Though holiday traditions vary from region to region and family to family, there are some standards that unilaterally apply: On Christmas, it's presents. For Halloween, candy and costumes will do. On the Fourth of July, fireworks are the standard.
But Thanksgiving, more than any other popularly celebrated holiday in the United States, is celebrated with food and lots of it.
This is great for those on the receiving end of the day's smorgasbord. All they have to do is shovel it in and leave room for dessert.
For those tasked with preparing the meal, however, holiday cooking for Thanksgiving in particular can be hectic.
It takes an organized mind and kitchen, cool nerves and good timing, beyond the normal level of cooking know-how, to be able to pull off a full meal that will feed a hungry holiday crowd. But the good news is, once the meal is over, the cook can relax and wait up to a year before having to put forth a major cooking effort again.
For some, though, they plan, prepare, serve and clean up a meal that serves anywhere from tens to hundreds of people one day, then they come back and do it all over again.
It may sound like a tough plight to the once-a-year mega-meal moguls, but the cooks at central Kenai Peninsula senior centers wouldn't have it any other way.
Melissa Bailey got an interesting introduction to how much fun cooking can be by making cotton candy and caramel apples on the carnival circuit in California.
Soon after she graduated from high school, Bailey answered an ad in a newspaper looking for a carnival food vendor. She got the job and was hooked.
"Once a foodie, always a foodie," she said.
Bailey, who now lives in Kenai, put in 11 years with the carnival before moving to Alaska. She is the cook at the Kenai Senior Citizens Center and has worked in the cooking business for about 15 years in all.
"It's very fast paced, there's always something to do all the time," she said of cooking. "(I like) the challenge, it never gets old. There's always something new."
Her favorite foods to make are desserts, breads or anything baked because she finds them romantic. The holidays give her ample opportunity to tackle the challenge of making the perfect torte or a cheesecake that doesn't crack, along with the other holiday standards like stuffing and potatoes.
"I like to do (holiday cooking)," she said. "It expands me, it's fun. It's not real hard things to do, but I don't want to put anything out there that isn't good."
Bailey knows the seniors she cooks for will let her know if her food isn't to their liking, but the comments she most often receives are compliments.
"They really appreciate you," she said. "You know that you do a good job. I know in my heart that I do, and I know they appreciate it."
6 cups water
1 cup honey
1/4 cup yeast
1 cup oil
1/8 cup salt
20 cups flour
Combine water, honey, yeast, eggs, oil and salt and let stand for five minutes.Add flour and mix for four minutes until the dough is firm. Let stand at room temperature until the dough doubles in size. Cut the dough into three-ounce balls about the size of an ice cream scoop and let stand until it doubles in size. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown. Makes approximately 80 rolls.
"They're good and it saves money, so you don't have to go to the store and buy your own rolls."
Dave Lashley of Nikiski learned early in life on that following recipes is certainly important, but not following them can be just as important.
"I loved watching my mom cook that's when I learned that it's important to follow recipes," he said. "Of course, I also learned you can change recipes a little bit and come out with something nice."
David Lashley pours a topping on a lemon pudding cake at the Nikiski Senior Center. "Most of my training came from watching my mom cook, Lashley said.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
After developing an interest in cooking as a child, Lashley learned how to cook on a larger scale when he was given managerial duties of the kitchen at the rehabilitation center he spent some time in after graduating from Kenai High School.
In 1987, Lashley decided to head Outside to find a new path.
"I didn't know where I was headed, I just knew I wasn't finding what I wanted in Alaska," he said.
He worked in a few restaurants in the Lower 48 and got into a carpentry career that lasted for 10 years and eventually brought him back to Nikiski in 1997. His mother wanted him to do a remodeling project for her, so he came, did the project, met his wife and has been here since.
He worked in carpentry, at a local restaurant and as a "Mr. Mom" for his baby daughter before the Nikiski Senior Citizens Center had a vacancy in its cook position in 2000.
"My mom said, 'My son can cook,' so they asked me and I said, 'Well sure,'" Lashley said. "I was already volunteering (at the center)."
Working at the senior center has been rewarding for Lashley.
"The senior center has been really excellent for me here," he said. "... I enjoy helping the seniors. I don't look at it as a job, but an opportunity for me to help other people."
Though he's always been "a meat and potatoes man," himself, he tries to come up with menus his patrons will like.
"If these people like what I put out, that's my 15 minutes of fame," he said. "My job is based on spoiling my seniors here. If I can do something special, then that's good."
1/2 cup melted butter
1 cup flour
1 1/4 cup coconut
1 package (3.4 oz) instant vanilla pudding mix
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 package (3.4 oz) instant coconut pudding mix
2 2/3 cup cold milk
2 cups whipped topping
In a bowl, combine the butter, flour, coconut and brown sugar. Press the mixture into a greased, 13-inch by 9-inch pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes to form coarse crumbs. Let cool. Divide in half and press back into the pan. Mix pudding and milk and fold in the whipped topping. Spoon mixture over the crust and top with the remaining crumb mixture. Cover and chill overnight.
"It's real easy to make. It's not really strong sweet, it's kind of got a light but crunchy texture to it. When I bite into it, I don't feel like I'm eating all those calories."
It's no surprise Margaret Phelps of Soldotna runs a regimented kitchen, since she learned how to cook on a large scale in the U.S. Army.
When she joined the service in 1955, she put in for the medical field but got sent to cooking school instead. She spent most of her 18 months of service feeding soldiers and mastering the ins and outs of creating copious amounts of cuisine at Fort Hood, Texas.
Margaret Phelps carves a turkey at the Soldotna Senior Center last week.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Phelps' training came in handy after the service, cooking at a restaurant in Montana and at Central Peninsula General Hospital after moving to Sol-dotna.
"(Cooking) is just something I did and knew how to do," Phelps said. "Not everybody can do it. You have to know how to have everything timed so it just goes right along until the meal's over and you clean up."
After 14 years at CPGH, Phelps retired and was planning on just cooking for her husband and herself. But when a part-time cook position opened at the Soldotna Senior Citizens Center six years ago, she thought it would be a good way to earn some spending money by doing something she was good at.
The job turned into a full-time responsibility, which cut into Phelps' free time. However, her husband has taken over the cooking responsibilities at home.
"Since he retired he knows what he wants so he's doing the cooking," she said. "That's great with me. I don't have to worry about it."
Her clientele at the senior center is quite different than the soldiers she started out preparing meals for, but Phelps said she enjoys it.
"It's nice because you get to know the seniors their likes and dislikes," she said. "You get to help them. It's nice to be around seniors. I wouldn't have that much of a chance to do that (if I didn't work at the senior center)."
1 dozen corn tortillas
1/2 cup oil
3/4 cup chopped onions
1/4 cup margarine
1 cup sour cream
1/4 cup flour
1 4-oz. can green chilies
2 cups chicken broth
2 cups shredded monterey jack cheese
Cook the tortillas in the oil for 15 seconds on one side. Roll them up with two tablespoons of the cheese and 1 tablespoon of the onion and place them seam side down in a 9-inch by 13-inch pan. In a sauce pan, melt the margarine and add the flour and chicken broth, stirring constantly until it is thick and bubbly. Stir in the sour cream and chilies. Pour over the tortillas. Bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes. Melt the remaining cheese on top.
Laurie Kesner and her family have a long history working in restaurants.
She, her sister and mother have worked in various restaurants and her uncle has owned a few.
"It's kind of like in the blood," she said. "... I just like to cook. It just makes me happy to feed people."
Laurie Kesner slices a moose roast before a recent lunch at the Sterling Senior Center.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Out of her previous job experience, including working at an Elks Club in Petersburg and as a travel agent, being the cook at the Sterling Senior Center is more satisfying.
"They're just fun," she said of her clientele.
"They've got lots of stories, and you see how it's going to be when you get older. Anyone with a heart would like working at a senior center because they're cool people."
Kesner learned to cook from her mother and from experimenting on her own. Her favorite foods to fix are desserts and soups because she can get creative, she said.
Cooking for seniors who have to watch their salt intake is another interesting challenge.
"You have to get real creative with herbs," she said.
Though one of her hobbies is collecting cook books and checking out new recipes on the Internet, she tries not to get too exotic with the meals she makes at the center.
"Seniors like potatoes and gravy even though it's not good for them," she said. "That generation, that was what they were raised on."
Kesner, who lives in Sterling, has been the cook at the Sterling senior center since June but she's already made herself at home there, largely because of her interest in her patrons.
"People should definitely reach out to the seniors around you," she said.
1 chopped onion
1 cup chopped celery
1 cube butter
2 cans mushroom stems and pieces
1 can sliced water chestnuts
1 cup uncooked long-grain rice
1 package sliced almonds
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 can chicken broth
Saute the onion and celery in the butter. Add the mushrooms, rice, water chestnuts, almonds, soy sauce and chicken broth. Mix together and pour into a pan. Bake a 350 degrees covered in tin foil for one hour.
"I got the recipe from my mom. It's easy and delicious. I've never had a complaint."
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