Cooking up sumptuous meals daily at McCormick Senior Center
By Bernie Schmitt
About seven years ago Ron Wise decided to retire — or at least he told himself that — and so he signed up to get his monthly Social Security.
But after two months of not working he was bored.
“I had to do something,” he said. “I’m not the kind who can just sit around.”
Then he learned that the Bettye J. McCormick Senior Center, a program of the local YMCA, needed a manager for its woodshop. It was the perfect solution for the lifelong carpenter and former owner of The Pine Box. He has built his share of kitchen cabinets, gun cases, and fireplace mantles.
“I can’t read a newspaper very well, but I can sure read a tape measure,” he quipped.
“I came in for an interview and was halfway across the parking lot when they called and asked if I wanted the job,” he said. “I never really intended to work in the kitchen.”
Yet planning and preparing daily meals, and managing the Senior Center’s kitchen, is what Wise and his wife, Terry, a manager at PeaFections, are spending much of their time doing these days.
Terry Wise is the Center’s cook, and she has worked hard to provide quality meals for the Center’s clients the last two years. She has a background in food service, having worked years ago as a teenager at the former Charlie’s New Café. Her expertise has led to a bit of excitement for the clients who take their lunch at the Senior Center.
“The meals here have improved immensely,” said Nola Davis, Executive Director of the Bettye J. McCormick Senior Center. “They are excellent. The other day we had pork steak and gravy with mashed potatoes and it was great.”
Terry insists that she and her husband are not doing anything special. She likes to prepare food the old-fashioned way, by scratch, and refuses to serve things that are pre-processed and warmed-up in a microwave. Sometimes it takes a little more time and a little more effort, but the meals served daily meet governmental guidelines, the Center’s budget guidelines, and are tasty as well as nutritious.
“They’re getting real food here,” Terry said. “And it’s good.”
On a chilly February evening the couple was pouring over menu options for the next several weeks, along with the kitchen’s inventory. Clients pay only $1 for a meal at the McCormick Senior Center.
“We have to find a way to provide good food for only a dollar a meal,” Ron says. “It took me forever to figure out how to do that. I figured and re-figured for the longest time. It’s getting harder and harder to do. The best I can do is $1.06 a meal.”
Davis insists that the price charged for a meal at the Center stays at $1.
“We don’t want to raise our rates,” Davis said. “Not for our elderly population. This is a service to people who are already on fixed incomes.”
Davis praises the couple’s efforts because of their dedication.
“They are very committed,” she said. “They often come in when they don’t have to, and Ron often donates his time. They are very community-minded and will help in any way they can. Terry is very creative, too, sometimes having S’mores at the fireplace or making homemade ice cream. Even if there is a mistake, she will make something of it.”
Ron and Terry are up and at the Center early, before Terry goes in for her shift downtown at 9. Ron is at the Center throughout the day, mostly managing the wood shop, but also helping out in the kitchen. Terry gets out of her fulltime job at 5 p.m., and except for Fridays and Saturdays, she is back at the Center around 6:30 p.m. preparing the next day’s meal. Ron comes along, volunteering his time in the evenings, so that Terry isn’t by herself. Together they work on preparing the next day’s meal. They avoid working Friday and Saturday nights.
“I’m old school,” Terry said, while stirring a huge pot of homemade chili. “I actually prepare and cook good, old-fashioned meals. They’re nothing fancy, but everyone knows that when you make baked beans you put a little bacon in them. That’s something they had not been getting here.”
While planning meals they have to be careful to allow for a variety of food allergies, those with diabetes, and other special diets. They make accommodations accordingly. The food has to be ready for the Center’s steam table by noon.
The Center would like to know if people are coming for lunch, so that Terry can prepare the right amount of food. There are some “walk-ins,” Davis said, but there is usually enough for a couple of extra plates. Terry and Ron try to plan accordingly, so there is no waste.
“They are not over-cooking,” Davis said. “There are some days when we think, ‘are we going to make it?’ but we usually do. They are doing a good job saving money and preventing waste.”
Anywhere from 80 to 100 people are served daily at the McCormick Senior Center, numbers that are staying fairly steady thanks to the meals Terry and Ron prepare.
“Every now and then people come up to us and say, ‘man, that meal was really good,’” Ron says. “We love to hear that.”