By Preston Knight -- email@example.com
WOODSTOCK -- Thelma Mathias remains leery of the dangers of the unknown.
Her greatest fear in life may not be baking a dessert that makes someone keel over, but you should know this much -- she is usually not in the business of taking risks with recipes she pretty much knows like the back of her sugar-coated hands.
And while not the quintessential stickler for the rules, Mathias has spent enough time in the kitchen to know which combinations taste right.
Her Grape-Nut dessert, then, tastes right with instant vanilla pudding. Mathias swears by it. Others confirm it. But unforeseen circumstances can sometimes transform a kitchen into an experimental lab. After all, instant vanilla pudding does not grow on trees.
As Mathias, 75, went to work on her dessert last week, she substituted pumpkin spice pudding for the normal vanilla pudding, which simply was not present on the short notice she had to make the treat in the kitchen of Consulate Health Care, where she lives. It was her first journey into this unknown, and she cautioned those around her that she did not know what the result was going to taste like.
"I am kind of jittery," Mathias said.
The conclusion -- it was yet another one of her fine pieces of work.
"We're very fortunate to have her here," said resident Jean Smith, 82. "She bakes all this stuff and we eat it."
A parade of people, or so it seemed, came through Consulate's activities room, where the kitchen is, and showered praise upon Mathias as she made one of her patented treats. If it wasn't a fellow resident, it was a staff member; if not a staff member, it was her roommate's daughter. These are the people who have enjoyed and bought Mathias' goods for about three years, which yielded Consulate enough money to buy a stove in the last year and, in the near future, will allow for the purchase of cabinets and a new sink, said Michelle Smith, Consulate's activities director.
"Oh my, we worked and worked and worked for that stove," Mathias said.
Actually, Mathias was the one doing most of the heavy cooking. She has done it for fundraisers, upon request and just for her own pleasure while at Consulate, continuing a lifelong hobby.
"When I was little, I'd come home and ask my mother if I can bake a cake and she'd say yes, just clean up your mess," she said. "Sometimes I had one egg, sometimes I had two eggs, sometimes I had to wait for the chicken to lay an egg. ... I always liked to cook."
A Fort Valley native, Mathias worked as James Wood High School's main cook for 15 years until she had to retire six years ago because of Parkinson's disease. She came to Consulate, and a few years into her stay began baking cakes, cookies, pies and more for anyone and any occasion.
Mathias estimates that she began making food for others when she was 17 or 18. She baked the cake for her parents' 50th and 60th anniversaries and, through the years, has made cakes for various organizations, weddings, birthdays and special events. Mathias keeps a scrapbook in her room with pictures of many of her cakes, each one providing her a fond memory, such as the blouse-shaped one made for a baby shower.
One cake absent from the album makes for one of her better stories. While at James Wood, Mathias brought the principal a pumpkin cheesecake. Before she got back downstairs, she heard from him: He wanted the pumpkin cake recipe for his wife.
"He said he didn't want any more [pumpkin] pie," Mathias said. "He wanted pumpkin cake."
Those strong words are in line with what people at Consulate have to say. Mathias is a "cook and a half," "homemaker for sure" and "wonderful," and makes things that are "scrumptious" and "delicious." When there is a fundraiser, demand normally exceeds the supply, Michelle Smith said.
"We usually start with 10 [preorders]," she said, "then have to make 10 more."
The Grape-Nut dessert, peanut butter pie and chocolate pie are some of the favorites.
"You ought to taste her chocolate pie," Jean Smith said.
Small pies go for $6 at Consulate, while larger ones sell for $8. Mathias, who said as many as 30 pies were ordered one time, has no personal favorites and enjoys making all of them.
She passed on her cooking knowledge to her three daughters and son, all of whom also learned to clean up their own messes, she said. That was her mother's golden rule, and if Mathias stands for anything, it's a clean kitchen.
At Consulate, the kitchen isn't her own, but she treats it that way by picking up after herself. Mathias said there was plenty of room in the kitchen of her Fort Valley home growing up, and when she and her husband, Derwood, moved from Washington, D.C., to Winchester, they had a kitchen with a lot of cabinet space.
"I just loved it," she said.
Her husband, a janitor at James Wood, died six years ago.
"He could eat anything," Mathias said. "Whatever he wanted, he got. He'd eat most anything."
That's not too hard to believe, considering the source of the food. Mathias has a cookbook and a bag full of recipes, most of which she has collected from other books and added her own twist to.
"I've got plenty of recipes," she said.
The last line of the recipe for Grape-Nut dessert states that it tastes just like Grape-Nut ice cream. That's without pumpkin spice pudding, however. But all's well that end's well -- for Mathias, there was never anything to fear but fear itself.
"It turned out pretty good," she said.