Saturday, November 13, 2010
Cunningham cooks for a crowd
By ANNE KAZMIERCZAK
Betty Cunningham has been cooking for a small crowd each night — and noon, and morning — for most of the last 30 years.
Cunningham, an Iola mother of 12, five of whom are still at home, learned by necessity how to stretch a budget and stretch a meal.
“I have to watch for sales and I buy in big quantities” when such sales are on, Cunningham said. She also noted that “I stay away from the expensive things like steak” and instead builds meals around more-affordable meats such as burger and chicken.
Mainly, she noted, “I do a lot of cooking from scratch to save money.”
Almost every day at the Cunningham house, something is baking in the oven, be it bread or rolls or homemade pizza.
“It’s tempting, when you walk through a grocery store, to buy cinnamon rolls and stuff, but then I think, I can make that for much cheaper,” Cunningham said.
A dedicated Iolan, Cunningham doesn’t drive up north to shop big box stores, but secures all her necessities locally. The furthest her family ventures is Chanute, where her husband works and will pick up groceries afterward.
“He’s learned what to look for, what price range,” she said of her husband’s efforts.
“It’s funny, so many times I’ll think I need a certain item, but I didn’t tell him, and he’ll come home and say ‘Oh, I got eggs for you,’ or whatever, and it’s what I needed.” Cunningham chalks up the seemingly psychic connection to long years of marriage.
Despite daily having to fill so many mouths, Cunningham doesn’t plan out menus in advance — she is never quite sure how many she is cooking for anyway. Several of her children, now at college, may or may not come home on weekends. A couple married sons also occasionally pop in.
Her son, Micahel, jokes that his mother just starts cooking chicken or burger and thinks what to do with it afterward. That approach does lend itself to most of her recipes, though.
“What I learned growing up was how to make basic American food — potato soup, Spanish rice, chicken and noodles, meatloaf,” Cunningham said.
Most of her meals are based on complex recipes that were “simplified for kids,” she said. “Some of my favorite recipes came from church dinners. Every favorite recipe I have is from a different source.”
Meal preparation has also gotten trickier as her children have aged — the youngest is now 10 — and their tastes have evolved, she said.
“The kids come in and say, “‘That’s what we had for lunch at school’ or ‘I don’t like that.’”
Sometimes, she acquiesces to their tastes half way through meal preparation.
“The boys come in and one adds one spice, another adds another — by the time they are through, it’s spicy. We had some chili one time that was so spicy it made your eyes burn,” she said.
Not a fan of heavy flavors herself, Cunningham cooks even without onions, but has branched out of late to try new spices, she said, to keep the kids’ interest in home-cooked meals.
A new favorite spice mix has dehydrated vegetables, chili powder and tomatoes.
And, she said, she’s discovered the secret ingredient to make her homemade tacos taste more like Taco Bell’s: “It’s cumin,” she observed.
“What’s funny to me is my kids take my cooking for granted,” Cunningham said. Yet occasionally, when visiting sons that live out of town, they will go to a restaurant the boys have raved about. “It’s just home cooking,” she said, bemused.
AN EVEN bigger challenge than pleasing all right now is just keeping enough food ready to eat.
“With teenage boys, their stomachs are like bottomless pits,” she said. “They can eat a meal and they’re still hungry.”
So, typically, there is always something on the stove, on the counter, in the oven — it seems that Cunningham never stops cooking.
“Last night I canned pears,” Cunningham said. “Today I was going to make jelly.
“I have to multitask,” she noted. “If I start bread dough, I have to let it sit, so I start on laundry; then I add a few ingredients (to whatever is cooking), then come back and knead dough, then go work on something else.”
It makes for an unending string of tasks, she said. “It just seems I’m never done.”
And, she noted, “There’s always dishes, too. I’m probably the only person in town — besides a restaurant — who can run my dishwasher twice a day and still have a sinkful of dishes and pots and pans.”
Yet for fun, Cunningham loves to bake. “I spend extra time doing that,” she said.
She loves baking so much that her oven is on year round, even in the heat of summer.
Known for tender, light rolls, moist apple cake and pizza crust so good it is used for both savory and dessert pies, Cunningham admits her baking wasn’t always perfect.
Yet in more than 31 years of marriage, her husband “Glen has never complained about my cooking. He likes everything.”
Except, she said, that first loaf of bread.
When newlywed, Cunningham tried baking bread as her mother did.
“My mom’s recipes were add a pinch of this and dump a handful of that,” she said. “She didn’t measure anything.”
For bread, Cunningham was told “to put as much flour into the dough as you can until it’s not sticky any more.”
Which she did.
“Those first two loaves, well,” she said, “We ate the one, then Glen said we could varnish the second and use it as a doorstop.”
She was saved when a friend gave her a recipe for 60-minute rolls.
“It came out perfect. Her recipe taught me how much flour to use and proportions for baking,” Cunningham said.
Though her sons tease her about her hesitance to spice up foods, her entire family loves anything she bakes, she said.
One family favorite is homemade hot pockets.
“My kids started buying them at the store and they’re so expensive,” she said. “You can’t buy enough to them to feed a whole family. So I just made up my own recipe.”
Cunningham initially thought she would bake and freeze the hand-held sandwiches, “but they all get eaten as soon as they come out of the oven. There’s never any left over to freeze.”
Cunningham uses a yeasted dough, cubed ham, sourcream and Velveeta cheese to create the tasty treats. Creating them takes about two hours, start to finish, she noted. Even so, the price per unit “is a lot less than what you’d pay in the store, I’m sure,” she said.
And despite the hours she spends each day on meal preparation, Cunningham’s kitchen in basic. There is no Kitchen Aid mixer. No Cuisninart food processor. No oven-safe silicon spatulas or pot holders.
She uses tried and true tools such as a wooden-handled pastry cutter. Battered baking pans that show the dents of time.
Her one special tool is a measuring tube made just for shortening. It has a built-in plunger that allows just the right amount to be measured.
Though the task in her home is Sisyphean, Cunningham said, “I love to cook, and I love having a big family to cook for. I’d rather make big pots of things — it’s a lot more fun sharing when you eat.”