Saturday, December 1, 2007

Spunky and self-made: Sandra Lee

How Sandra Lee’s escape to Wisconsin led to sweet, Semi-Homemade success

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Brava magazine, December 2007
Cover story

When Sandra Lee was 15 years old, she looked her mother straight in the eye and announced that her future would be a good one.

She got the beating of her life.

Sandra left home that day. Exhausted from spending years as the primary caretaker of four younger siblings, emotionally spent from the thankless ordeal of rescuing her mother after a suicide attempt that nearly succeeded, shaken by a rape attempt by her former stepfather, and now more bloodied, black and blue than she’d ever been before, the teen fled for shelter with her boyfriend’s kindhearted family.

Sandra didn’t know it then, but she was only a few months away from the haven that would change her life forever: Wisconsin.

Today, it’s hard to imagine the 40-year-old Sandra Lee as anything other than the celebrity lifestyle expert she’s become. Her upbeat persona has led many to suppose that her success was effortless, her upbringing comfortable and coddled.

She’s the CEO of Semi-Homemade, Inc., the New York Times bestselling author of a string of cookbooks bearing the Semi-Homemade name and a guest lecturer for Harvard Business School conferences. She’s an entrepreneur who for years ran an industry-award-winning business based on do-it-yourself window-treatment gadgets she invented using clothes hanger wire. She’s a tireless worker for charities including UNICEF, Project Angel Food and Share Our Strength, and a trustee of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

But she’s probably best known as the chipper host of Food Network’s popular show Semi-Homemade Cooking. For each strongly themed episode, Sandra personally develops an array of recipes including her signature “Cocktail Time,” dramatic “tablescapes” that incorporate anything from garden ornaments to dime store props for 3D effect, a complete overhaul of the set’s dressing and even a coordinating wardrobe for herself, sometimes with multiple costume changes. She’s done this over 200 times since the show’s debut in 2003.

She balks at the suggestion that the themes express who she is: “It’s not me coming through. It’s not job to dictate what you should like and what you should not like. My job is to show you, if this is your taste, this is how to put it together with the minimum of time, effort and expense. Because I’ve already done it every which way there is to do it. By the time it’s on the air, it’s perfect.” The sheer volume and scope of projects covered in each show can seem overwhelming, but, Sandra explains, “No one’s going to make everything that’s in any episode. You might see one thing and say, ‘I can do that.’”

Sandra is known for an exuberant cooking style that uses lots of brand-name mixes, jars, seasoning packets and cans, for her full-throttle ruffles-and-lace decorating, and not least for a blazingly sunny disposition. This last, paired with her willowy, California-blonde good looks, seems to have predestined her success as the upbeat multimedia juggernaut she’s become. But her background of poverty, abuse and family hardship tells a different story.

In her newly published memoir, “Made From Scratch” (Meredith), Sandra recounts her rocky upbringing. Born to teenage parents, at the age of two she and her younger sister were deposited at the Santa Monica home of her father’s mother. There she spent her happiest childhood years. “Grandma Lorraine,” whom Sandra called “Mommy” at that time, worked hard to make home a special place to share with loved ones. She kept an immaculate house, cooked good food, made crafts with the girls, took them to church. When it was time for celebration, she went all out making decorations and treats, playing on a shrewd inventiveness that made the most of the slim paycheck she earned working at a cafeteria. Sandra lovingly recalls the simple foil pie pans she upturned to make “grand, shiny silver cake pedestals” at birthdays. The lesson in repurposing mundane objects would serve Sandra well later in life.

At six, when Sandra's mother and new husband took the girls to live in Washington State, the peaceful rhythms and special celebrations were gone, replaced by chaos, mess and violence. By the time Sandra was eleven, her stepfather was gone and her mother was immobilized by depression. Sandra took over the household responsibilities, buying groceries by bicycle, rationing food stamps through the month, cooking, cleaning, minding four children, raising extra money by selling bunches of flowers she picked from empty lots, dodging her mother’s beatings and admonitions that she wasn’t helping around the house enough -- and going to school, where she hid her bruises from the school nurses.

Just before her sixteenth birthday, Sandra left Washington for the Onalaska townhouse her father shared with his girlfriend. “I got there just in time,” says Sandra, speaking from her recently adopted city of New York. “If I hadn’t gone to live in Wisconsin, we would not be having this interview. I would not have become the person I am. There’s a sensibility in Wisconsin and the Midwest that’s wonderful. The values and morals are really prevalent in the society. ”

Her father’s household, too, dissolved into domestic violence, but Sandra believes Wisconsin life saved her. “The kids in Washington were doing drugs, but Wisconsin was a very different environment. There was really no bad crowd to get involved with.”

Grandma Lorraine helped Sandra find her own apartment in Onalaska. “It was the best and the worst time in my life,” Sandra recalls. “It was the first time I was really on my own and had to just focus on myself, to be still -- which was just odd and awkward. On the other hand, it wasn’t the chaos I was used to in my life in Washington. I was more peaceful and serene. I didn’t have parental guidance or supervision, but there was also this quiet environment. Being able to grow. I read. I focused on school much more. I was the entertainment editor, and in charge of advertising at the school newspaper. I joined cheerleading.”

Here Sandra says she developed the distinctive aesthetic of her show’s coordinated set dressing, tablescapes and wardrobe. “It’s very matchy-matchy, just like Wisconsin. When you’re in cheerleading, your hair-bow matches your purse matches your book cover. Everyone matches. All the time.”

Unaccustomed to what seemed like loads of free time, Sandra went to work, too. “My first jobs were at Hardee’s and Penny’s Shoes. Then I went to the pet store in the LaCrosse Mall. The work ethic and the support and the understanding -- Wisconsin was just a super terrific place to be.”

Then there was the food. “I experienced different foods in Wisconsin that I never had before. Brats were one, which I loved immediately. Sunfish was another -- I love sunfish to this day. Just flour and salt it, then saute in butter.”

After high school, Sandra headed to the UW-La Crosse to study physical therapy, “a great way to help people -- I got that from taking care of my brothers and sisters.” But the girl who once helped support her family selling value-added wildflowers found business classes more riveting. “Five of us got together and opened up an ice fishing shop, you know, on paper. You had to do per-square-foot dollars and figure out employee scheduling, everything. After that class, I said, ‘OK. I want to own my own business. This is just too much fun.’”

Cocktail Time, as well as the show’s occasional grilling segments, she says, comes straight from her experience of “grilling, cocktail waitressing and bartending at the Holiday Inn on Mississippi River. I learned to grill on that deck grill, in a very small space. I definitely learned creative cocktails on the deck. We’ve shot 200 themes. Who else could pump out 200 different cocktails? You need the expertise of being a Wisconsinite.”

In college Sandra also discovered the pleasures of entertaining for friends. She had no money, but as she had learned from Grandma Lorraine, “there’s no reason things can’t be special, no matter what your budget” (this attitude would later become central to the Semi-Homemade philosophy). So she learned to improvise in the kitchen. “I would make ‘Boone’s Farm Strawberry Shortcake,’ she recalls. “All you do is just simmer thawed-out strawberries, macerated in Boone’s Farm Strawberry Wine. Let it all melt together -- the alcohol cooks out. That was the only thing we could afford.”

It took several years, a lot more life experience and an intensive course at Le Cordon Bleu’s Ottawa campus for all these elements to coalesce into the overarching concept of “Semi-Homemade.” And when it did, the message resonated with millions of homemakers. No publishing firm would touch her first book, “Semi-Homemade Cooking,” so Sandra self-published. The book became a grassroots phenomenon, and soon major publishers and the Food Network were lined up to get Sandra -- and her Semi-Homemade brand -- on their team.

“Semi-Homemade was really created so that the busy homemaker would have the time to sit down with the family,” Sandra explains. “It’s the solution to bringing the family back together at the table, without sacrificing quality or taste. It’s 70-30, right in line with how your grocery is laid out -- all the ready-made products in the center, and the 30% of the perimeter has the bakery, fresh meats, and produce.”

But some critics argue that 30% homemade is 70% short of real cooking. The New York Times review of the first Semi-Homemade cookbook was scornful. Members of Internet forums make gleeful sport of her menus and recipes, disdaining her advice to, for instance, stir together ready-made ranch dressing with sour cream and hot sauce to make a dip for deep-fried olives (she specifies buying them already stuffed with blue cheese) in tempura batter mix. The contempt doubles at her examples of repurposing, as when the strained-off olive liquid plays a role in Cocktail Time.

Sandra bristles at such attitudes. “They need to quit, these purists, being condescending. I take offense, and I take offense on behalf of millions of women who are working. Who want to take five minutes to sit down with their family. Or to look nice. Taking a shot at Semi-Homemade is absolutely ridiculous. They’re not even taking a shot at me; they’re taking a shot at those women.”

She continues, “Everything I do on the show, I ask first, does this work for Colleen Schmidt [Sandra’s best friend from college] of Fredonia, Wis., who’s on her second marriage and is raising two children? Does this work for Kimber Lee, who’s got no nanny to help her? If it doesn’t work for them, then it doesn’t work. Anything that creates helps create time and a platform for good family values should be greeted with open arms.”

Sandra sometimes has to fight this battle on her own show. For this year’s Christmas episode, a producer nixed a centerpiece of white, powdered-sugar doughnuts adorned with “tiny blue candies that you stick in the holes of the doughnuts,” Sandra explains, and draped with blue fruit leather, all affixed to a craft styrofoam cone.

“They didn’t want me to do this doughnut tree. It was drop-dead gorgeous! I just think the woman in charge didn’t understand what it’s supposed to be about. I said, ‘I understand that it’s not New York, L.A. sophisticated,” Sandra says, her voice becoming hot as she recounts the skirmish. “I said, ‘It’s not about you. It’s about what Colleen Schmidt Wayberg will use to make the holidays easier, better, faster.’ That’s what Christmas is supposed to be about. If you did that at your holiday party, everyone would say, ‘You are so clever!’” The producer relented.

“They don’t even know how to tell me, ‘No,’” Sandra says.

It’s a bit boastful, but that’s OK. Years ago, Sandra Lee decided to look straight in the eye of someone who wanted to beat her down, maybe for good. You wouldn’t expect her to back down now over a doughnut tree.

Anna Alberici carries on the tradition of Madison’s Little Italy at the Greenbush Bar

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Brava magazine, December 2007
Column: Around the Table

Recipe: Anna's Cannoli

Anna Alberici was just a child when the bulldozers came. Her family’s home fell with the others in the neighborhood -- with the grape vines, flower gardens and tomato patches, the groceries, churches, spaghetti houses and taverns. Gone was the multiethnic enclave bounded by West Washington Avenue, Park Street and Regent Street, the territory once nicknamed Little Italy. Anna’s neighborhood, the Greenbush, or the “Old Bush,” was a target of the 1960s’ zeal for “urban redevelopment;” the area, with its rich history, was cleared for new concrete megastructures.

A few buildings along the north side of Regent Street survived the wrecking ball. One was the Italian Workmen’s Club, which ran a bar downstairs. Today the club, still in existence, rents that downstairs space to the much-loved Greenbush Bar, owned by Anna and managed by Gretchen Hils, Anna’s life partner. “When I saw that it was for rent [in 1993] I jumped on it,” says Anna. “It seemed like a natural for me to be in that space. “I remember going there with my family.”

VVK: What do you remember about the old Greenbush neighborhood, and what it was like when everyone had to leave?

AA: Even though I was only 10 when we left, I miss it. I really did love it. I wish it were still there. Often when I drive past the area where I lived I think about being a kid, what the neighborhood looked like, how I felt. There were several small grocery stores. All Italian and everyone knew everyone. I would be sent to the store for a pound of salami and “Mr. Frank” would slice it to order, put it on our account and send me home.

I just remember what a huge change it was when we moved. I hated it. My mom was very sad. The older folks really had a hard time when they had to leave. The rest of the people scattered about.

VVK: How does the establishment tie in with the area’s past? What makes it special?

AA: I named the bar in tribute to the neighborhood. It fits into the old tradition of the old Greenbush neighborhood in that we serve Sicilian cuisine. Most of the Italians in the old Bush were from parts of Sicily.

I think what makes the Greenbush special is the coziness. You go down a flight of stairs. Before you get to the door you can smell the food and hear music, talk and laughter. It's warm and inviting, especially on a cold winter night. We pay special attention to not only the quality of the food but also the drink. We have a "top shelf" rail, great wines at a good price, lots of bourbon and scotch as well as local beer.

VVK: What led you to the culinary trade?

AA: My mother was a great cook. She also cooked in restaurants all of her adult life. She was born and raised in the Greenbush neighborhood and cooked in almost all of the Italian restaurants at some point. At home she made traditional Sicilian meals. She loved cooking and we loved eating.

I feel lucky to have acquired a taste for things like Sicilian olives, snails and garlic -- and lots of it -- at an early age. It shaped my love for food that is simple, tasty and wholesome.

VVK: The Greenbush is known for its commitment to local, sustainable food products. What’s behind that?

AA: I remember as a child how good meat and poultry products in this country were. And how that changed in later years. Now I buy all of my non-processed meat -- everything except pepperoni, salami and prosciutto --from Pecatonica Farms in Hollandale, Wis. Their meat is all natural and free range.

We are totally committed to using local and buying local as much as possible. This is the way I eat at home and I feel it my duty to serve that kind of food to my customers. The flavor of local, organic and naturally raised food is so outstanding. I think it is also all local businesses to help other local business survive. We need to support each other. The chain restaurants are out of control and they don't serve our community except in the area of employment, which is good, but ….

VVK: What’s your favorite dish at the Greenbush?

AA: Spaghetti and meatballs. It is comfort food to me. The recipe is pretty much what I grew up with.

VVK: What’s your favorite thing about what you do?

AA: Simply cooking. I love it when I’m alone in the kitchen and preparing whatever it is I'm making that day. It's kind of Zen for me.

VVK: What’s ahead for the Greenbush?

AA: I hope that the Greenbush can keep growing. We often consider opening for lunch, but parking in the day is an issue. I'm currently on a steering committee for the Regent Street south campus area redevelopment. I think it will be great to get Regent Street on the track of more businesses and more of a neighborhood rather than just a busy street.

Anna's Cannoli

Recipe from Anna Alberici carries on the tradition of Madison’s Little Italy at the Greenbush Bar
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Brava magazine, December 2007
Column: Around the Table

One secret to this Italian classic is to wait until the moment before serving to fill these ethereally crispy tubes with a rich, creamy filling of your choice. “Sorry, I can't give you our restaurant’s cannoli filling recipe,” says Anna, “It's top secret!” This chocolate chip variant is “a basic recipe, similar to my mom's -- every Christmas she would make a platter full.”

1 1/2 cups flour
2 tablespoons sugar
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon brandy
1/3 cup red wine or more as needed
Vegetable oil for frying
Special equipment: 3 or 4 metal cannoli tubes, available at Fraboni’s or online.

Blend together dry ingredients in a food processor. Turn off machine. Add wet ingredients. Process until dough forms a ball. Add more wine if it’s too dry. Wrap in plastic wrap and let sit one hour. Roll onto a floured surface to about 1/16th of an inch. Cut out 3" circles. Wrap a circle around each tube. Brush some water or egg white where the seam overlaps and press together.

With the dough still wrapped around the tubes, deep-fry in 350º oil for about two minutes, turning as they cook. Watch the heat and never leave them, as they cook quickly. Remove to paper towel. When cool, remove from tubes and repeat until all dough is used.

3 cups whole milk ricotta cheese, well-drained
1 1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup chocolate chips
chopped pistachio nuts

Blend together ricotta, sugar and cinnamon in a food processor. Stir in chips. Fill shells with a pastry bag and garnish the ends with chopped pistachio nuts.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

No column

I didn't have an Around the Table column in Brava magazine for the month of November 2007.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Kristi Genna mixes it up at Genna’s Cocktail Lounge

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Brava magazine, October 2007
Column: Around the Table

Recipe: Berry Mojito

Kristi Genna was doesn’t remember the day her father, Frank, opened Genna’s Lounge in 1964 – she was only three years old at the time. But she knows its role in Madison’s cultural history as one of a cluster of taverns that earned a little stretch of University Avenue downtown the sobriquet “the Bermuda Triangle.” They say the unwary could become lost for days wandering the Black Bear, the 602 Club, Bob and Gene’s, Jocko’s Rocketship – and Genna’s.

In the 1980s, after graduating from the UW-Madison armed with a degree in communications arts, Kristi headed for Chicago “to pursue a career in television and film,” she says. She soon found work in commercials, but when her father fell ill, she found herself spending weekends in Madison helping with the bar.

“It became obvious that I couldn’t remain in Chicago and continue helping my father during his illness, so I moved back to Madison,” she says. “I ran the bar by myself while my father was ill.” After Frank’s death in 1987, ownership passed to Kristi. “Since then, I have never looked back. I am a proud bar owner, and this is what I do.”

In 1993, Genna’s moved to its new location on the Capitol Square, in a historic building that Kristi’s husband, Jack Williams – “with the help of a few loyal patrons,” as Genna’s Web site says – renovated completely.

Today Genna’s combines family tradition with urban sophistication, leading the way in cutting-edge mixology and authentically rendered classic cocktails.

VVK: What are your earliest memories of the family business?

KG: My father would take my sisters and me to help him clean the bar on Sundays. He provided incentive by telling us, “You know those drunks always drop money on the floor.” We later realized that he threw money on the floor as a little treat for us to find.

VVK: Did you think you’d be involved in the operation someday?

KG: Actually, my father refused to let me work at Genna's while I was at UW-Madison. I told him that he didn’t have to pay me – I would just work for tips. Without his permission, I started helping out the bartenders. As business began to increase, over time most of his bartenders left.– they didn’t care for the younger clientele. With more business and a smaller staff my dad conceded that he needed me there. He never put me on payroll, but he always helped me pay the rent. I think in the end he was happy I pushed it.

VVK: Do you still see patrons from those days?

KG: We often see people who once frequented my father’s bar. They usually express some degree of surprise that Genna’s is still operating, even if in a new space. They tell colorful stories about my father, whom I have learned over the years was quite a character.

VVK: Tell me about your passion for this business. What role do establishments like yours play in life and culture?

KG: I believe that taverns, if run correctly, provide a great service to society. People are social animals, and throughout history, we have gathered at meeting places to share our stories. The ancient Greeks and Romans certainly knew the value of gathering over wine to discuss life, art and philosophy. I think Genna’s has provided just such a meeting place over the years. The value of skilled bartenders is not only serving good drinks but also listening to the patrons’ stories as well as contributing their own.

VVK: How has Genna’s – and the Madison lounge scene – changed over the years?

KG: The old Genna’s was a classic hole-in-the-wall Wisconsin tavern – a “shot and beer” bar. Genna’s today retains that classic atmosphere, but the new space allows us to be so much more.

We helped bring the modern cocktail lounge to Madison. Just before the move, I hired Kitty Bennett, who was then head bartender at L’Etoile, to teach our bartenders the art of mixing classic cocktails at drink-making seminars. In 1993 very few people ordered martinis, but we continued offering specials. I persuaded my friends and regulars to try them. Genna’s became one of the few lounges in town serving Martinis, Cosmo[politans]s, and Manhattans.

The current set of bars serving finely crafted cocktails grew around us, and I am proud to have been part of that evolution. Genna’s still offers cocktails that are known to be some of the best and most unique in town. Our Bloody Mary is second to none, and where in Madison can you order a Pimm’s Cup?

We also offer a vast selection of microbrews and hand-crafted beers. Ten years ago, we couldn’t give away a Belgian beer, and now they’re quite popular.

VVK: What’s your secret to success?

KG: Genna’s staff certainly has been a large part of our success. An excellent staff tends to attract other people of the same caliber. And once these professionals are in place, they must have the freedom to be themselves. They help foster an atmosphere of individuality, creativity and free expression. People work better when they know management will support them and back them up. Our staff really is like family.

VVK: What’s the most difficult aspect of the business?

KG: Maintaining the equipment and infrastructure. If it weren’t for my husband Jack, I don’t think Genna's could have made it. Jack built this bar, and he has maintained it and kept it operating for over 20 years.

VVK: What’s been your biggest surprise?

KG: That my marriage has not only survived but thrived. I work alongside my husband every day and it really has been a great experience. After 17 years of marriage we still have so much fun together.

Berry Mojito

From Kristi Genna mixes it up at Genna’s Cocktail Lounge
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Brava magazine, October 2007
Column: Around the Table

This fruity rendition of the classic rum refreshment is “our Saturday Farmers Market special,” says Kristi. You can swap in frozen berries for fresh; let thaw first. Barspeak translations? A traditional “jigger” is 1.5 liquid ounces, or three tablespoons. To “muddle” is to crush in liquid. A bartender’s muddler “looks like a tiny baseball bat,” Kristi explains. “In a pinch the end of a wooden spoon or any flat-ended object 1/2" to 1" in diameter will work.”

4 or 5 raspberries
6 or 7 ripped-up mint leaves
1 to 2 teaspoons sugar
A splash or two of seltzer water
1/2 jigger fresh lime juice
1 1/2 jiggers Mount Gay Rum

Put raspberries, mint, sugar and a splash of seltzer water in the bottom of a 10 ounce glass and muddle till all is mashed up. Fill glass with crushed ice. Pour the rum over the ice. Top off the glass with seltzer water. Stir up the concoction and garnish with a sprig of mint and wedge of lime.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Megan Ramey’s MoCo Makes Willy Street Go-go

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Brava magazine, September 2007
Column: Around the Table

Recipe: Stuffed Olive Whipped Cream Cheese

Who would think a new convenience would be something a foodie could get excited about? Forget any associations you might have with sterile atmosphere, flat lighting and stale Pop-Tarts. 30-year-old Megan Ramey calls MoCo Market, which she opened this spring on Williamson Street, a “lifestyle store.”

Ramey’s brainchild is a bold reinterpretation of the classic quickie mart that integrates environmental and employee sustainability, commitment to community, and gorgeous design. The luxurious, dark-stained flooring is fast-renewing bamboo; the paint is non-toxic; there’s furniture and paneling made from reclaimed wood. Upscale offerings include alternative magazines, microbrew beers, a rotating selection of international and regional wines, fruit sushi, organics, locally raised bacon. There’s whole-bean Anodyne Coffee, roasted in Milwaukee, and a beverage cooler featuring exotic offerings like bottled kombucha tea and Coca-Cola, aesthetically bottled in old-fashioned chunky green glass.

Even the advertising is alternative: for MoCo’s TV spot, a hip minifilm complete with production credits, Megan sought out animation students and talked a local band into letting her use its music.

After earning a degree in fashion merchandising from the University of Georgia, the Madison-born Megan came back to the area for a job at Land’s End, and soon enrolled in the UW-Madison’s MBA program. MoCo evolved through the course of her studies. She knew she wanted a retail business, and, she says, “I knew that food must be incorporated somehow. My life revolves around food and I love eating. My family is large. One side is Swedish and the other side is German. We live to eat, drink and be merry as much as possible.”

VVK: What's the philosophy behind MoCo?

MR: MoCo is essentially a convenience store that caters to urban dwellers on the go. Urbanites tend to pride themselves in knowing cutting-edge design, music, pop culture, travel and politics, so I tried to bring together all the products that would communicate these facets of life.

Many of my friends love to find new food or retail products that are amazing, and then we tell one another about them. The same goes for [finding] companies that care about more than their bottom line – are they in business to achieve more than making money? When we find those that have strategies that impact people and the environment in a positive way, we tell each other about them. I wanted MoCo to be one of those companies and to hopefully set an example for others.

VVK: MoCo is different from any other convenience store I've ever been in – the vibe itself is unique, and it goes beyond product selection.

MR: You feel as if you are transported to an international destination because of the modern design. Customers tell us that MoCo reminds them of places that they have visited: Tokyo, Belgium, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Italy. We have modern communal-style bench seating towards the front so people can eat in the sunlight coming through our huge windows while people-watching. All of our groceries are housed on minimal, chrome metro[-style] shelving. Japanese minimalism is the design theme.

Most importantly, MoCo’s interior feels good to be in. My best friend, Mary Bolger, who is LEED-certified [Leadership in Energy and Interior Design], was in charge of creating the magical feeling of the store. She definitely shared my vision for what the store needed to be: “eco-modern.”

VVK: MoCo has the distinction of being certified by the Green Restaurant Association. How did that come about?

MR: While researching an environmental strategy for food retailers during an MBA class on sustainability and ethics, I came across GRA and loved their certification process because it not only centered on food preparation and sales, but also involved community and interior design.

VVK: How did you come up with the market’s name?

MR: I wanted “convenience” to be a part of the name, but I also wanted a four-letter name. “Modern” is what brings the convenience aspect into present day. So I shortened both words to their first two letters and combined them. I love the name because people confuse it with MoMA and MMoCA, which are both beautiful museums.

VVK: What's your favorite MoCo-made food item?

It’s a tie between the sushi and the smoothies.

VVK: What innovations haven’t worked out in the way that you expected?

MR: I thought that music CDs were going to make a comeback. I, for one, really miss having a hard copy of a music library. We still have CDs, but they are listed on eBay, also. I don’t rely on in-store sales. They are mostly used to help shape the image of MoCo – that we’re passionate about music.

VVK: What role do you see MoCo as playing in its Willy St. neighborhood? Have you given thought to additional locations?

MR: Willy Street is my neighborhood and is by far the best one! Where else in Madison is there such a sense of community? I lve knowing my neighbors. The Wil-Mar neighborhood also seems to have the most professionals who bike or walk to work. Plus, the idea of there being a central park one day is so very exciting. I cannot wait to watch Madison and the eastside over the next five years from this vantage point.

I am having trouble finding another neighborhood in Madison where people are outside and community oriented as much as Willy Street. People tell me there is a neighborhood in Milwaukee that would eat MoCo up!

Stuffed Olive Whipped Cream Cheese

Recipe from Megan Ramey’s MoCo Makes Willy Street Go-go
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Brava magazine, September 2007
Column: Around the Table

This easy spread combines the smooth lusciousness of cream cheese with the savor of a stuffed olive. “When it comes to my passion of cooking, I love combining unlikely ingredients,” says Megan.” The idea of an olive cream cheese came from a friend who used to work at a café in Door County. Whipped cream cheese is so much better than regular because it’s easier to spread and feels good in your mouth.”

1 block cream cheese
1/2 cup skim milk
stuffed olives, as many as desired (Megan recommends Santa Barbara Olive Co.’s sundried tomato, blue cheese, or jalepeno stuffed varieties.)

Megan says: “Simply throw cream cheese, milk and as many sliced olives as you like into the bowl [of an electric mixer]. Mix until the mixture reaches your desired whippiness! Serve with bagels, veggies or crackers.”

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Jan Deadman: The new look of Home Economics

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

Column: Around the Table
Recipe: Spaghetti Squash with Meat Sauce
A version of this article was published in Brava magazine, August 2007

Until this spring, Jan Deadman used to be what used to be called a home ec teacher. But let’s back up a little.

A 1963 graduate of East High school, Jan earned a degree in home economics at UW-Stevens Point. In 1972, she joined the faculty of her high school alma mater as one of seven teachers in the home economics department. By the time she retired this year, 35 years and several thousand students later, she’d lived through some enormous changes, both in her field and in the cultural – and culinary – life of Madison and the United States.

First of all, her department got a name change: it’s now “family/consumer education” – FCE for short. And, although its staffing has gone down to three teachers over the years, it’s evolved into one of the school’s most vibrant fields.

Once widely seen as a stodgy single-sex subject that prepped girls for homogenous, housewifely futures, today’s FCE teaches boys and girls a wide variety of life skills and professional development tools for the modern world. “It’s so much more than just cooking and sewing. It’s child development, medical occupations [including a CNA (certified nursing assistant) program], fashion and design,” says Jan. “I believe we have the strongest FCE program in the city.”

East’s foods classes are among the school’s most popular, although funding is a problem. “We had to drop about 200 students from taking foods next year because we don’t have the teacher allocation, or the budget for that matter. Foods is an expensive class to teach,” Jan explains.

Jan says the popularity is due in part to the new cool that cable’s Food Network has brought to cooking and the food trades – a new culinary arts course is debuting this fall. But it’s also because of changes in the classes themselves. Over the years they’ve come to celebrate creative cookery and ethnically diverse culinary heritages, appropriately enough at the school that Jan describes as having the most diverse student population in town.

It wasn’t always this way. In 1972, Jan remembers, “things were pretty regimented, not flexible at all. We had to wear aprons and hair nets. We cooked only very, very simple things: plain biscuits, plain muffins. Now, if kids decide they want to do a special kind of food preparation from their country or cultural background, in a sense, they’re the experts. We learn from each other.”

Let’s back up just a little more – about a century – to appreciate just how very far home ec/FCE has come with regards to kitchen creativity and ethnic food traditions.

Late in the 19th century, a pioneering New England chemist named Ellen Richards decided it was time to modernize one of the most crucial skills ever developed by humankind: the areas of knowledge and skill long known – and disdained – as women’s work.

This happened to be the era when the pantheon of serious academic disciplines as we know them today – biology, chemistry, history, mathematics and so forth– was being shaped in universities across the Western world. At the same time, science and sanitation promised to improve working-class life in cities that had become crowded and polluted over a century of industrialization.

Richards, the founder of home economics (she was also MIT’s first female student, and later its first female instructor), was determined to elevate the practice of clothing, feeding, and creating a comfortable and sanitary household. “Home economics stands for the ideal home life for today unhampered by the traditions of the past [and] the utilization of all the resources of modern science to improve home life," she said in 1904.

With the support of the chemists of the day, who were just discovering the existence of vitamins, early food processors, who were sharply aware of their own interests in a nutritionally aware public, and other social progressives, a new academic discipline was born, one centered around the household sciences. Unfortunately, the most logical name for this field – “economics,” Greek for “rules of the household” – had recently been taken by a bunch of money-focused men who had somehow managed to ignore everything about households that had anything to do with women. Hence the addition of “home” to economics, and the word was transformed into what, perhaps, its meaning should have been in the first place.

There was a dark side to the movement, though. In those days, as today, waves of immigration brought seemingly endless change to the American cultural landscape. But back then, ethnic culinary traditions (Iike spicy flavors) and customs arising from urban and rural working classes (like stews and other one-pot meals) – were believed to be unhealthy, unclean and downright ignorant. Home ec textbooks throughout most of the twentieth century featured straightforward dishes seasoned with little besides salt and pepper. Over the past several decades, mercifully, attitudes have changed.

VVK: What do modern FCE foods classes cover?

JD: We study global issues relating to food. Also, we prepare foods from the ethnicity of the kids in the class. One week this spring we did soul food: fried chicken, barbecued ribs, collard greens, macaroni and cheese from scratch. Dessert was sweet potato pie. After that, we did an Asian lab – we have a lot of Hmong students – with egg rolls, spring rolls, stir-fried rice and green papaya salad. Also, we have many students with Scandinavian roots. We get someone to demonstrate lefse [a traditional flatbread]. We make Swedish meatballs and have a smorgasbord kind of thing. Chef Sabi [host of a local television food show] graduated from East in the late 1980s – he comes in and talks about Mediterranean diets and does demos for the kids.

VVK: How do the students respond to unfamiliar foods?

JD: I think kids today are very respectful to trying new things. Madison has so many wonderful different kinds of restaurants – I think the kids take that for granted. Whatever it is, I insist that they at least try it. One dish – I’ll never forget this one – was from a Japanese family. Mother and student prepared an eight-course Japanese meal, including octopus marinated in soy sauce, a typical appetizer in Japan. That was a real stretch for me. I did try it. But because it was raw, I told the class they didn’t have to. I said eating raw meat or fish was something people in our culture had a real problem with. I didn’t want parents calling to complain that I was making their children eat raw meat! The student was grateful for the kids who did try it. He understood.

VVK: Besides more tolerance and more interest in cookery, what other changes have you seen in students over the years?

JD: Less time is spent in food preparation and we are distinctly at risk of losing favorite family recipes. Cultural specialties risk extinction. Plus, many families do not eat together. I see that as very sad – a huge loss for everybody.

A major problem, then and now, is that most students don’t read the entire recipe when cooking. Two boys were doing a final cooking project – a cake recipe – and they were not to ask me any questions. After about five minutes they came to me and said they were all done. I couldn't believe it. I went to their kitchen, opened the oven, and to my surprise, they had put all their ingredients in the cake pan and put it in the oven. There sat the whole egg, the chunk of butter, all the dry ingredients. Nothing had been mixed. They had just read the ingredients and thrown it all together! Many students then and today just don’t listen and that perhaps is the beginning of the problem. I do think it’s worse today.

It seems there were fewer people, especially young children and teens, with weight problems back then. People in general were more physically active. There wasn’t the total media overkill on appearance, especially for young girls and teenagers. The whole issue of thinness and eating disorders was unheard of back then. Therefore we must work even harder to … convey the understanding and practices that will promote wellness as young people choose the habits that will follow them throughout their lives. Unfortunately, many middle school FCE programs have been eliminated. I see the consequences when we get high school students who haven’t had any experiences with food preparation or nutrition concepts.

Now we have the emphasis on organic, and organic is expensive. At least half of my students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Food choices then become a matter of what is more reasonably priced and will feed the most.

VVK: What was one of the most memorable meals you prepared as a class?

JD: When the kids wanted to do a Thanksgiving meal. I agreed. Then I realized: I’m going to have to put this turkey in the oven at 4:30 in the morning! We had a full, sit-down, Thanksgiving meal at 8:30 a.m., with cranberry relish, sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes, stuffing. Just totally a traditional menu.

There were no leftovers. So many of the kids in the class weren’t going to have a meal like this for the real Thanksgiving. They couldn’t afford it. A lot of people in Madison don’t know that exists in our city.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Spaghetti Squash with Meat Sauce

Recipe from Jan Deadman: the new look of Home Economics
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

Column: Around the Table
Published in Brava magazine, August 2007

“The easiest part of my job is just getting kids excited about new things,” Jan says. “There’s so much wonderful produce around in the fall, so I decided I’d demo this, because they just couldn’t believe you could start with squash and end up with spaghetti. And, why go through the work of making sauce from scratch? It was really fun to watch – because I knew they would like it!”

This nutrient-packed main dish demonstrates some of Jan’s most important classroom lessons: “I try to present a reasoned approach to nutrition and wellness, one of balance, variety, fresh over processed, with an emphasis on fruits and vegetables. Supporting local vendors, grocers, farmer’s markets and the like.” In her classes, Jan also emphasizes “trying new and different foods, keeping informed by reading and the use of critical thinking skills – and being informed consumers!”

Spaghetti Squash with Meat Sauce

1 medium spaghetti squash
1 pound ground turkey or lean ground beef
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
8 ounce can stewed tomatoes, undrained
6 ounce can tomato paste
1 cup water
1/2 cup dry red wine
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning or
1/2 teaspoon each dried basil and oregano, plus a pinch of thyme

Leave squash whole. Puncture it in several places. Put it on a baking tray and bake at 350 F for 30 to 35 minutes. Cut open. (Use hot pads to hold the squash, and avert your face to avoid steam.) Scrape out and discard the seeds. Scrape out the squash and fluff with a fork into separate strands. Squash is cooked when strands are translucent rather than opaque and are easily separated.

Brown meat, with no fat added, over moderate heat. Drain and discard any melted fat. Stir in onion and garlic. Cook and stir until onion just starts to brown. Stir in remaining ingredients except squash. Cover and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes, then uncover and simmer until meat sauce is thick.

Scoop spaghetti squash strands into four serving bowls. Top with meat sauce and sprinkle with grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Herb farmer Jill Yeck builds a rewarding life of fragrant leaves and gentle living

In Brava magazine, July 2007
Column: Around the Table
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

Recipe: Lemon Verbena with Peaches

Some years ago, I found myself shifting from vegetable to culinary herb gardening, largely because the latter is just so darn easy. No worries about pushing sacks of overabundant crop on co-workers and friends, or combing the garden for rotting, bug-eaten veggies. Drying and freezing the harvest are simple tasks with virtually no cleanup, and the results take up little storage space. Holiday gifts of beribboned dried sprigs or frozen pesto are laughably easy to assemble, compared to how well received they are. (“You grew this yourself?”)

In fact, just rubbing a sun-warmed leaf between my fingers and breathing in the resulting explosion of essential oils is enough incentive for me to grow any fragrant herb, whether or not I expect to ever use it in cooking. That’s why herb gardening has become my favorite kind of all.

But, inconveniently for me, culinary herb plants typically get little shelf space at nurseries or market vendor tables. So I was thrilled to discover farmer Jill Yeck, with her wide selection of kitchen standards and offbeat varieties at the Northside Farmers’ Market, where I like to bike on summer Sundays.

Jill is the proprietor of Harvest Moon Herb Farm, a small greenhouse business located about halfway between Stoughton and Deerfield. ““There’s something magical about picking an herb that you’ve grown and immediately tossing it into a dish,” she says. “Fresh herbs from the garden have a unique, invigorating taste that you cannot get from dried. Even store-bought, fresh-cut herbs have lost some of their flavor by the time they get home.”

Jill sells her wares at farmers’ markets at Madison’s Northside, Eastside and Westside markets. “We specialize in culinary herb plants that people can plant in a garden or pot. We also grow plants that attract butterflies,” she says. This spring, after three years on the waiting list, Harvest Moon was admitted into the grandmama of them all, Dane County Farmers’ Market on the Capitol Square, where she now sets up between W. Wash and M.L.K. Boulevard. “It was exciting,” she says, smiling at the memory of her first Saturday morning there. “I sold out of so many plants in one morning.”

At home, Jill is fulfilling her longtime dream of “living gently on a few acres” with Harvest Moon, which she named after the 1992 song by Neil Young. Ponds, a creek, beehives, a vegetable garden – and of course, a greenhouse and outdoor garden for the herbs – form the idyllic setting where she can create what she describes as “a peaceful, beautiful and safe atmosphere providing a refuge to look within.”

VVK: What’s your enterprise all about?

JY: Harvest Moon Herb Farm is a place of peace, healing, and wholeness. Our mission is to provide healthy, unique potted plants, and to provide knowledge on how to grow, use and enjoy plants in both practical and meditative ways. People who participate in this farm – both creators and visitors – can connect with our source on a physical level as we commune with the beautiful Mother Earth and all the abundant wonders provided.

I enjoy connecting with people at the farmers’ markets, and talking about gardening, herbs and the meaning of life. I also enjoy the quiet, meditative times I can spend in the greenhouse and gardens. I appreciate the simple pleasures of the earth.

VVK: How did you get into growing herbs?

I’ve enjoyed cooking and gardening since childhood. These activities, along with eating good food, were an important part of my family in Normal, Ill. Living in Thailand in the early 1980s (my former husband was a Peace Corps volunteer, so I followed love and became a teacher in Udornthani, Thailand), I fell in love with Thai cooking. At that time herbs like cilantro, Thai basil, and Thai peppers were hard to find [back in the U.S.]. I began growing them so I could prepare authentic Thai food.

While living on Long Island [in the 1990s] I was canoeing with my family down the Peconic River when I spotted a beat-up, hand-painted sign that read “Herb Farm.” We pulled the canoe ashore to find a beautiful, peaceful, greenhouse business. I picked up a brochure and a curry plant. The next week I felt the energy of the place pull me back. I became an apprentice and worked there for seven seasons, in food production – herbal jellies, vinegars, salsa – educational workshops and festivals as well as weeding, planting and plain good living. All women worked at the farm. The community we developed supported each one of us.

In 1994 – at that time, I also taught workshops on herbal and cooking topics at several venues – I [began making] herbal egg dye kits using ingredients like nettles, annatto and red cabbage and selling them to Whole Foods and local gourmet-type shops and health food stores. We moved to the Chicago area, where we put up a greenhouse in the back of our suburban home. For four years I sold organic herbs at local farmers’ markets. In 2004 I moved to Utica, Wis., and Harvest Moon Farm found its home.

VVK: Do you work outside the farm, as well?

JY: I have a full-time adjunct faculty position in the Educational Psychology department at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, one hour and 15 minutes from my farm. I teach classroom management and discipline to all the elementary education students – the focus of the course is relationship building, community and nonviolent communication. My last class in the spring is the week before farmers’ markets begin.

VVK: Can you describe your operation? Are your herbs organic?

Every morning I thank the plants for enhancing my life. On the practical side, I use organic methods on the farm which includes no sprays or synthetic fertilizers. I hand mix my soil using the finest ingredients. I was certified organic in Illinois but I decided the paperwork and cost wasn’t worth it. I continue to do things in the same way as when I was certified.

I start some seeds in the basement using grow lights. I have a 13' x 44' heated greenhouse and a small field to grow perennials. Most of the seeds I get from catalogs, but my favorite seeds are ones that friends share with me.

VVK: How many types of herbs do you carry, and what are some of them like?

I grew over 60 types of herbs and flowers this spring. The most popular include basil, lavender, rosemary and thyme. The more unusual include pineapple sage, Valentino basil – my favorite basil – sorrel, scented geraniums and orange mint. Lemon and cinnamon basil have a tad of the flavor of their names. Thai basil has a bit of an anise taste. Fino Verde basil has a stronger flavor and is good for drying. Genovese is the basic pesto basil, although all can be made into a pesto –– pesto simply means “paste” in Italian. Napolitano and Valentino are large-leaf types of basil; both have a typical sweet basil taste;

I particularly enjoy trying new things. My customers know that they can find unusual varieties of herbs. Many enjoy cooking and know that there’s nothing like fresh-cut herbs from the garden. Others just like the texture and aromas of the different plants. Gardening herbs is a sensual experience.

VVK: What misconceptions do people have about growing their own culinary herbs?

JY: That it’s difficult to do. Growing herbs is easy and rewarding. And food never tasted so good.

VVK: Are you ever surprised by what herbs become popular? How about herbs you think will be a hit, but just don’t take off?

JY: Orange mint is very popular. Since it’s an aggressive plant, like other mints, I thought that people would shy away from it, but that’s not the case. I really like sorrel – it’s easy to grow and makes great soup and sauces, but it’s not one of the popular herbs at the markets.

VVK: I’m mystified that stevia – the plant that natural, no-calorie sweetener is made from – doesn’t fly off your table. The one I bought from you last year was a great conversation piece in my garden because of the sweet-tasting leaves that you could roll up with mints and lemony herbs to make on-the-spot flavor combinations.

JY: The plant in the pot isn’t as attractive and it’s not hardy here, so many were afraid to try it. This year I decided to not grow it and disappointed a few stevia converts. I’ll bring it back next spring.

VVK: What plans do you have for the future of Harvest Moon Herb Farm?

JY: I hope to make the farm a place where people come to enjoy the gardens, an herbal walk, an herbal lunch, a workshop. The workshops I would teach would include herb gardening, butterfly gardening, cooking, herbal cosmetics. I’d also like to expand into yoga, nonviolent communication, painting, pottery, poetry – really, anything that someone has a passion for and would like to offer.

Lemon Verbena with Peaches

Recipe from Herb farmer Jill Yeck builds a rewarding life of fragrant leaves and gentle living
In Brava magazine, July 2007
Column: Around the Table
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

“Lemon verbena is amazing!” says Jill of this, her favorite herb of all. “It makes a great tea, and it can be minced into fruit salads or tossed into the bath for a relaxing soak. I just love smelling it while wandering the garden. In tropical climates it’s a bush. It’s a tender perennial, so it needs to go in the house in winter.”

Desserts featuring the crisp, refreshing quality of this intensely lemony herb were all the rage in Victorian times. This example is “also great with blueberries, strawberries or other fresh fruits,” Jill says. If you can’t find lemon verbena, try substituting another lemony herb – or, in a pinch, juice and zest from a fresh lemon.

2 tablespoons fresh lemon verbena, plus additional leaves for garnish
1/4 cup honey
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
Fresh peaches

Process honey and lemon verbena in a food processor for about one minute. Add cream cheese. Process until smooth. Cut peaches in half and remove pits. Place a dollop of the cream cheese mixture in the hollow of the peach. Garnish with lemon verbena leaves.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Hooked on Cheese: World champion Julie Hook and her artisan curd creations

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Brava magazine June 2007
Around the Table

Recipe: Pineapple-Cheddar Casserole

When Julie Hook signed herself “A friend in cheese” in an e-mail to me, I knew she was my kind of people.

In fact, for 31 years Julie and her husband, Tony, co-founders of Hook’s Cheese Company in Mineral Point, have been best friends in cheese – to each other, to the small, sustainable dairies whose milk they buy, to patrons of many of the area’s finest restaurants including L’Etoile, the University Club and Blackhawk Country Club, and most certainly to all the cheese-loving shoppers in the area who appreciate quality local products made with passion and pride.

One of only a handful of licensed female cheesemakers in Wisconsin, in 1982 Julie became the first – and so far the only – woman to win the coveted World Championship Cheese Contest, bringing home the title of “Finest Cheese in All the World” for Hook’s Colby. Over the years, Hook’s cheeses have also won first place at the American Cheese Society awards, the Cheese Shop of Beverly Hills competition, the Wisconsin State Fair Governors Cup and more.

VVK: You and Tony celebrated your 35 wedding anniversary this May and you’ve run a business together for over three decades. How do you share and divide the responsibilities in your business?

JH: We’ve always worked side by side. Whatever needs doing, whoever has time just does it – we’re both licensed Wisconsin Cheesemakers. We’ve been working together so long it just seems to flow.

VVK: How did you get started in cheesemaking?

JH: In 1970, Tony began apprenticing at a small cheese factory in Barneveld. He got his cheesemaking license in 1972. In 1976, we formed Hook’s and moved our young family [the Hooks have two children, Shawn Hook and Melyssa Schroedl] to a small rural cheese co-op in Mineral Point. Together we made cheese, hauled milk and hauled out the whey, seven days a week, starting at 4:00 a.m. Little by little I learned from Tony how everything was done. We outgrew our rural cheese factory and in 1987 purchased [our current] factory in Mineral Point.

VVK: About how big is your operation, and what types of cheese do you make?

JH: We make up to 100,000 pounds of cheese per year – cheddar, Monterey jack, muenster, brick, baby Swiss, a good aged Swiss and a variety of flavored cheeses with garlic and onion, pepper, pesto, tomato basil, bacon, dill, smoke and horseradish. We also make a whole milk cheese we call Sweet Constantine, based on a Parmesan recipe.

Tony loves experimenting. He’s always trying new cheeses, new twists to his recipes and new techniques. In 1997, when we started making blue cheeses, there were not many places in the U.S. making it. We wanted to make a high quality blue that could be as good as any European blue. We think each of our blues is a little different – and yet as good as or better than – their European or American competition. Together we’ve created four different kinds: our traditional Danish-style blue, Tilston Point (a washed-rind, pungent blue), Blue Paradise (a double-cream blue) and a creamy gorgonzola.

We love to try new cheeses. When we make a new cheese we have a perfect place for taste testing: the Dane County Farmer’s Market, where we sample out all of our cheeses.

VVK: I’m curious about aged cheeses. Can any kind be aged? And what gives 10-year cheddar that distinctive, delightful, little crunch?

There are actually many cheeses that can age wonderfully – Parmesan, Swiss, cheddar. In general terms drier cheeses can be aged if they’re made properly, and moister cheeses cannot, because they break down faster and this usually gives the moister cheeses some off flavors. The bacteria and the enzymes in the cheese break down the proteins. Eventually the milk sugars (lactose) and the calcium come together to form the [crunchy] calcium lactate crystals which you find in many aged cheeses.

We age our cheddar cheese in curing rooms at just the right temperature and humidity for a slow curing process. Every few months each batch is taste tested to ensure that only the cheeses of the highest quality are saved to age. Each batch ages a little differently, and through tasting we pick just the right ones for aging long periods of time – seven, 10 or 12 years. Some people say once it gets to a certain age the flavor quits changing, but so far we haven’t found that to be the case. It keeps changing and getting more flavorful and better through 12 years.

We have a cave about eight feet underground that we cure our blue cheese in. It’s built into the hill where our factory is located. It’s kept at cave temperature and humidity, but it’s not a separate cave dug into the ground.

VVK: Tell me about the milk you use and the cows it comes from.

JH: We’ve worked with the same dairy farmers for the past 30 years. We have small farms – 11 to 60 cows – that supply us with high quality milk. Quality has to start at the farm in order to make great cheese. All of our farmers use sustainable methods of farming and have their cows out on pastures from May thru October. They have all signed an agreement with us that they will not use rBGH.

VVK: Traditionally, women made cheese at their farmsteads, but until recently almost all professional cheesemakers have been male. Why, do you think?

JH: Nowadays there are many more women in the cheesemaking profession. It’s a very physical job. In an average day a cheesemaker lifts, flips, carries and moves several hundred pounds of cheese. There are heavy salt bags, boxes and liners to be moved. You climb inside bulk tanks to wash them and pray you don’t slip. Everything has to be scrubbed and sanitized. It’s hot work in the summer and the old rock walls of the make room get really cold in the winter. You always have cheese to label and cheese to cut. And you have to wear an UGLY hair net! It’s not very glamorous. It sure saves on expensive work clothes, though!

VVK: What changes have you seen over the years in people’s awareness and appreciation of local, artisanal cheeses and other sustainable products?

JH: Not too many years ago most of the cheese produced and sold in this country was mild and without a lot of flavor, but things have changed, People have a real appreciation for high quality artisan cheeses. Even children have experienced palates. More people are looking for more variety and stronger and more varied flavors. Cheesemakers are changing – making more varieties and aging cheeses longer to fulfill these needs.

People want to know how their food is made and where it comes from. Everyone is becoming more educated about what they put on the table and in their bodies. That’s what makes shopping at the Farmers Market so special. You’re buying directly from the producer – it couldn’t be any fresher. People are asking questions and learning from us. And the producers are learning what people want and their concerns.

VVK: What’s your favorite way to enjoy cheese?

JH: Cheese fondue is delicious and a fun family event. You can’t have hot apple pie without Hook’s Ten Year Cheddar melted over the top. Give me a plate of Hook’s aged cheddar cheeses and all four of our blue cheeses – at room temperature – and a little of our son’s homemade ice wine. Kick off your shoes and enjoy! That’s the best.

VVK: What does the future hold in store for Hook’s Cheese?

JH: We’ll keep making cheese as long as we’re able. Who knows – maybe there will be a grandchild in the future that will want to take over. What’s around the corner for Hook’s Cheese? That’s what’s so exciting – not knowing!

Look for Julie and Tony’s delicious cheeses at the Dane County Farmers Market (In front of the glass bank), Willy Street Co-op, Sentry, Whole Foods, Brennans and many other markets, or call Hook’s Cheese at 608-987-3259.

Pineapple-Cheddar Casserole

Recipe from Hooked on Cheese: World champion Julie Hook and her artisan curd creations
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Brava magazine June 2007
Column: Around the Table

“This is one of my family’s favorites,” says Julie. “My daughter, Melyssa, and I make it a lot. It’s wonderful to bring to a potluck – a great side to burgers, hot dogs, barbecue, chicken and pork. I just love it because it mixes the salty and the sweet together.” Julie notes that any cheddar aged at least one year can be substituted. “Anything old enough to melt and not be stringy. But your taste buds just explode with the Hook's 10-Year in the recipe!”

3/4 cup granulated sugar
6 tablespoons flour
2-3 cups Hook’s 10-Year Cheddar, shredded
2 (20 oz.) cans of pineapple chunks in their own juice
1-2 cups cracker crumbs (Julie uses whole-wheat Ritz)
1 stick butter, melted.

Drain pineapple chunks, reserving juice. Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a medium casserole dish. In a large bowl, combine sugar and flour. Stir in Hook’s 10-Year Cheddar. Add drained pineapple. Stir until ingredients are well combined.

In a medium bowl, combine cracker crumbs, butter and pineapple juice, stirring until evenly blended. Spread crumb mixture over pineapple mixture. “I like to put some extra crumbs on the top,” Julie says. Bake 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Can be reheated, or even served cold: “It’s one of those recipes that get better in the fridge.”

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Blogger Vanessa Balchen finds an international audience for her online journal of fresh, local whole foods

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Brava Magazine, May 2007
Column: Around the Table

Recipe: Strawberry Scones

The other night for dinner, Vanessa Balchen made snapper, and according to her, it was “the best fish I’ve ever made.” So she told the whole world about it.

“I rubbed it down with a mix of garlic, canola oil, cumin, and smoked paprika and then cooked it in a really hot pan with just a bit of oil,” she announced. She even took an enticing photo of her luscious entree, served on a salad bed of mache – “You should have seen me at the market when I realized they had it?it was rather embarrassing to be that excited about a leafy green” – and dressed with a sauce made from “a few dried berries, some fresh ginger, and a splash of white vinegar – so tasty I could have eaten it with a spoon,” and accompanied by “tender and flavorful artichoke served with an espresso cup of melted butter and coarse French gray sea salt. Delightful and oh, so decadent.”

That’s a typically exuberant, intensely first-person excerpt from Vanessa’s web log – “blog,” for short – And she’s not the only one out there chronicling breakfast, lunch and dinner on the Internet. Vanessa’s snapper entry credits recipes found on two other blogs as the basis for her menu, and considering today’s varied, vibrant, food “blogosphere,” that needn’t come as a surprise.

Though political bloggers might be the ones most often mentioned in the mainstream news media, food bloggers abound, ranging from cookbook authors and world-famous chefs to home cooks and enthusiasts of all types. One directory site,, lists over 1200 online journals that document and celebrate the philosophy, history, cultural significance and preparation of food.

Dedicated food blogger Vanessa Balchen, 46, is a marketing specialist by day who lives in Middleton with her computer programmer husband, David, and their two sons, Alex, 14, and Dexter, 12. Originally from Sullivan, a small town in central Illinois, Vanessa met her husband at college, Southern Illinois U at Carbondale. “I studied creative writing and English with an emphasis on poetry,” she says.

The Balchens lived in the San Francisco Bay area for 13 years, but, Vanessa says, “the schools were awful and Dave had a five-hour commute.” In 2000 they read about “the great quality of life in Madison” in a New York Times article. Just two months later, they were Midwesterners once more.

VVK: Why do you blog?

VB: Last year I started blogging because I was playing games on my computer. I figured if I had time for that then I finally had time to write for fun again. I love everything about blogging. I love the cooking, the technical tinkering and design improvements, writing it, marketing it. I love it all.

VVK: Why blog about food?

VB: Most of the food I make is original or an adaptation of an existing recipe. I've always cooked this way and I've always enjoyed it. But when we wanted to eat something again, I couldn't recreate it because I didn't write it down and I have a horrible memory for details. Now I have a written record of my recipes, I get to write – which is something I enjoy immensely – and if people want to read, then they can.

For me it's all about local, fresh ingredients. I buy directly from the farmers whenever I can. My blog features the food we eat and the people who grow it. I cook simply because the superb products I get don't need much to bring out their fresh, robust flavors. I have a list of my local sources on my blog and I'm always looking for more. I never worry about the safety or freshness of our food when I know where it comes from. Having a relationship with the people who grow your food is the best way to approach food, it's very satisfying and it's a win-win sort of situation.

Q: Who reads

I have about 200 readers a day now and I've been consistently growing since I started last September. People find my blog through comments I've left on other blogs, links from other blogs, and blog portals. Many of my readers are fellow food bloggers, and others are just people who like to eat well. I have readers from all over the world, and I always find that surprising. I'm always amazed by the praise I get – nothing but love and kindness has been coming my way.

VVK: How much time do you spend working on the blog?

VB: I probably blog everything we eat. I work on it about four days a week, anywhere between one to three hours a day, depending if I have research to do or if I need to leave comments on my blog or elsewhere. I also spend time marketing it by linking it to blog portals.

VVK: What makes your blog special – how does it stand out from other food blogs?

I'd like to think that it's my fabulous content. I've purposely tried to infuse my cooking, writing, and photography with who I really am at this point in my life. I attempt to be humorous, although I'd be the first to admit that my brand of humor is pretty silly. I think my blog design is attractive and easy to use. I work hard on all of this and I think it shows. I like playing with the HTML and PHP code. I've been able to learn a lot of new things over the past six months and that's a huge bonus. It helps that I'm computer literate and married to a genius programmer.

VVK: About that? in the popular imagination, the stereotypical computer geek eats like my former boss from my days working at a small Internet company – his four food groups were cereal with milk, Doritos, mixed nuts and delivery pizza. Your site’s very name,, is a declaration to the contrary.

VB: I've always hung out with geeks who like to eat well and were willing to cook for it. In college, in SF and the East Bay, and now here in Middleton and Madison. I don't think it's that uncommon. Cooking is a process and it can be analyzed and improved upon. I've also noticed that there are a lot of geeky food bloggers.

VVK: What has surprised you the most about your blogging experience?

VB: Everything about it surprises me. The growth of my readership, the flexibility of my family to accommodate it, the enormous amount of pride my husband has in me, the new things I learn and how it keeps stretching my brain.

VVK: What do you see as the importance of the greater blogging phenomenon?

VB: Blogging has the potential to replace mainstream media. It's interactive, it's a community and it's dynamic. A blog can react to current events, while print media has a much longer cycle. A good blog is intelligent, well-written, informative and entertaining – which is also true of what good print media is. Blogs just move faster and with much less overhead.

VVK: When you write, who do you imagine your audience to be?

VB: I really don't imagine an audience at all. I try hard to write in my voice and I'm very honest about the food I make. If I don't like something or it turns out to be a complete wreck then that's exactly what you'll read on my blog. The pictures are there to honestly represent the food. I don't do anything special to the food and I have no plating technique – it is what it is. I guess I'm trying to show how easy and satisfying it can be to cook whole foods that are produced locally.

VVK: What are your plans for

VB: I'll keep blogging and I'll continue to improve my blog, and my writing and cooking. It’s fun and creating the blog and feeding it with content is quite satisfying.

I'm learning to share myself with my readers. In real life, I'm kind of shy. But through the written word, I can be more myself. My readers know quite a bit about me and that's good. It lets us all feel connected. Plus, I'm enthusiastic about what I believe in: buying local, supporting sustainable agriculture, being honest and enjoying life.

Strawberry Scones

Recipe from Vanessa Balchen, Food Blogger
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Brava magazine, May 2007

“I'm posting a scone recipe monthly. The whole family adores the strawberry scones at Lazy Jane's Cafe and I'm obsessed with recreating them at home,” says Vanessa. This version – her “third iteration,” as she puts it in appropriately geeky terminology – is creatively adapted from Baking With Julia by Julia Child and Dorie Greenspan. “Lazy Jane's scones are denser and toothier. Mine are very light and almost fluffy. I do love the freshness of mine and the strawberriness – I just would like them to be a bit more substantial. And so the quest continues.”

3 cups all purpose, unbleached flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks of cold, unsalted butter cut into tiny pieces
1 cup half and half
1 tablespoon plain yogurt
12 frozen strawberries, sliced

Preheat oven to 425° F. Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar. Add butter and work it into the flour mixture using your hands. Don't overwork the flour and butter.

Stir yogurt into half and half and add strawberries. Add this to the flour mixture and mix gently to form a dough.

Turn dough out onto lightly floured counter. Pat into a square about 1/2 inch thick. Cut into squares and place on a parchment-covered cookie sheet. Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown.

Allow to cool for five minutes and then glaze with a mixture of 1/2 cup powdered sugar, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, and a splash of orange juice.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Barbara Wright of the Madison Originals

Owner of The Dardanelles is a true “original” who also represents 40 locally owned Madison restaurants
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Brava magazine, April 2007
Column: Around the Table

Recipe: Tortilla Dardanelles with Aioli

“Local, independent restaurants are where the flavor is,” says Barbara Wright, president of The Madison Originals, a non-profit association of over 40 restaurant members. “It’s where the cutting edge of regional cuisine is found – where it was born and where it’s preserved.” What makes local eateries so special? “The owner is almost always in the house. There are real chefs in the kitchen, who hone their skills nightly and stand behind their food. Owners buy locally and know their suppliers, often with relationships that span decades. The food is prepared with skill and love, from foods selected for their nutrients and flavors.”

In the three years since the birth of Madison’s chapter of the Council of Independent Restaurants of America (CIRA), Madison Originals has been increasingly active in the community, holding golf outings, charity events and even a lively chef’s battle at the annual Madison Food & Wine Show. Earlier this year, the Originals organized Madison’s first annual Restaurant Week – “wildly successful,” says Barbara. And the group’s quarterly Madison Originals Magazine showcases local businesses, services and attractions of all types.

This month, Around the Table talks with Barbara Wright, who, along with being president of the Madison Originals, serves on the board of directors of CIRA. A 54-year-old native Chicagoan with a lifetime in the culinary trade, Barbara has owned The Dardanelles restaurant on Monroe Street for over a decade.

VVK: What is the Madison Originals all about?

BW: We are a confederacy of independent owners who have formed a union to promote the idea of local dining. This is our guiding philosophy.

Independent restaurants are an integral part of the neighborhood, of the community. We know our customers and they know us. We create intimate places where you can come back again and again and find the same good food and the same warm reception. We train employees – in a positive and supportive environment – real culinary skills that stay with them a lifetime.

Independent restaurants have been suffering from the onslaught of chain restaurants not only moving into town on their own, but also lured to surrounding towns by the dozen by developers and city councils. We get no subsidies or special financing. No one pays to build roads up to our doors. We put our life savings on the line and live our dreams. The Madison Originals has created a network of friendships and support to help us do all of this.

VVK: How did the Madison chapter get started?

Three years ago, Marcia and Patrick O'Halloran, the owners of Lombardino’s Restaurant, saw a sticker on the door of a Kansas City restaurant while on vacation. They were told all about the Originals idea from the owners, and brought that idea back to their colleagues in Madison. The response was overwhelming. New restaurants join every month.

Last spring the board of directors of Dine Originals [CIRA’s trademarked name for its national network of associations] came to Madison and loved it! They were most impressed with the farmers’ market and our local network of farmers and suppliers. In many ways, Madison is way ahead of the curve. We have a great life here.

VVK: Tell me about Madison Originals Magazine. It’s so good looking, and such a celebration of local food and more – I always keep my copy for months.

BW: It’s one of our many successes. It has been so well done that other chapters around the country have been looking into publishing one just like it. It helps us to promote the many events we do each year.

VVK: How did your restaurant, The Dardanelles, come to be, and what does it mean to you personally? I understand it wasn’t always an easy road.

BW: I started the Dardanelles Restaurant in 1996 with my then-husband and two Turkish partners. We had such high hopes. We were excited about bringing the fresh taste and colorful flavors of the Mediterranean cuisine to Madison. We wanted to create the warmth of Mediterranean hospitality here on Monroe Street. We all worked hard to build the interior and set up the restaurant.

When we opened, I worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. We all were new at our jobs, and we trained, altered and rearranged as we went. Although I had talked to my husband and my partners about the huge amount of work starting a restaurant could be, they were overwhelmed. My partners fought with each other in Turkish and wanted to work only a few hours a day. They were the owners, they said, not the slaves of the business. My then-husband wanted to make profits right away, even when other restaurant owners explained that profits came later.

Within the first year, my partners were gone and my husband and I, married 25 years, had separated.

The business continued to grow and I worked hard to keep it growing. Today, I have a wonderful, supportive staff. Youssef Amraoui, whom I married three years ago, runs the kitchen with finesse. He is a Moroccan culinary school graduate – originally from a nomad family in the Sahara Desert near the border between Morocco and Algeria – who came to Madison after a stint at the famous Memphis Peabody hotel restaurant, Chez Phillipe. We continue to create new and classic cuisine from all over the Mediterranean region for all our friends in Madison.

To learn more about Madison Originals, visit The Dardanelles is located at 1851 Monroe St., Madison; (608) 256-8804.

Tortilla Dardanelles with Aioli

Recipe in Barbara Wright of the Madison Originals
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Brava magazine, April 2007
Column: Around the Table

Ask for a “tortilla” in Spain, and you’ll be served a cool wedge of potato omelette that’s fragrant with olive oil and garlic – not a Mexican burrito wrapper. Both words derive from “torta,” a flat, round cake.

“Spain’s cuisine has been shaped over hundreds of centuries by a succession of invaders – Phoenicians, Roman and Moors,” says Barbara. Their culinary influences are still felt in the delicious traditional foods enjoyed today.” This recipe is for a brunch favorite at The Dardanelles, where they like to top it with Kassari cheese – from Greece, farther east along the Mediterranean’s shores.

1 cup olive oil
1 waxy potato, cut in small cubes
1 small onion, thinly sliced
3 large eggs
1 sweet red pepper, cut in thin strips
1 clove garlic, diced fine
1 cup fresh spinach
Salt and pepper

For aioli, mix together:
1 cup real mayonnaise
1 teaspoon crushed garlic

Beat eggs in small bowl with 3 teaspoons water until lemon colored. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside. Heat olive oil in a nonstick skillet or sauté pan on medium heat. Fry potatoes until cooked but not brown. Drain oil and set aside. Add onions, pepper and garlic to pan. Sauté for three minutes until aromas are achieved. Add egg mixture and spinach, submerging spinach in the egg and cook one minute, then use spatula to loosen from bottom of pan and guide uncooked egg to sides. When solid, cover the pan with a plate. Hold plate with a hand and turn pan over to invert tortilla onto plate. Return uncooked side to skillet by sliding from plate to cook on second side. Cook two to three minutes more. Watch out for hot oil when turning the tortilla in this way!

Serve hot or cold. Garnish with aioli and black olives.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

The Wisconsin Supper Club Idea: A great state tradition thrives at Toby’s

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Brava magazine, March 2007
Column: Around the Table

Recipe: Toby's Supper Club's Super-Secret Salad Dressing

What’s a supper club? If you have to ask, you’re probably not from around here – and here’s what you need to know. No, supper clubs don’t have memberships (just like night clubs). No, they’re not open for lunch – they’re not called “lunch clubs,” now, are they? And if you want to look like an old hand at supper clubbing, head straight to the bar to order your meal. You’ll be seated when your salad comes out.

Supper clubs were born during the Prohibition Era, when alcohol was forbidden by an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That’s right, for 13 long years sipping a beer was a federal offense. Not a popular law in Wisconsin. Soon, resourceful citizens throughout the state had opened out-of-the-way establishments along clandestine – er, peaceful – wooded roads, cleverly labeling them “supper clubs.” In those days, “club” evoked a respectable gathering spot for gentlefolk; just the opposite of the wicked connotation of “saloon” or “bar.” And supper sounded like a legitimate reason to go out. Thus was born a culinary tradition that still thrives throughout the region.

Toby’s Supper Club, on Dutch Mill Road near the intersection of Stoughton Road and the Beltline, which evolved into a supper club through the 1930s and ’40s, is a vibrant example of the form, serving authentic supper club eats alongside cocktails so classic they were in fashion when the old fashioned was a new fashion. (In fact, that happens to be Toby’s number one mixed drink.) This is no retro-chic retread: Toby’s is the real thing.

Sisters Roxanne Peterson and Rhonda Frank run the club, which has been in their family since the late 1960’s. We talked with owner Roxanne about Toby’s yesterday and today.

VVK: How and when did Toby’s Supper Club get started?

RP: In 1933 [the final year of Prohibition] Harden Davis and his wife, Iva, built a barber shop here. The rumors were that bootleg booze was sold out of this barber shop – Toby’s kitchen today. In 1939, an addition was made to the building and the barber chair was moved out into a quarter of the dinning room. I have a customer who lived across the street and remembers having french fries and getting his hair cut by Harden.

In 1940, it was sold to Lester and Ruth Galvin and made into more of a restaurant. In 1945, three couples – Weedpohl, Dohaney and Curtis – made it into a supper club and named it Toby’s. In 1950, Toby and Lila Curtis became the sole owners.

VVK: What was Dutch Mill Corners like in days past?

RP: It was Madison’s entertainment center! At that corner there was Simon’s Log Cabin, where the Park and Ride is now. Jack Simon was known as a bootlegger in Prohibition time. I remember riding my bike with my mom and sisters to have lunch during the day, and we had many dinners there. There was the Beacon, where Arby’s is now – a bar and dance hall owned by George Dunn. My dad frequented it in the 50s.

On the other side of 12 and 18 was Oren Rimes’ Supper Club, later known as Nate’s, then Baker’s Dutch Mill. Further down 12 and 18 were Charlie’s Bar and Noble’s Supper Club. There was also a bar called the Cat and the Fiddle, and the Old Dutch Mill.

VVK: How did your family come to acquire Toby’s?

RP: In 1956, my parents built a home around the corner. I still remember my first dinner at Toby’s. It was my fourth birthday. I had the shrimp and a kiddie cocktail, and I thought they were both awful! I love the shrimp now. I remember that my dad painted Toby Curtis’s car, and when he would come to see my dad he would always bring us candy. In 1960, Toby passed away. Lila ran the business until 1969, when my parents bought it. Lila worked with my parents the first year and passed away in 1971.

In 1972, my dad made an addition to the building. When he knocked down a wall to make the new addition, inside we found newspapers with headlines of Prohibition being lifted, Ringling Brothers Circus posters, two sealed, full, Prohibition gin bottles and an original Toby’s menu. The perch plate was 35 cents. – 75 cents for the dinner. A T-bone steak was 65 cents and shrimp was $1.35 Lobster was $1.75.

VVK: Did you always plan to make Toby’s your career?

RP: I went to school to be a nurse so that I wouldn’t have to work at the restaurant the rest of my life. But now I’m the owner! I also work as an R.N. at Meriter Hospital, and at the Lasting Skin Solutions clinic I do aesthetic procedures – lasers, dermal fillers, Botox procedures. Between these two jobs I probably work 50 hours a week. I’d have a hard time choosing which job I like the best. Nursing is very rewarding for me, as is working at the restaurant. People tell me I work too hard, and I say I work a lot but I have never worked hard. The day that I work hard is the day that I don’t like what I do.

I started washing dishes at the age of 11 when my mother worked at the restaurant. I never thought that I would still be here 42 years later. After my parents purchased Toby’s, I eventually moved up the ladder to waitress. When my parents divorced in 1972, I became the manager. At that time I was married with two children and had just completed my L.P.N. degree at MATC and was starting a new job at Madison General Hospital, which is now Meriter. In 1976 I went back to school at UW Madison for my B.S. in nursing.

VVK: What other family members work at Toby’s?

RP: Rhonda’s worked at the restaurant for the last 37 years. We’ve never had an argument. She says it’s because I‘m the boss, and I say it’s because we’re a great team and we’re great friends.

Rhonda’s son, Tony, has worked at Toby’s for 13 years. He’s been our icon bartender for the past ten years. If you’ve ever been to Toby’s, you’ll know Tony and he will surely remember your drink. Sara, Tony’s significant other, has worked at Toby’s for eight years. Rhonda’s daughter, Danyelle, has her own hair and massage therapy business, and she fills in at Toby’s when needed. My daughter Kelly has worked here for the past 23 years, minus the six years she went to college [out of state]. She fills a variety of roles and is the employee’s go-to person in my absence. My son, Chris, has worked at Toby’s on and off over the past 23 years.

VVK: How has the boom in chain restaurants affected your business?

RP: We offer an old-fashioned, nostalgic atmosphere that the new franchises cannot reproduce. At Toby’s we have never advertised. We’ve relied on word of mouth. I credit my dad for telling me a long time ago, “Don’t worry about what the competition is doing. Just take care of your own business and you’ll be fine.” We’re seeing the generation of adults coming to Toby’s because they had dinner here as a child. They’re now bringing their children.

VVK: How about the smoking ban?

RP: We’ve lost a few good friends and customers because they can’t smoke inside. But customers comment how much they love the smoke-free environment. We’ve been very fortunate that the smoking ban has not affected our business overall.

VVK: With all the fads in dining over the past few decades, how has Toby’s menu changed over the years?

RP: Thirty-eight years ago, we added pork chops, frog’s legs, and cod to the menu. We’ve added some appetizers, a New York Strip on Saturdays, and Rhonda’s Wednesday night special, which is different every week.

VVK: You haven’t felt pressure to update, to follow new trends?

RP: No. We use the same dressing recipes and food preparations handed down from the original owners. To this day we use the same cast iron skillets that have always been at Toby’s for hash browns. The same cast iron skillets for pan-fried chicken. We got a new grill and stove in 1996. At that time our cook Margaret remembered when Toby got his first new stove in 1956. She had cooked on that stove for 40 years, and continued to cook on the new stove for another four years. She passed away at the age of 72.

VVK: How about trends in cocktails?

The most popular mixed drink that we make is the old fashioned. In more recent days martinis and Manhattans have become more popular again. Tony is known for his famous key lime pie martini. He will not give out the recipe, not even to me. Toby’s offers a large variety of beer. In 1969 our biggest selling beers were Budweiser and Pabst. In 1972, when Miller Lite came out, it became our number one selling beer and remains so to this day.

VVK: What’s the secret to Toby’s continued success?

RP: We’ve maintained our quality and consistency in preparation of food. When people come to Toby’s they get what they expect and what they remember. They’re recognized by our staff. The same staff is always there. One Friday night, a couple had come in, who Rhonda had waited on for years. When they walked in the door they’d see Rhonda and nod at her, and she’d put in their order. On this particular Friday night, Rhonda wasn’t there. Tony and I asked if they’d put their order in – it appeared that they’d been waiting a long time. They replied that they weren’t sure what to do because Rhonda wasn’t there. They didn’t know how to put their order in. “Rhonda always knows what we want,” they said.

VVK: It sounds like you have a really solid community of loyal customers!

RP: We have people that have been coming to Toby’s since the 40’s. Last summer, some customers told me they were there for the 50th anniversary of their first date. One of our oldest customers, Charlie, passed away in 2006 at the age of 98. He was actively coming to dinner at Toby’s with friends. His wife, Lou Lou, lives at Skaalen nursing home and is 102 years old.