The Prune: Cooking, dining, delicious excuses to enjoy company of others

PRUNE TODD SHARP, left, is more interested in a cat than in cooking, unlike his table mates, Cindy Fuller and brother Dana Sharp.   submitted photo

By Todd Sharp

I started cooking young. My mom is a great cook and kept my brother and I within reach to teach us how to make our own food.

We also were taught great independence. If we wanted chocolate chip cookies, we made own. I was able to whip a batch from scratch, in less than seven minutes before I was 7 years old.

It took longer to bake the raw cookie dough than it did to stir the ingredients together. Must be why the first instruction on the Toll-House package is turning the oven on before getting out the flour, eggs, sugar, eggs, vanilla.

If you forget the first step, you might end up eating most of the dough waiting for the oven to get hot.

Like many kids, I found broccoli a tough vegetable to swallow. Yet, if there is cheese sauce, it’s so much easier to slide it down. I could eat a whole bowl. The second recipe I mastered was white sauce. Add some cheddar cheese and dry mustard toward the end and it will make anything taste good.

We lived in an old farm house south of Ripon on Reeds Corner Road. The kitchen took up nearly half of the first floor and included a huge farm table, big enough for 12 hungry adults and a sewing desk. Although there were only four in our family, the probability for huge gathering was always in the works.

My Great Grandfather Reinhold Kinas entertained nearly every weekend and would have weekly Sunday dinners in that same kitchen before his passing.

He would invite friends, family and I think even adversaries by the tone of the conversations. They loved to talk politics and have grand discussions.

He would make huge pots of chicken, roast beef or pork roast. Mostly I remember the “Grandpa style” Chicken. Braised with onions, garlic, bay leaf and allspice berries (SECRET INGREDIENT: a few prunes for sweetness) along with mashed potatoes, the vegetable-of-the-week and martinis. The conversations got loud; I’m sure it was the martinis and second-hand smoke.

I’ve two great mentors to learn from: my great grandfather and my mom. My mom had graduated from UW-Stevens Point, taught home economics in Markesan and loved teaching my brother and I how to cook and eat well.

My great grandfather gave us a positive, gregarious role model to influence the love of great hearty gatherings and the nearly genetic ability to enjoy large dinner parties.

As a typical teenager in the ’70s, I took less interest in cooking, family and spent time playing sports and being a twerp.

Not until college did I realize I missed the big, family meals. The one big Thanksgiving meal of the year wasn’t enough.

My friends and I started our own traditions and hosted some great dinner parties. We cooked simply and creatively, depending on the budget and how many packages of ramen we had. These are still some of the best memories of college.

Many miles and many cities passed as I established my career and explored the states picking up on new local favorite flavors, like peanut butter pie in Virginia and red chili enchiladas in Colorado. I collected a few recipes before moving back to Wisconsin.

After meeting and marrying my wife, we took it upon ourselves to host large family Thanksgiving dinners. These turned into Christmas and Easter dinners, birthday and 4th of July parties and many Sunday dinners. There always are many good reasons to gather together on a big family table to eat well.

Now my son is gone to college, I have a new table and home to continue the old family traditions of gathering friends and family together to enjoy the fresh food I have been practicing to cook since I was old enough to hold my own head up in the highchair.

Thanks mom!

Editor’s note: When not sticking prunes in his pot, Todd Sharp is an advertising sales prune for the Green Laker, Express and The Ripon Commonwealth Press.