By Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal
Last September, Park and Rec’s Young at Heart program in Ripley decided to try an experiment – a cooking class for men. Program director Kim Hellums asked Jana Gentry, who used to operate a tea room in her home, to teach the class and Gentry jumped at the chance.
“J.P. Shackelford is actually the one who started this thing because he wanted to learn how to cook salmon patties,” Gentry said. “We’re having so much fun with this and they’re learning.”
The class consists of six men: two widows, Shackelford and Dr. Joe Martin; two married men, Rayburn Jennings and Sidney Boyd; one divorcé, Mark Evans; and one bachelor, Robert Plunkett. (Martin and Plunkett couldn’t make last week’s class.)
Each Wednesday at 9 a.m., they gather in the Compton Center on the Park and Rec campus and learn to cook three or four dishes, which they then enjoy eating together.
“Jana asked me my goal for taking this class and I said to get me a wife,” Evans joked. “It hasn’t worked yet.”
Jennings said his wife heard about the class and asked him if he were interested in it.
“I cook big black pots of fish and stew at deer camp,” Jennings said. “She wanted to know why I could cook for 50 people, but I couldn’t cook for two. I thought this thing would last a month and we’d be done with it, but we’re still going and we’ve had a good time.”
Boyd decided to take the class because his wife does all the cooking at his house.
“Before I got here, I couldn’t even boil water,” he said. “I decided I’d give it a try.”
Everyone in the class participates in the preparation of the meal. Evans usually reads the recipe aloud while others handle measuring, chopping, sautéing and stirring.
“One day, they were all over in one corner chit-chatting and I realized I was the one at the stove cooking,” Gentry said. “And I turned to them and said, ‘Hey, I know how to make this dish. Why are y’all over there talking about hunting dogs?’”
Gentry not only teaches the men how to make particular dishes, but she also shows them basic cooking skills: chopping and dicing, making a roux and a slurry, aerating dry ingredients when making biscuits.
“Her favorite phrase is, ‘Did you read the recipe?’” Jennings said. “Anytime we ask a question that she thinks doesn’t need answering, she’ll say that.”
Last week, the group prepared Chicken Pot Pie, Cheese Beer Bread with Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Apples and Cabbage and Garlic Mashed Potatoes with French-Fried Onions.
In past classes, they’ve made such dishes as stuffed steak rolls, salmon patties, scalloped potatoes, chicken and sausage stew, beef roast with carrots and potatoes, energy bars, shrimp and grits with greens, praline pecan French toast, coconut peach and crunch pie and bread pudding.
“She taught us to make this pinto bean cake with apples,” Shackelford said. “I made it for a family thing and my son said, ‘This is good, but don’t tell anybody what’s in it.’ So we’ve taken to calling it a spice cake.”
Each week, Gentry makes suggestions for the next week’s class and the men decide what they want to cook from that list. They each pay $5 toward the cost of the ingredients.
Last Wednesday, Gentry threw out several suggestions for today’s class: Po’boys, meatloaf, stuffed pork loin, blackened fish. They decided on shrimp scampi and lemon icebox pie. Gentry will come up with a couple of sides to round out the meal.
“If you think they’re getting anything out of this, multiply it by a thousand percent and that’s what I get out of it,” Gentry said. “They’re the flowers in my little garden.”