DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — Hovering over a hot frying pan Wednesday, Judy Morrison was a little sloppy in making her first waffles.
“They’re dripping over the side,” the Milo woman remarked as she pushed a clean white chef’s hat into place on her head with the palm of her hand.
“I didn’t know you could actually cook them yourself,” she muttered.
Taking a peek at Morrison’s work, Tom Iverson Jr. of Sebec turned around and flashed a big grin to the approximately 20 people in the audience who were gathered around in a cafe-type setting watching the pair prepare southern fried chicken on a waffle on two television monitors.
“She’s got a little mess over there, but that’s OK for the first time,” he said.
While foodies watch Emeril Lagasse on television to learn how to prepare exotic concoctions, those who need lessons in basic food preparation watch cooks in the Nutrition Kitchen in Dover-Foxcroft prepare healthful but inexpensive and quick meals using common ingredients.
The Nutrition Kitchen is the brainchild of Chris Reardon, who semi-retired after selling his partnership in his fast-paced California company years ago. He then moved across the country and settled into an aging Grange Hall in Dover-Foxcroft where he began devoting his life to people who need help to improve their lives.
Reardon, who believes most people don’t need a handout but rather a hand up, co-founded the John Adams Institute, which helps show others how to stretch their budgets by cooking healthy and low-cost meals.
The institute also distributes food through the Social Advancement of Virtues Endowment, or SAVE, a nonprofit organization that Reardon also founded. While one purpose of the organization is to feed the hungry with donated and solicited foods from throughout the country, its longer term purpose is to train and provide mentoring services so the needy can improve their lives.
“I believe the current pantry system is broken as it exists today; it institutionalizes hunger,” Reardon said. People need to learn how to stretch their budgets and eat better, he said.
More than 500 people are served each month at the SAVE pantry on the first floor of the grange hall. The second floor of the hall is used to teach cooking and other skills. Reardon has converted the third floor into his living quarters.
Wednesday’s cooking session on a spacious stage equipped as a kitchen on the second floor educates pantry users and visitors from other organizations who can then share their knowledge. Participants included local residents, several people from the Penobscot Indian Nation in Old Town and representatives of local organiza-tions. It was a chance for Judy Morrison to see how the Nutrition Kitchen could fit into her role as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer.
“Isn’t this great?” Morrison said after she and the other attendees tasted the fried chicken and waffles, which were smothered in a white sauce.
Iverson, Piscataquis County Emergency Management Agency’s director, and Dennis Dyer, Dover-Foxcroft police chief, were the guest chefs for this week’s cooking lessons. Dyer demonstrated how to make a quick and hearty macaroni and hamburger soup and provided the recipe and a taste of his famous sweet-and-sour meat-balls.
“I think this is good for the public because it isn’t a high-class cooking school. We’re just people off the street who like to share our techniques with others,” Dyer said.
And that is what Reardon intended it to be. “The purpose is to teach [people] how to cook pantry food to turn the meal into a family time,” he said.
National statistics show that 67 percent of the average American household budgets are spent on meals prepared outside of the home, and those meals are typically higher in sodium and fat content, Reardon said. “That’s pretty appalling,” he said.
Reardon draws no salary and gets donations from the community, the Good Shepherd Food-Bank and corporations throughout the country. He said he can stretch every dollar that is donated to SAVE into about $30 worth of food and $30 worth of training.
Mary Ryan, a volunteer at the Indian Women’s Mission Center Inc. on Indian Island, found it amazing that Reardon has devoted his time and building to show others how to stretch their budgets by cooking healthful and low-cost meals.
“I was surprised at how quickly you can make a delicious soup,” she said, adding that it also was fun.
For Reardon, the cooking lessons have to be fun, familiar, affordable and easy to cook.