Pearl Wright grew up with 16 siblings, and it often fell to Wright to prepare a pot of greens or a casserole to feed them. Mary Mazyck earned her living as a housekeeper. Dorothy Johnson worked in school cafeterias. None of these women need to be taught how to cook.
Yet they gather weekly, along with a few other fellow septuagenarian and octogenarian women, in Tim Holloran's compact Rosemont bungalow for what they call a "cooking program." Holloran supplies the recipes, a hodgepodge of co-op classics that lean heavily on vegetables and pantry staples from distant countries. The participants already have prepared bean enchiladas, spinach lasagna, barley soup and chana dal. "He'll eat anything," Mazyck says, shaking her head.
When they first started getting together in 2013, a portion of each meeting was reserved for discussion of sodium levels and nutrition labels. Now they use that time to make dessert.
"We have a lot of fun here," Johnson says.
The program still has an educational component: After 80 years of avoiding broccoli, Johnson now buys canned broccoli-and-cheese soup. And when Holloran demonstrated how to naturally sweeten plain yogurt with fresh berries and honey, Mazyck grudgingly overcame her opposition to the stuff, although she wouldn't grant Holloran and the other cooks the satisfaction of seeing her change her mind. "I'm not going to eat all this to show you people you were right," she said, her spoon nearly bumping against the bottom of the parfait glass.
But those lessons are largely peripheral. What's really being mastered in Holloran's open kitchen is the art of adaptation. Holloran estimates there are 300 people living in the tiny patch of the Neck Area that measures "two streets by seven streets," and he knows of only one other white person living there outside of his household. The cooking program provides a glimpse of how one set of neighbors is acclimating to each other.
Holloran is a teaching coach at St. John's High School. His wife is a family counselor. When the couple started shopping for houses, their budget led them to Rosemont. "I had no idea it even existed," says Holloran, who has a chronic weakness for simplicity (and a 1986 Volvo to show for it). They purchased their 900-square-foot home in 2006.
On his first day in the neighborhood, Holloran wandered out onto Birdie Garrett Street to play ball with a bunch of kids. Then he took to stalking the block with a black plastic trash bag. "It was the best thing I did to meet people," he says. Mazyck teases that his beautification project didn't extend to her yard. "The only one who can't brag on him is me," she mock harrumphs.
But Holloran didn't stop with friendly waves and trash pick-up. He had the idea to organize healthy cooking classes at a nearby community center, where "the ladies" sometimes meet for senior activities. His original target audience was children and their parents; he received a grant to conduct demonstrations three times a week. "The whole idea was to show what you could do for the cost of a Value Meal," Holloran recalls.
Depending on your point of view, the notion of a white man bounding into a black neighborhood and correcting its residents' eating habits is either gutsy or insensitive. "I think some people were like 'who's this guy coming in, trying to tell me how to cook?' " says Holloran. While he wasn't surprised by the reaction, he's more apt to characterize his efforts as neighborly.
"I'm not a churchgoer," says Holloran, who has the lifelong schoolteacher's habit of using "Mr." and "Mrs." when addressing his peers in public. "I just try to be a good person."
The classes for parents fizzled out for the usual reasons: Interest flagged, and Holloran's schedule changed. But a few older women who had joined the classes didn't want to give them up, and thus the afternoon in-home program began.
According to Holloran, whenever the police appear at a Rosemont house, someone blames him for making the call. His neighbors' frustrations haven't led to any vandalism - "knock on wood," Holloran says - but heightened emotions are the norm in a community so small. "There's drama back here," Holloran sighs.
Perhaps the women in Holloran's cooking program are too mature for drama. They'd rather listen to The Temptations' Pandora station while they chop, slice, stir and saute than gossip about goings-on, real and imagined. None of them wanted to delve into racial dynamics with a white reporter, but they are all firm supporters of their friend.
"All of us who know him, we talk very highly of him," Wright says. "He's well-liked in here."
Many of the cooking program participants have lived in Rosemont for more than half a century. Still, they're not close friends: The occasional joint viewing of a soap opera is the extent of their usual interactions. "We see each other in the neighborhood," Johnson says. "Ms. Pearl, I see in her garden."
Nodding at Wright, Mazyck adds, "You are my neighbor, but I don't go in your house."
Every Thursday, though, the women congregate around Holloran's oblong dining room table to learn what they'll be cooking together. Holloran has quit announcing the menu in advance because "I'll hear too much about it." Although none of the women are as picky as they claim, giving Holloran grief about odd-sounding ingredients is as much of a program ritual as lining up at the kitchen sink to wash their hands before cooking.
"So here's what we've got going," Holloran said at the start of a recent meeting. "We're doing Indian food."
"Oh, God," Johnson responded.
Mazyck was still perplexed after Holloran's explanations of coconut rice and mango lassi, and sincere promises to keep the dishes from getting too spicy.
"I have no idea of going to India," she said.
Within an hour, the women were quietly eating their coconut rice and beans, and sipping on mango lassi. "It's very fresh," Mazyck kept saying. Holloran pressed her to define "fresh."
"It needs seasoning," she finally said. Maybe next week, she ventured, "We'll cook some American food."
Holloran conceded it wasn't his "finest hour, food-wise." Still, there was very little left for the compost bin.
"It's the most enjoyable thing I do all week, by far," Holloran says of the program. "I love these people. I don't know what I'd do without them."
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.