Eulalia Peeks deftly assembled the ingredients for salmon croquettes in her neat-as-a-pin Kanawha City kitchen. She was teaching her great-granddaughter Brittany Ross, 20, who was visiting during her college break from Sacramento State University, to cook.
Neither Ross nor her roommate ever learned to cook and their diet of noodles, frozen entrees and take-out food was getting old.
"You know what I think about that - that's an unhealthy diet," Peeks said. "I told her she has to learn to cook and that I was going to teach her to make some good meals."
Ross frequently calls Peeks, 84, with basic cooking questions. Ross grew up in California, but spends her summers at her Gammy's house. She was 4 years old the first summer she came. Although her mother and grandmother are caterers, Ross still turns to her no-nonsense great-grandmother for cooking advice.
Peeks cooks a nutritious, balanced meal every night for herself and her husband, Gazette columnist Edward Peeks. She recently compiled an eight-day menu and grocery list of dinners that cost less than $10 each. Peeks shops for pantry staples at Sav-A-Lot, but buys her produce and most fresh meat at Kroger or Foodland. She insists on Purdue brand chicken, available only at Kroger.
Peeks plans her menus a week in advance, rotating main courses of seafood, red meat and chicken. None of her menus requires more than 40 minutes of preparation time. She builds her grocery lists from the menus. On the night before she serves salmon croquettes, she makes something with mashed potatoes because she uses mashed potatoes in her croquettes.
And Peeks is a stickler for more than ingredients.
Before they started cooking, Peeks tied a neat bow on back of the apron she helped Ross slip on. "All the girls in my kitchen have to wear an apron," she said.
Peeks instructed Ross to mince the onions in the food processor, measure a level teaspoon of lemon pepper and hot sauce and crack an egg into the waiting bowl. Ross hand-cranked the can opener around the cans of salmon and drained them in the sink drainer. She grimaced as she dumped the salmon into her hands and broke it up as her grandmother instructed.
Peeks learned to cook from her foster mother Quetta Morris, a neighbor who lived next door to Peeks and her siblings. Later, when Peeks had three children of her own, Morris babysat them while Peeks worked full time at the post office. Morris' picture hangs in Peeks' kitchen, as it does in her children's homes.
A Charleston native, Peeks is called "Yankee" by her friends. The nickname started when in 10th grade she was talking to a friend during roll call and her teacher couldn't get her attention. He told her she was yakky enough to be a yankee. The name stuck.
Peeks taught her two sons, two of her grandsons and another great-granddaughter to cook.
"My sons and grandsons are not married. I think they're all waiting for a woman to cook for them," said Peeks, who married Edward, her husband of 40 years, when he was nearly 50. "He was just waiting to find somebody to cook."
The Peeks eat at home every evening, except on one Saturday a month when he attends a dinner meeting. "People today eat out and don't cook," she said. "Cooking at home is not that much work."
She used to cook for five adults and three children living in her home. Her children ate nutritious, balanced meals. "They had to have a salad or green vegetable every day of their lives. Juice or fruit every day, too."
Today, she makes more than she and her husband can eat because one son stops by in the evening to visit. Her son's not the only one who's taken with her cooking.
"Some men who do some repairs for me tell me I don't have to pay them, just make them a chicken casserole," she said.
When the oil was hot enough to cause a pinch of salmon to "pop" in it, Peeks instructed Ross to tilt the pan so the oil went to one side. Peeks expertly eased a croquette onto the raised side of the pan, so the oil wouldn't splatter. Ross gingerly managed the same feat.
Salmon croquettes weren't her favorite, but her father liked them, so she'll make them for him, Ross said. She favored Gammy's cornbread, chicken with cream of mushroom and rice, stuffed peppers and spaghetti. After the croquettes were done and the kitchen cleared, Peeks planned to show Ross how to clean collard greens.
Reach Julie Robinson at jul...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.
Kielbasa Sausage Dinner
Served with cornbread and applesauce
2 kielbasa sausages ($5.50)
1 medium cabbage ($1)
1 pound mini carrots
1 medium onion (30 cents)
1 chicken bouillon cube
COOK carrots in boiling water with bouillon cube, 15 to 20 minutes.
CHOP cabbage and onion.
CUT sausage into desired-sized pieces.
ADD cabbage, onion to pot with carrots. Place sausage on top of cabbage. Simmer until cabbage is cooked.
REMOVE sausage and vegetables with slotted spoon.
SERVE with cornbread and applesauce.
Chicken Casserole Dinner
Served with a garden salad, applesauce or cranberry sauce
3 chicken breasts or 6 or 7 thighs, about 2 1/4 pounds with bone in. ($4)
2 cans cream of celery soup ($1)
1 16-ounce bag frozen mixed vegetables ($1)
4 ounces egg noodles
8 ounces grated sharp Cheddar cheese ($2)
Lettuce/tomato salad, applesauce or cranberry sauce ($1.30)
BOIL chicken with 2 chicken bouillon cubes. Cool and remove bones and skin. Cut into desired sized pieces.
IN A LARGE bowl, mix soup, cooked noodles and slightly steamed vegetables, 1/2 cup grated cheese and chicken.
SPREAD mixture in a greased 8- by 11 1/2- by 2-inch baking dish.
SPRINKLE remaining cheese on top.