ERIC GORDON, CARPENTER AND GENERAL CONTRACTOR

He is a Chicago man with three decades working in the construction industry under his belt. Food has played an integral role in the development of his relationships throughout the years in a variety of work settings both as a carpenter and a general contractor. He has eaten at every hot dog joint, sandwich shop, pizzeria & taqueria you can find in the city.

I’m more of a meat and potatoes kind of guy for my normal meals. We’ve had a whole health craze since the ’80s…what do you call rabbit food? Salads… everyone wanting to eat healthier … That sent us to a lot of those healthier restaurants that I typically wouldn’t go to.

There’s stages in the construction industry, and you start off as an apprentice where you’re at the low end of the totem poll. Even though you’re at the low end you still intermingle with journeymen carpenters, superintendents, owners. You’ll still have some sort of interaction with them and you see what they do on a daily basis, and if it appeals to you you work towards that position. You start off and you’re carrying your lunch. It’s kind of a cycle. You start out you’re a grunt. You’re doing all the manual labor, then you start using your mind a little more. Then you move up—you become a foreman—then you have to tell people what to do. As you step up from there going to a superintendent, to a general contractor position, you have to know what all the trades are doing.

Typically, you get 30 minutes for lunch. Period. Start to finish. And if you’re in a high rise or a building that has an elevator… if everybody leaves to go to lunch you only have five minutes to eat a lunch by the time you get down. So they’ll typically have a truck on site to buy something. Typically they would have burritos, hot dogs, cheese burgers: something that you can eat with one hand while you’re still doing something else. They try to give you a cold drink, a hot sandwich of somethin’ [pause] you know easy for you to carry back and forth.

Most of us that work in the field have a lunch box that was an integrative part of tool box because it was so valuable. I would say that the majority of carpenters would bring their own lunch. Usually no one wants to take that time standing around waiting for the elevator so they would just stop working where they’re at, sit down somewhere comfortably and open up their lunch box…and then they’d get their full 30 minutes from working and still eat a halfway decent lunch. Usually it would be a steak burrito or a chicken burrito. Those would usually be big—you wouldn’t finish it all in your half hour of eating. Depending on the season it would change from hot soups in the wintertime, typically with bread, or summertime would be more your cold cuts lunch meat. Peanut butter and jelly was always a standard for everybody.

Not to stereotype any carpenters or anything like that. You work hard to get to lunch—you’re very hungry. You’ve got a short period of time to eat, and you’re trying to eat as much as you can in a short period of time, which is why you’ll grab for a burrito that has meat, lettuce that kinda stuff to get as much as you can into your stomach. Tamales were a big hit too because the cornmeal keeps you full and they were easy to slide down. The carpentry industry has an array of ethnic people…your average project would last 3-4 months, you’re gonna be with that person everyday for and you guys kinda get to know each other discussing stuff you know.. “have you ever had it?!” They’ll always say, “My such and such is the best you’ve got to try it.” They all have their own food that they eat, and we get to try it.

In the stage as a carpenter and you’re trying to move along, time has become important. You’ve got young kids at home, you’ve got a wife, whether she’s a stay at home mom or you’re paying for a babysitter, the sooner you can get that babysitter out of the house, [the] more economical it would be. What guys have done… they’ve got the power bar stuff. They’re not taking a lunch. They’re not taking a break. They want to work straight 8 hours and get out without extending the day with having lunch or break. So to keep their nourishment up as they go, they would put a power bar in their pouches and they chew on those as their working. They’re not filling a meal but their eating enough for where they can get home and get to the kids as soon as they can. A lot of guys have evolved to say, you know, I don’t wanna stay at work, I don’t want to sit in traffic with everybody else. That’s another type of carpenter—or type of person—that weighs more value on time than they do on eating.

It’s definitely effective because they’re not taking the break…the coffee break and the lunch break…they’re constantly focused on the project at hand- you don’t have downtime. Let’s say lunch is 12:00 to 12:30, well, quarter to 12. They’ve got to go wash their hands and go to the bathroom before they go to lunch—they’ll do that on company time. You lose productive time from stopping and starting. You’re sitting at lunch and then oooooh oh oh you may have started a conversation at 12:27 then 12:30 you walk away from break area and you’re starting conversation, you’re losing productivity. There’s something to be said about working straight 8 hours to get home. You’re focused on the project for a full 8 hours, that way it’s more productive.

We had a garage on the southside of Chicago, and near that garage there was a Mexican restaurant, and I was there one day and their door was not closing. The owner happened to be there in the establishment and I said, “hey I can fix that door for you, no problem.” I said, “yeah I’m with a construction company.” You know I fixed the door within a matter of minutes. I had the door fixed, he was so happy it got done I ate there for probably six months to a point I felt guilty. It didn’t cost me anything but time and I was on my lunch when I was fixing it. It was a great deal.

Part of my job [now] is to entertain clients and therefore it’s a weekly ordeal or a weekly job for me to take someone to lunch so you know for having that as part of my job I would eat out a lot more than most people would.

I leave it up to the client 100% and I’ve eaten food that I’d never eat normally the most with going out with clients. Pretty much most of the Asian food I typically hate but if the client wants I would go there and eat that. Indian food—definitely wouldn’t eat that unless the client really wanted it.

We had gone to a restaurant downtown and it was a steak place, so I was definitely happy with the food that was being served, but then as we were there eating it was kind of a tight quartered restaurant and they sat some people down the table next to us and it just happened to be Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen. My size is I’m 6’2., 2 ½… 180 pounds, so I’m not the smallest guy, and the client I was with a large fella, and then with the basketball players sitting next to us they were tall. We were….infringing on each other’s space because there wasn’t enough room to sit comfortably and as we were there we were looking at each other and we just started talking. We got a relationship going to where we had another lunch after that at a different restaurant. That experience really enhanced my relationship with the client because for a fluke these superstars sat next to us. We were able to…get to know them on a personal basis that kept the relationship with me and the client together and the client was extremely happy and he had autographs for his kids, so it was a really nice experience for both of us.

The industry is extremely competitive and a lot of construction is kinda the same. You’re doing a lot of the same things so what you’re trying to do is relate to a client on a more personal basis. Usually if you take them out of the work environment and into a restaurant they change somewhat and become a work friend. Then you get to know them a little better from a friendship standpoint they feel more entrusted in you, so if they have a problem or have something that needs attention it’s like calling a friend. It kinda works to both of our advantages. The trust is built not so much just from our work performance, which is very important. Two companies if they both perform the same way in the field, the person who has the more personal relationship with the client is going to get more work… I don’t want to say easier, but more appreciated work.

When you just sell work for years and years, you miss working with the tools so then you find time and you say, “I don’t mind doing that, I’ll do that myself, I’ll do the ceiling.” It’s enough to keep you lively and keep your finger on the pulse. You’re not asking someone to do something unrealistic because you just did it. Then you know when a guy’s killing you on a project. Hanging ten sheets of drywall when he should do fifteen/twenty. It all ties in. But all in all I’ve had a great career…I had fun at all stages because I like what I do…I still do.

— Sela Gordon

MELINDA TUMA, FORMER CONSULTANT FOR THE PAMPERED CHEF

Speckled green counters, shiny sharp knives—everything perfectly aligned in preparation for the event. She waits and they arrive, one by one, until the door closes shut. What comes next is more than just a plate of food. She masterfully moves around the kitchen shouting facts and anecdotes, captivating those in her presence. Her personality fills the room. The audience stares out of curiosity and chuckles with amusement. When it’s time to leave, they filter out with a head full of knowledge, a soul full of values, and a belly full of food—thankful that she was able to give them an evening to remember.

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I was invited to a Pampered Chef event—at the time they called them kitchen shows—by a friend from church. Pampered Chef sells various cooking tools, implements that you would use in your kitchen. From pots and pans, to knives, to what some people would call gadgets, but Pampered Chef would prefer to call tools because they make something easier, like graters or zesters. Lots and lots of different shapes of stoneware, all the baking implements. I went to her show and thought it was fun. I enjoyed it and bought one of the round baking stones. But I didn’t actually start as a consultant then, it was a year and a half or maybe even longer before I became a consultant.

I really liked to bake. That was something I enjoyed from the time I was a little girl and that was something that interested me in doing Pampered Chef: the really nice baking tools that they sold. But the real purpose behind Pampered Chef was to be bringing something of great value to clients and customers—an opportunity for those people to learn how to cook and prepare meals easily and efficiently so that family meal time could be part of their lives. It’s about bringing people and families around the table.

At the time I started, I was working part time. I had five kids so we didn’t go out to eat a lot. We didn’t do a lot of fast food or anything like that. It was a lot of money to do that. I liked to cook. I wouldn’t say I loved to cook but as I had my family, cooking just became something that I had to do on a more routine and regular basis. I think I just organically grew into being someone who cooked a lot. I was thinking it was probably extra money, and an opportunity for me to maybe think about not working part time out of the house and just working that business.

It was hard, although at the time, it worked. Bob was very supportive. We had three hockey players, which is very demanding, but he did a lot of the running back and forth because I would work in the evenings. I would typically work maybe two to three times a week, so it wasn’t a ton of hours out of the house. I would say 15 hours a week, but it was at that critical time in the evening when kid’s activities were going on. And then I had the benefit of having my daytimes to be able to volunteer at school—be able to take care of all the other tasks of running a household, like cleaning, grocery shopping. I could also still do the other part of my Pampered Chef work that required me not to be out of the house, like follow up calls and paper work and those types of things. So it was actually something that I could balance and still bring in a nice part-time income and only be away from my family a small amount of time per week.

Practicing was something I did all the time. I would often practice on my family. I would make exactly whatever I was going to make at the show and it might be our dinner that night. I would sometimes even talk my way through it as if I were doing my cooking show and figure out where it was bumpy, where I was gonna make a mess, where something didn’t seem to work very well. I would also do it with my team of consultants. We would have routine meetings where they would come over and practice a recipe or two, and learn about different techniques or how the food performed when we prepared it. Pampered Chef started to realize that cooking was becoming very popular and we needed to up our anti on our cooking techniques as consultants. They actually taught us things from a chef’s perspective. Terminology and how you would actually use the terminology elevated our expertise as cooks.

But we were always cooks. Almost never was anyone a professional chef. If you’re just a regular home cook, experiment and play around with food. Experimenting, trying different combinations is very, very important. The worst thing that’s gonna happen is that it’s not gonna be the most edible thing in the world, and you know, that’s not a bad thing. You can just start over again. Reading cookbooks and informing yourself of basic food concepts is important. Don’t fear food, you know? There’s nothing to be afraid of.

In advance of the event, the host and I would figure out how many people were coming, and what I was going to prepare. We would decide on the recipe and she would be responsible for picking up the groceries, but I would send her with a list. I would need to pack up a container of supplies—of products—that I would need to prepare whatever dish we decided I was making, and I would bring everything for that. I would basically have my kitchen in my car. Oftentimes there was a bucket of cooking tools in my car for weeks on end that never left.

I would show up at her house about a half an hour early. Sometimes I would have to talk to myself in the car. I might have had a fight with one of the kids, or whatever, but I needed to get it together because the people that were going to the show wanted to have fun and they wanted to learn things from me. I could wear really whatever I wanted—the company didn’t have very specific things about that. They just wanted us to look neat and clean and professional. Her guests would show up, I would meet everybody, and we’d have a little introduction about what we were going to do that day. Then I would start the cooking. I didn’t sell the food. The food was a vehicle for the cooking tools to implement what I used. They would eat the food that we prepared, I would take their orders, clean up my dishes, pack everything up, and go back home again. Sometimes, I would just leave the box of cooking tools in my car and do the same recipe over and over again at different people’s houses so that it would make it easier for me to not have to repack my vehicle every day.

There were products in the line that I didn’t particularly like or that I just didn’t think worked very well but I was never forced to or asked to promote a product that I didn’t like. If there was a product that I didn’t like [pause] well for one thing, I would have to understand that just because I didn’t like it didn’t mean that other people didn’t find value in it. Sometimes it required me to think differently. If I had other consultants that said: “Oh my gosh, I use it all the time for x, y and z,” I would have to re-think, maybe I’m just not having an open enough mind about this product?

There was never any requirement for me to promote anything if I didn’t like the product. Often, if a guest would ask me about a product that just didn’t perform well, I would say to them, I don’t recommend that you get this product. If they have a product that doesn’t work well, they’re going to call me and be unhappy with me and I’m the salesperson. That’s my business. That’s my integrity on the line, so there’s a personal stake in it as well. Fortunately, Pampered Chef had a really excellent return policy, so almost always I could get that product exchanged for them, get a refund, get a new one if the product was defective and just replace it. I would say a very high percentage of time I was able to satisfy the customers’ needs in a pretty short time frame. It’s a mundane task as a consultant because it requires follow up and other things, but that’s part of the job and I had the company backing me on it. Once in a while, you’d get a customer who’d be very hot under the collar about something, and needlessly, because like I said there was a great return policy, you’d sort of have to calm them down and say, “You know, we’re going to take care of this don’t worry about it.” At some point you are somewhat limited in what you can do, so I would just write the customer a check and replace it myself because I couldn’t resolve it with the company.

A typical set sold by Pampered Chef
A typical set sold by Pampered Chef

Over the course of my 18 years, I did over twenty-five hundred cooking shows and I would guess probably over two thousand of those people were at one time a stranger to me. Some of them became friends as a result of having shows with me multiple times. Some of them I only did one show with and never saw again. You know, it’s interesting. Sometimes the people stuck in my mind and I remember really enjoying them and enjoying their company and enjoying the evening. And other times it was sorta more just like a job. I did my job, I left, I don’t wanna do the job again and they didn’t want me to do the job again. Kinda like, I suppose, dating in some ways. Sometimes you go on a date and you’re like, ah, that was fine, I don’t really want to see you again. Other times you date someone and you really enjoy them and you continue to date them. Kinda like that.

I’m not doing much Pampered Chef at all anymore. I loved it, I just think I’m done. I did it for 18 years, and I think I’m done. It’s not because anything was wrong about it, I’ve just moved on to different things. I learned a lot about food, a lot about cooking, and a ton of sales skills, ideas and techniques. I think that there is value, enormous value, in a family coming around the table for dinner—and even if it’s not the most fancy meal—cooking together, having dinner together and having whole, healthy food. It’s second to none.

When it starts to get cold out, I love the thought of soups and stews and you know, heartwarming kinda food. I like the thought of it, it just brings memories to me about, I don’t know, I guess it’s maybe fall time or anything around the Thanksgiving holiday. It’s just very highly attached to family and that goes beyond the food and what it tastes like. It’s the relationships around eating that food, it’s more than just the physical satisfaction of eating. It’s the nourishment of the heart and the soul and the mind, different than just the belly. It’s the people who you bring around the table when you’re having that food that bring the best memories. The food is the glue that brings people together, but the real important stuff is the conversation and the relationships that are going on.

— Mari Verbeten

ANGELINE VICK, FARMER & SELF-PROVISIONER

Angeline Vick grew up in Watertown, Wisconsin, where she met her husband, Don. They married in 1952 and bought land close to Don’s parents’ farm. Don and Angeline lived and worked on their farm of 298 acres from 1952-2003. 

I was introduced to farm life when I met my husband, Don. We bought the land that was next to his parents’ farm and we moved out there right after we got married. I believe that was in…1952. We bought Don’s parents’ farm after they retired, so we had about 298 acres. We came to town about eleven years ago, so we lived and worked on that farm for over 50 years.

We did it all. We were mostly dairy farmers, though, because the farm was set up for that, so milk was our main source of income. We had 30 cows, so not like today. It was all manual labor. We milked them for about an hour and a half every morning and night. We used the milk machine and the milk tank and cans, but there was no pipeline. We just filled the buckets and dumped the milk into the milk cans. Sometimes, we would just reach into the milk tank with a cup and drink it right out of there. It was ice cold and so good! We always had a really high test for percentage…about 4%. It had a lot of cream in it, so for me, it tasted just as good as ice cream.

We had pigs; we had steers, ducks, geese, and chickens. The chickens were pretty much my work, though. We would get 300 new baby chicks every spring and when they were old enough they would give us 250, 260, 270 eggs a day. We’d sell the eggs pretty quickly. I’d pack them up, about 30 dozen into a case, and take them into town and the special place that bought eggs would just give you what they wanted to give you for the day.

Angie's chicks
Angie’s chicks

I butchered a lot of the chickens, too. Everybody wanted farm dressed chickens! First, you have to bleed ‘em out. Then you dip them in hot water so the feathers come out easier. I picked out all of the feathers by hand. Then you just take the insides out and put them in a tub of cold water. Don grew up on a farm, so he was the one who showed me how to do it.  The first time was a little hard, but I got good at it after a while. I just did it!

We had a lot of crops, too. We dipped our fingers into everything, really! We had oats, wheat, alfalfa, soy beans. Later on, whatever we needed to feed the cattle, and corn. We got free corn seeds from our seed dealer and oh, was that corn ever good. One year, we had so much sweet corn, so we took a pickup truck load to St. Mark’s, gave it to the cafeteria ladies, and said here you go! They said the kids ate five cobs each! 

I suppose my garden was my favorite work on the farm. I liked planting and harvesting…I didn’t like the weeds though, but those came with it (laughs). I planted lettuce, radishes, onions, carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers, tomatoes, beets, beans, pumpkins, and the list goes on. We had strawberries and raspberries, apple trees, plum trees, and cherry trees, too. We didn’t use those commercial fertilizers. Everything was all organic. I canned and froze…well at first we didn’t have a freezer, but we canned and eventually froze everything from the garden. I did pickles, pickled beets, and sauerkraut. I canned a lot of apple sauce, too. We had a cellar for storing everything and another cooler area for potatoes and onions. That was a big pile of potatoes, because we ate them pretty much every day and it lasted us the year.

I canned meat too! Every year we’d get a new batch of chickens, so I’d butcher and can them. You just cut the meat into pieces with some salt and pepper, cap it, and cook it in a water bath. We didn’t have pressure cookers then, well they maybe did, but I didn’t really like them. I canned chicken, pork, beef, fish, and salmon from Lake Michigan, too.

We smoked a lot venison and beef sausage; about 100 pounds every year. We cut up the meat and ground it up in the big grinder with the seasonings, usually just salt pepper and some kind of preservative. In the beginning we used sugar and salt, but then we used the preservative. We used intestines for the casings before the artificial ones came out. It was easier with commercial made casings, though.

I made most of the meals until Ruth was old enough—then she helped out. We would usually go to the grocery store once a week for a bag of flour. I cooked what we had on the farm. We had our meat, milk, and eggs and the vegetables that were canned or frozen from the garden. Breakfast wasn’t a big meal and neither was supper, but lunch was the big one. Meat, potatoes, and vegetables every day. I baked a lot of bread and rolls, too. That was the way my husband was brought up.

You know, I would put a beef roast in the oven before we went out to work and when that was almost done, I’d come in and get the potatoes cooked with a jar of vegetables. And we always had to have dessert! Cookies, cakes, pies, you name it. I liked to bake cakes. You just put it in the oven, take it out, and frost it. I made a lot of chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting—Don’s favorite! He loved his cake. In the spring and early summer, there were always lots of strawberries, so I would make strawberry shortcake a lot, too. I’d make baking powder biscuits and we would have fresh whipped cream skimmed off the top of the bulk tank. Oh, that milk from the bulk tank was so good!

We made a lot of wine in the later years. We had so many raspberries and cherries in the freezer, so the kids got us one of those wine-making kits. We would just take whatever berries or fruit we were using, measure them out with the sugar and the yeast and the water and let it ferment in a big five gallon pale for about one to two weeks. You have to stir the wine twice a day, so you say good morning and good night to the wine…that’s how you remember how to do it! When it stops bubbling, that’s when you know the yeast stopped working. You strain it and put it in jugs with a stopper and an air lock. The first time we made it here in town, we kept it in the closet and we could hear it go ‘bloop, bloop, bloop’ at night.

Wine was just a family thing. We just did it for fun. We made raspberry, cherry, elderberry, strawberry, plum, and cranberry. We got a little creative and made a little batch of strawberry rhubarb wine once. We tried apple once, but that was a little bland. We had little wine tasting parties in our country gazebo…I think Ruth and your mother were there when they were teenagers. They would sit in there, taste the wine, and get all smiley! I don’t know off the top of my head how many gallons of wine we made over the years, but if I had my book, I could tell you. We made lots though and gave a lot away.

It was just the family working on the farm and this was just our way of living. It was a lot of work, but we made it. We just did the work and that was that. We never had a sick day because the chickens had to be fed and the cows had to be milked every day. We were just too busy to have much time for fiddling around… but we would get together with our neighbors every once in a while to play cards: Sheepshead or Canasta.

We had to work hard to make everything go, you know, because things were tough back then. We had to do it to make ends meet and it wasn’t for a lot of money. We had our ups and downs, with health and the weather…a farmer depends on good weather, but we made it. I learned a lot of things over the years and I just learned as I went along. Sometimes this didn’t grow or that didn’t grow, but we always had enough to go around.

Her daughter, Ruth, interjects, “Don’t let her kid you. She drops a seed into the ground and it grows and she’ll have ten pounds of something come up!”

We had a house to live in and we were self-sufficient…we were never hungry because we always had food. That was life years ago and we were lucky that we could keep going. We would just look to the sky and pray…that rain has to come…tomorrow, tomorrow!

The Vick Farm
The Vick Farm

— Aly Theder

NANCY ROSS RYAN: FOOD WRITER & RECIPE DEVELOPER

Nancy Ross Ryan, a Chicago based food writer and editor, has written for multiple magazines, cookbooks, and blogs, and has also worked in the field of recipe development and testing. 

Well, I am 81 years old now, so when I went to college it was not really assumed that you would have a career.  Your destiny was to get married and have children and be a housewife (laughs).  I had been writing since a very young age and that was what I liked to do. I believe that skill is something you are really born with, and it saved me.  After I had three children, I got a divorce and refused alimony—which was an insane thing to do—and had to find a way to support my kids and myself.

I got a job at Cuisine Magazine.  I was a copy editor, then promoted to feature editor. The way I feel about food and relate to food worked for me as an editor because I was never short on ideas. That is something that is very valuable in a magazine, because it comes like taxes with a frightening regularity. Every month you have to repackage ideas or think of new ideas. You know, New Year’s comes around and what are you going to do for dinner, again, for the thirtieth time? I stayed there until the magazine was sold, then moved to another magazine. Cuisine Magazine was a consumer magazine, aimed at the home cook, but my next job—I took any job I could get—was a trade magazine. Trade magazines are aimed at businesses and chefs. I was truly a fish out of water. My education, my culture, my interests—were all in the arts.

My first job at a trade magazine was with Restaurants and Institutions. I had two female bosses who absolutely despised me because I was so offbeat (laughs). I was not of the trade mentality. But the material I was writing kept winning awards, so they couldn’t fire me. I was there for 15 years, and when I finally retired, somebody asked me to write some articles for them, so I ended up at Chicago Social. Then one day somebody asked me about a cookbook. This was the first big cookbook I wrote. From then on, I have done cookbooks and blogs for chefs.

It is very important to have a skill that is not yet replaceable by a computer, and writing is something like that. Something I have faced as a woman was always being paid less than a man, and I think it is still an issue, but gender in food writing is not a huge issue. One of the things that I learned when I worked for a big corporation, like a magazine, is that management tolerated almost any behavior.  You could lie about your expenses, have inappropriate sexual relations with members of the staff, drink to excess, be absentee, but the one thing you could not do is speak the truth as you saw it. You could not be critical of your overlords.That has been a very hard lesson for me to learn. I think one of my biggest challenges was keeping my mouth shut. 

When you write a cookbook, well, when you develop a recipe, it’s very precise work. You have to have level teaspoons, the weight, well not necessarily weight. The American cooking public has never been happy with metrics, so you translate into volume.  I think that when people know that you’ve written a cookbook, they have absolutely no idea what is involved in writing a cookbook, the research, accuracy, recipe testing, production.  In food writing you absolutely need command of English language, spelling and grammar, that’s just bottom line, essential, and you also have to know how to research, and fact checking is part of researching and you also need to write about something that you care about.  A lot of people come to me and say, “I want to write a cookbook.”  In their minds they think, “If so and so did it, why can’t I do it?”  That’s a really bad false assumption: cookbooks are easy.

One of the jobs that I had that I absolutely hated was doing restaurant reviews. Having worked in restaurants, I really understand what a horribly difficult job it really is, and how fickle the public is, so one bad review, and you are taking money away from the restaurant. But one of the false assumptions people make about restaurant critics is that they are experts, some are, some aren’t. Some are just exercising their ego at the expense of the restaurant.

My family members were foodies before the word existed. I grew up eating raw oysters, roast suckling pig, and curry. My mother and father competed in the kitchen with a ferocity that was pretty scary. I didn’t really get into the kitchen until I was 12 years old. One night they were both out, so I fixed dinner all by myself. I made fried chicken, vegetables and biscuits; the only thing that really failed were the biscuits.

People who have inspired me are chefs themselves like Jacques Pépin and Julia Child, but there are food writers whom I admire so, so much because they have taught me things–about technique, about ratios. If you’re making bread, cookies–whatever you’re making–they tell you the ratio and why. For recipe development that is enormously helpful. And books that tell you all about a cuisine; you could not find that information on your own when you are researching, not even on the Internet.

I actually witnessed the birth of the celebrity chef. When I first started working at the magazines, they began giving awards to these celebrity chefs. I interviewed Julia Child and Jacques Pépin and a lot of famous chefs. Well, interviewing Jacques Pépin, who is the quintessential French chef, classically trained, the first celebrity chef, he was amazingly nice. And Julia Child—I actually went to her home in Cambridge and she fixed lunch for me, the same thing I fixed for you today (laughs), tuna fish salad sandwiches. She was very straightforward, honest, not pretentious, not full of herself.  I really learned a lot of what I know about cooking from her cookbooks. I went through—almost like that movie—and learned to cook. At that time, in the ‘80s when I interviewed her, there was a division in the foodservice industry between chefs and dietitians. People thought that chefs were making wonderful food and dietitians were making perfectly awful dreadful food. If it was healthy it had to be dreadful. I asked her, wasn’t it a shame the two had never met? She said absolutely—she wished she could tell dietitians that cooking was fun and eating was fun.

This brings me to two issues in the food system that are very real.  One is sustainability, the second is nutrition.  Let’s start with nutrition.  Over the years we have all watched the government change its food pyramid. First sugar was the demon, then fat, then carbohydrates.  Gradually we have seen that the things your body has to work to digest, like protein and fiber and fat, these things are not villains. The villains are the highly refined fat and carbohydrates.  I still don’t think the pyramid is where it should be, and you have several digestive diseases like Crohn’s and Celiac, and food allergies that have thrown the whole industry into a tizzy. What do you do if you are a restaurateur and you have a kitchen that does not cater to Celiac?  But with the popularization of Celiac disease, the weight industry has suffered tremendously because people don’t eat wheat because they think it is a bad thing, but it is just highly refined wheat that is a bad thing.

Tomorrow I am going to have a typical day. I have to develop a recipe that I find absolutely disgusting, and it has to be gluten free. So here is the recipe that my friend sent me—it’s disgusting. But the issue is the crescent rolls because they have wheat. So I have to develop that gluten free, and then photograph it, and then write the blog. And so that’s what I have to do every week.  So there you go.  That’s one of the blogs I write.

Sustainability probably cannot be isolated from what we are doing to the planet.  There are still lawmakers who insist that greenhouse gases are not an issue and there is no such thing as global warming, but there really is and we are contributing to it. And anything that destroys the sustainability of our planet affects our food sources. In this country we are meat eaters. We raise animals in some very inhumane conditions so that we can have lots of protein. We don’t see how they are killed, we don’t see the suffering, we don’t understand the impact. A move toward a less meat-centered diet would do us a lot of good and our planet a lot of good. 

Another issue with food sustainability relates to our whole behavior as human beings. We still have not figured out how to distribute basic things to everybody. A very small percent of us have most of the money. You know, we are drinking coffee that I have put through a filter, and there are people in Africa who do not have decent water to drink. There’s one more thing I want to say about technology. There is really bad technology out there in terms of sustainability. The guy that invented the Keurig—you know the Keurig—he was just quoted as saying he’s sorry he invented it because what he’s doing to the landfill is absolutely atrocious.

When I was in Brazil several years ago, on the tourist bus, on one side of the hill was this luxury hotel, and on the other are people living in pieces of cardboard and plastic and tin. I was face to face with hunger and I have never quite been able to forget it. What troubles me is that most Americans do not understand that hunger exists.  It exists in Chicago, and you know March Madness has started. There’s a guy on TV, and he took on an amateur basketball issue—how they get paid nothing, and he interviewed some players. Two of the guys said that we don’t have enough to eat and we still have to play and our coach screams at us. You have poverty level black kids who don’t get paid, practice ungodly hours, have to maintain good grade point averages, and get abused by coaches—and play without enough food in their stomach. Hunger and our indifference to hunger has always disturbed me.

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So, I was not really directed to a career. I was just surviving financially and fortunately kept falling into jobs that were agreeable. I’m still very fortunate because people come to me and I don’t go looking for the jobs that I have. So that tells you how I did not choose this profession. I fell into it, and I am very grateful for that.

— Brenna O’Dea

DIANE HOPPE, FAMILY & CONSUMER EDUCATION TEACHER

In small-town Brodhead, WI, Diane spent her childhood helping her grandmother pick vegetables from the garden, complete farm chores, and deliver home-cooked meals to her grandfather working in the fields.  Growing up around food production eventually helped her discover her love of teaching about the importance of food and family.

I loved living on a farm because there were so many different animals.  We had dairy cows, beef cows, hogs for a time, and chickens. I also got to help with the calves.  This would’ve been, well, way back, 1963, so my grandpa, and grandma actually milked, too, and my dad. They’d carry the milk to the bulk tank. I grew up with milk straight from the bulk tank, not pasteurized. We didn’t have the fancy pipeline and all the stuff that they have today, so, I think back to it being more traditional. The milk from the bulk tank went to a dairy, so we did have a milkman come and pick that up once a day.

I loved the chickens.  My grandma raised chickens, and I would gather eggs with her. I can’t really remember how many chickens we had.  We would go to Rockford every spring and buy new baby chicks. One of my memories is if it was too cold out to put them in the hen house, we’d keep them in the kitchen.  I loved that because I got to play with them, but then, we’d take them out to the hen house, and by August or September, grandma would slaughter them and we would freeze them so that we would have chickens for the whole year. 

She had a big four-by-four block, this is a vivid memory of mine, and I know some people think it’s gross, but I just thought my grandma was such a strong woman and could do this. So she’d put the chicken’s neck between the two nails and she had bailing twine, and her ax, and “whack!” off would go their head. Sometimes they’d dance around without their head and I would giggle. But I wasn’t too keen on opening up and degutting them. I could watch it, but I didn’t want to do that.  We had a big freezer to keep them in, and grandma made great fried chicken.  I would say we had chicken at least once a week.

We had a big garden for growing our own vegetables.  It seemed like by July and August mornings we would be in the garden picking things. We’d eat lunch, shell the beans, watch soap operas while we did that, and then by afternoon, we were canning things. I loved the sweet corn. She always grew enough that there would be enough for my family, and my two aunts’ families.  And then peas, oh my gosh. We had lots of beans; green beans, yellow beans, and then we did red kidney beans, and, I think we called them black-eyed beans. Oh and pickles. My grandma made every kind of pickle. Oh, I loved making pickles with her. 

Because my mom worked and was a single parent, grandma was my babysitter. Grandpa and the other man that he farmed with, when there was fieldwork to do, we would always take them lunch so that they didn’t have to drive a half-hour back. So, grandma’s standard thing was meat loaf, mashed potatoes, baked beans, and chocolate chip bars, and always homemade iced tea.  I can picture her and I driving in fields all over Rock County and Green County when I was a little girl, and we had these little TV trays, and grandpa would get in the back seat and have his lunch.

My mom and my grandma and my aunt were excellent cooks. That’s one thing that’s different about my family today; we rarely ate out when I was a child. It just wasn’t that big of a deal. I mean we would have a boxed cake mix or something like that.  But yes, everything was from scratch. I just think that’s the way it should be.

To me, it was just fun to be together as a family and to be in the kitchen and just making good food.  My grandma was a farm wife, but she was just smart.  She knew how to do things, she was easy to get along with, she didn’t mind little kids in the way–I mean, if you wanted to help stir or cut or shell beans.  I guess that’s one thing, we were always welcome in the kitchen. And I’ve done that with my own children, because I think that’s how you pass it on and how you teach people to love cooking and food. I think it’s extremely important, not just for the nutrition and good eating, but to create that sense of family.

Diane knew she wanted to be a teacher and initially wanted to major in special education, but after taking many Home Economics classes in high school and being exposed to food production her whole life, she became more interested in teaching Family and Consumer Education.  She graduated from the University of Stout in 1985 and began teaching at Platteville High School in 1986.

I came here in August of ’86. When I got to Platteville, I had kids that knew what they were doing.  Today, thirty years later… Oh, good heavens. There are kids that know nothing. They don’t know how to crack an egg. They don’t know how to mix pancake batter. When we made them, a girl was like, “We aren’t making them from a box?” And I’m like, “No, it’s just a few simple ingredients, you really shouldn’t have to buy the box.”  Kids get excited about food and cooking, because they’re like, “(gasp) I can do this now!” and I’m like, “Yes! You can make pancakes yourself!”

I have my TA’s go grocery shopping for me. When we went to do the beef stew, I said I needed two bags of carrots, and they came back with baby carrots.  And I’m like, haven’t you ever bought carrots? They just looked at me like, “What are you talking about?” And I go, like the carrots that you pull from the ground…  They had no idea.

It’s not just about the eating. They want to know how to make the pancakes, to cut the beef stew all from scratch. The “how-to” of things. I do think that’s just as important as English and math. We call ourselves “applied” academics, because you have to read the recipe. You have to comprehend the steps and do the math. So you’re applying the academics in the other areas and making a product that hopefully you’re proud of.

The students do take the class pretty seriously.  I mean obviously they like eating, but for any student, you know, cooking is a life skill. You eat everyday, and once you figure out, “I can do this, I can read a recipe,” I think they get excited that they can do it. Kids will come back and bring me a little sample from home, like, “Look what I made last night, Mrs. Hoppe,” and that makes me feel proud that it is carrying on to what they’re doing on their own. I hope whatever it is I’m teaching is something they can use in their daily life. What I do is really going to affect them, like making a good meal for your family so you can have family time together.  I don’t want to say it’s all ordinary, but it’s real life.

I’m very tired. I’m 51, and I’m finding as I age that I’m more tired. I had a major surgery last year, a total knee replacement in my right knee. I’m not going to blame it on school, but, even though I try to buy good shoes, anything with food, you’re on your feet. My knee is good, but I can’t do this for another ten years. Not that I’m going to fall apart, but any kind of food work is physically demanding. I couldn’t do it for free.  I love what I do. I think it’s really important and I know that I have a good effect on kids that they’re going to take with them. But to do it for free… Teaching is working. I just don’t see how it can be a volunteer thing. I wish that people looked at it as a profession. It’s supposed to be a profession. 

A year ago, I walked into the grocery store and there was one of my former students from probably 15-20 years ago, and he hugged me, and he goes, “This is my wife!” And to his wife, he said, “This is the lady who taught me how to cook!” And I mean, that’s just, aw, that meant so much to me that after all this time, to get a hug, to be recognized, and that, you know, I made a difference. That means a lot to me.

— Alaina Reeves