-Farewell-and-Bon-Apptit.html
BAKING—Loaves of Seven Grain Bread, Cinnamon Raisin Biscuits and Spice Island Ginger Cookies are some of the recipes that Meta West enjoys preparing. (Photo by Tiffany Roney)    

Home-Cooking—Dickinson County Style
“Capturing the Present and Remembering the Past”©
by Meta Newell West, September 2014

Farewell and Bon Appétit

     This is my 156th and last column. When I started writing these monthly articles back in fall 2001, I had no idea they would continue for this long! Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to interview an eclectic group of cooks—from those who enjoy preparing gourmet style foods to those who prepare dishes using only a minimum number of ingredients, those who prepare most everything from scratch to those who rely mainly on convenience foods, those who live to cook and those who cook to live. I’ve enjoyed all their stories and tips, and have collected a multitude of good recipes over 13 years.
     In the process, I’ve worked with cooks who took the time to record treasured family recipes, those recipes that had previously been documented only in their heads. In 2006 I had the opportunity to examine a loose-leaf notebook that included the culinary records of Abilene’s former Order of Eastern Star— is was a treasure trove of recipes, budgets and notes that outlined the history and customs of that organization from 1959 through 1987. Usually I interviewed individual cooks, but occasionally I included couples, groups, several members of the same family and even groups and organizations.
     During each monthly interview I asked cooks to answer a series of questions in addition to collecting recipes. So for this final column, I decided I would subject myself to the same process. So, here goes:
  1. Q: What early experiences with food shaped your interest in all things culinary? A: I remember observing my maternal grandmother work her magic in the kitchen. She was an incredible cook and delighted in preparing favorite recipes for her grandchildren. Family meals at Grandma Richardson’s home meant a cloth covered table complete with china, silver and platters of fried chicken or tender pot roast, along with fluffy mashed potatoes, cream gravy, bowls of corn and green beans, freshly baked rolls, and a lavish dessert. There was always a relish tray brimming with pimento-cheese stuffed celery, homemade pickled peaches, all sorts of other pickled items and olives. She’d set her divided relish tray on her dining room sideboard and, despite warnings to stay away, the grandkids and some of the adults, too, always managed to enjoy pre-dinner treats. I also remember helping her peel apples as she watched her favorite soap operas. Other times we’d create an arrangement of beautiful flowers from her flower garden, and I even remember making pixies out of peanuts for a Halloween party that she helped me plan for a few grade school friends. I also have fond kitchen memories related to my Grandma Newell. I would classify her as a person who cooked to live versus one who lived to cook. After surviving the Depression, she made due with whatever was readily available. We’d often mix up a batch of powdered sugar icing that was then spread on graham crackers for snack time. Together I believe those women, taught me the important role food played in connecting family and friends, and the value of sharing meals around the dinner table.
  2. Q: When did you first begin cooking? A: As a young child, I remember helping my mom, Phyllis Newell, with food tasks such as picking and snapping green beans, and plucking the feathers off freshly butchered chickens. One year I made scads of canned fruit and cottage cheese salads in preparation for a 4-H foods demonstration. I also gained some culinary skills in Home Economics classes at Stafford High School and would sometimes recreate class recipes at home. But as far as having to take responsibility for meals, I didn’t begin to put all the components of a meal together until I was faced with meal preparation assignments as a senior at Kansas State University. But, it really wasn’t until I was newly married and beginning my teaching career at Abilene High School that I finally began to develop my cooking skills and put into practice all the lessons I had accumulated to that point. It was definitely a trial and error period!
  3. Q: What’s the worst thing you’ve ever made? A: I have definitely had my fair share of failures in the kitchen, like the coconut cake that ignited while in the oven during a foods class at Stafford High School. Then there was my first attempt at potato salad—even our dog wouldn’t eat that concoction. My sister-in-law’s recipe for dill pickles called for cloves; of course, she knew to use cloves of garlic. But, as an inexperienced cook and canner, I used actual cloves—the dried flower buds of tropical flowers—and created very odd tasting pickles. A few of my AHS colleagues and students may remember our first FHA (Future Homemakers of America) chili supper, complete with dried beans that were hard as rocks. Another time I attempted to substitute an early form of artificial sweeter for sugar in a pumpkin pudding with a resulting dessert that tasted tinny and awful! I often speculate that all those failures helped me gain insight into recipe writing and empathy for those who need step-by-step, precise directions.
  4. Q: What types of foods do you like to prepare? A. My everyday preference is homemade food that uses basic staples, but I also like to experiment with unusual ingredients and different kinds of cooking methods. I’m fascinated with old-fashioned recipes and have tried my hand at homemade marshmallows and even graham crackers. Over the years I’ve experimented with homemade mixes, all kinds of bread recipes, including sourdough and those made with whole grains. During one period I even ground wheat from my parent’s farm. Before ethnic food became everyday fare, every Sunday evening for about a year, I prepared what we then called a “foreign food” meal, from German rouladen to Greek cinnamon chicken. I am always at a loss when people ask what are my favorite recipes. I think that’s due to the fact that I am constantly trying new recipes and ideas, and some of them become my favorites until something even better comes along. However, I’d have to say that one recipe that I continue to make is Roasted Potato Salad. Another is my mother’s chocolate cake.
  5. Q. What inspires your cooking at the present time? A. What keeps me interested is the challenge of putting together cooking programs for classes that Barry and I teach around the state. I also seem to be addicted to blogging so I’m always on the lookout for new recipes to try, and ultimately post on our blog if they pass the taste test. Lately the new ingredients I’ve been experimenting with include kale and quinoa. For a long time I cooked by the book but eventually started to rely on my senses in addition to the written word. Now I like to put my own spin on recipes, adjusting and  adding to them until I get them “just right.”
     Although I am giving up this column, I will continue to pursue a variety of food-related interests, including additions to our blog titled Cooking with Barry and Meta.
     Thanks to all those cooks who have let me interview them, to the Abilene Reflector-Chronicle for providing space, and to all the readers who have followed my columns over the years. Farewell and bon appétit.

Note: The first 12 years of monthly stories and recipes are compiled in yearly cookbooks available at the Dickinson County Heritage Center. The thirteenth cookbook, documenting my last year of columns, will be available at the Heritage Center on December 7, 2014.

Recipes I submitted with the article include:
Beef Burgers (including Ground Beef Mix)
Kotta Pilafi (Greek Chicken Pilaf)  -- to be added in the future 
Baking Mix and Glazed Raisin/Craisin-Cinnamon Biscuits (biscuits made from the baking mix)  

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