By REBECCA SCHWAB
OBSERVER Staff Writer
Cubed, chopped or diced - anyway you slice it, these ladies are the reigning queens of the kitchen.
From left: Sue Rodgers, Betty Lachiusa, Rose Spann, Eileen Small, Pat Kaczar, Barb Shalkowski, Diana Cross and Kathy Ehrheart.
This coming February, the Gourmettes will celebrate 43 years of cooking and camaraderie. And in their decades-long history, they have made plenty of good memories, great friends, and of course, outstanding recipes.
According to founding member Diana Cross, the club started not as the Gourmettes, but as the Newcomers' Club.
"This was back in the '60s," Cross said. "If you were new to the area, they came with a basket of something, welcomed you to the neighborhood. It was there so you could learn about the area and make new friends."
But the Newcomers' Club branched out into offshoots.
"People were into different things," Cross explained, "quilting or crafts or whatever. But for us, young mothers and wives, cooking was an issue. So we started a cooking club."
By "issue," Cross means they couldn't cook. That's right - the Gourmettes had to earn their skills, using a process of trial and error to gain the culinary notoriety they enjoy today. The club's legacy began with their first fateful dinner party, the third Friday of February, 1970. They started with 12 members, and met once a month. Through the years, they've gained new members and lost others due to deaths and relocations. They currently have eight full-time members and one part-timer who spends winters in Florida. They meet once a month from April to November, and each dinner meeting has a theme.
"We always had a theme," Cross said. "and we would try out different recipes. So if the theme was German, you had to go to the library, get a German cookbook, and make a recipe from it. I think we eventually went through every country in the world. Now, 40 years later, themes get harder to think of, so we do more than countries. Last month I was the hostess and my theme was "Tried and True," the one thing you know you can make without fail every time."
According to member Susan Rodgers, recent themes have included regions of the U.S., family favorites, and certain cookbooks and magazines. They have also themed dinners around health reports and diet trends, designing carb-free and gluten-free menus and cutting back on ingredients like fats and sugars. Cross explained that their cooking has changed immensely over the years due to new discoveries.
In addition to expanding their cooking knowledge and their recipe files, the ladies of the Gourmettes have also expanded their geographical region. Originally, since they were an offshoot of the Dunkirk/Fredonia Newcomers' Club, all the ladies lived close to one another. However, since the '70s, members have moved around, and new members have joined. Now the group's members span Silver Creek to Westfield, and though there are literal miles between them, the ladies remain as close as ever.
"That's a side effect of this whole thing," Cross said. "We became the very best of friends. We've been through marriages together, divorces, babies, our children's babies. We could call each other at 3 a.m. We'd always answer."
For one of those weddings, the group actually helped with the catering.
"When Pat Kaczar got married 30 years ago, we made the pierogies," Cross said. "We went to different people's kitchens, and we made hundreds. Another member made Pat's wedding cake."
And that wasn't the only public appearance of the group's well-known pierogies. At an international festival that took place decades ago at the Dunkirk Fairgrounds, the Gourmettes were asked to set up a booth with their pierogies. To the ladies' delight, Polish people who were actually visiting from Poland raved about their creation.
The Gourmettes have other claims to fame, as well. They self-published a recipe book in the 80s that was so popular it had to go through a second round of printing. And in a past cooking contest held at Merritt Winery, the Gourmettes took home two first-place prizes. The stipulation of the contest was that Merritt wine had to be used in the recipe of the submitted item. Cross won first place in the dessert division with her Strawberries a la Merritt, and the late Sandy Farrell won first prize in the appetizer division for her modification of the group's classic candied meatballs recipe. She called them "Merrio Meatballs."
The original candied meatball recipe was first used and tasted at the December 1970 dinner meeting of the Gourmettes. Since then, it has become one of the group's, and their families', most beloved recipes. Those meatballs are still requested by the Gourmettes' children and grandchildren at every party.
"That recipe has just gone everywhere," Cross said. "It's traveled with members' families all over the U.S., as far as California and Florida."
Cross graciously agreed to share this recipe so that OBSERVER readers could experience this party favorite:
1 lb ground beef, 1 cup seasoned breadcrumbs, 1/2 cup milk, 1 egg, dash Worcestershire sauce, dash dry mustard, dash garlic salt, dash onion salt, dash pepper (finely ground), 1/2 teaspoon salt. Mix all ingredients thoroughly. Form small bite-sized balls, then brown in hot fat.
1 small bottle ketchup, 1 small bottle water, cup wine vinegar, 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1/4 cup Karo syrup, dash Worcestershire sauce. Combine all ingredients; pour over meatballs. Cook over medium heat until thickened, for about 30 minutes. Serve hot. Makes 36 to 40 meatballs.
Not all of the Gourmettes' kitchen experiments have gone as well as the candied meatballs, though. In fact, Cross recalled a few kitchen disasters, including one of her own.
"Once I made just the most awful Caribbean fish soup. It was absolutely horrible. It blew up in the blender and exploded stinky green slime all over my kitchen cabinets."
But the Gourmettes have to share their failures. It's in the by-laws. Cross had to bring the soup to the meeting.
"So I brought this soup, scraped it up and brought it to the meeting, and you know we couldn't even flush it. The toilet wouldn't even take it. It clogged," she said.
There have also been a few oven "incidents."
"One lady put oven cleaner in her oven, the spray stuff to clean it, and she forgot about it," Cross said. "She preheated the oven, and it stunk I mean we couldn't use it. We had to run around the neighborhood begging her neighbors to use their ovens so we could cook dinner."
On another occasion, the hostess of the meeting had a roast in the oven. A member went to check on it, but accidentally pulled off the oven dial in the process, mistaking it for a handle. In the twisting of the knob, the oven got set to "Clean" kicking the temperature inside up to 500 degrees - and locking up the door. They couldn't open it to free the roast. Cross recalled that eventually they were able to unlock the door, and that the meat was still edible, though perhaps a little more well-done than necessary.
When Cross told her tales of dinners gone awry, her nephew Bryon Langon, who was present for the interview, added his own thoughts on the matter.
"That's why you need a man in the group!" he shouted.
Cross laughed and explained that boys aren't allowed. However, Langon found a way around this rule when he arrived at one of the Gourmettes' dinner meetings as Mrs. Doubtfire, complete with wig, dress, and a purse full of treats.
"All the ladies found her very charming," Cross said. "Ever the lady. She was an adored guest, and is always invited back."
Langon, as himself, hosted the Gourmettes for a holiday party in 2007.
"We were treated like queens," Cross said.
The Gourmettes celebrate the holidays together every year. Sometimes they go out, but more often they gather at the home of one of the members for an hors d'oeuvres party. They have also celebrated other special occasions, like their 25th anniversary. For that event, they invited all of the past members who had since moved away. Ladies came from Pennsylvania and Louisiana for the reunion.
Their anniversary celebration turned into a once-a-year day trip or weekend outing. Since starting the tradition, they've moved their trip from February to the summer for easier traveling. They pay for this with their club treasury, which they add to at every meeting. These funds are also used to help any member who may need financial assistance, and for things like sending flowers to members who may be ill or in need of cheering up. The Gourmettes aren't just a cooking club - they are a close-knit group of life-long friends.
"This is a fun group of ladies who enjoy cooking and each other's company," Rodgers said. "We get to share the ups and downs that everyone experiences. We support one another through all of it."
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