TUPELO • Jona Rae Collum had plenty of opportunities to learn to cook while growing up in Tupelo.

She spent time in the kitchen and the garden with her mother and grandmother, she took home economics in school and she was in 4-H.

“I felt equipped to cook when I got out on my own,” said Collum, 54. “I like to cook, but I don’t love to cook. The act of cooking is not as important as the conversation that comes from it. Cooking is always a time to socialize.”

Collum is the second of five children born to Jone and the late Rayburn Coggins. She and her siblings were always expected to be at the breakfast table and the dinner table when they were kids.

“That was important to my husband and me, too,” she said. She and Mike have two grown daughters, Micah and Tanner. “That time in the morning over breakfast was treasured. Even during soccer season, we ate together in the evenings, even if that meant a Crock-Pot meal or a hamburger from the concession stand.”

For the most part, the family ate healthfully, although today they have even more reason to.

In the summer of 2017, Collum left work at PHI Fabric Warehouse, a business she owned with two of her siblings, with a migraine headache. Within a week, she had lost sight in both eyes.

She was diagnosed with bilateral optic neuritis; the underlying cause was common variable immune deficiency.

“Normally, it’s detected at childhood, but with me, they found it at 51,” she said. “I’m legally blind. I see no color, but I see outlines. In the grocery store, I can see a cart-and-a-half ahead of me.”

For months after the diagnosis, Collum wallowed in self-pity. Some days, she barely got off the couch.

“I had to take one step at a time,” she said. “God gave me the courage to get off the couch and live. In the spring of 2018, I started cooking again, by trial and error. I made baked potatoes in the microwave. I decided I could scramble eggs.”

Mondays were the hardest days for Collum because her youngest daughter headed back to college and her husband often worked late.

“I decided I wasn’t going to be mopey anymore on Mondays,” Collum said. “So I reached out to my siblings and my mother and said, ‘I’m going to cook big. I’m not going to be mopey anymore. If what I make doesn’t turn out, we’ll order pizza.’”

Collum made spaghetti with French bread and a salad and they came. And they’ve been coming ever since.

“Mopey Mondays taught me to relearn to cook and it’s my way to tell my family thank you for all they did for me,” she said. “Families tend to get together on major holidays, but we miss the everyday things. On Mopey Mondays, we relax and get caught up. Nothing’s forced, nothing’s scheduled. But we’ve really missed it during the coronavirus.”

CHICKEN 49’ER

Boneless, skinless chicken breast halves

Fat-free Italian dressing

Worcestershire sauce

Garlic powder

Rosemary

Sweet onions, chopped

Bell peppers, chopped

Fresh mushrooms, sliced

Olive oil

Tomatoes

Cheddar and Provolone cheese (optional)

Marinate chicken in dressing, Worcestershire, garlic powder and rosemary for 24 to 48 hours. When ready, grill the chicken. While chicken is cooking, saute the onions, bell peppers, mushrooms and some rosemary in a little olive oil. Just before veggies are done, add tomatoes, just to warm them. Once everything is cooked, place the chicken on plates and top with veggie mixture. Top with cheese, if desired. Serve with brown rice, couscous or wild rice.

Note: Chicken 49’er was an item on the menu at Chesterfield’s restaurant in Hattiesburg, where the Collums lived for 11 years after they married. When they moved home to Tupelo, they tried to recreate the dish in their kitchen.

CAKE MIX COOKIES

1 box devil’s food cake mix

1 large egg

4 ounces frozen whipped topping, thawed

1 cup chopped pecans (optional)

1/2 cup sifted powdered sugar

Combine cake mix, egg and whipped topping (dough will be sticky). Stir in chopped pecans, if using. Dust hands with powdered sugar and shape dough into 3/4-inch balls, then coat balls with powdered sugar. Place 2 inches apart on ungreased baking sheets. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes or until done. Remove to wire racks to cool. Makes about 5 dozen. These freeze well.

LINDA FRANKS’ CHICKEN SALAD

4 cups cooked chicken, finely shredded

1 1/2 cups seedless red grapes, halved or quartered

1 1/2 cups dill pickle relish

1 cup chopped pecans

1 cup Hellmann’s mayonnaise

Combine all ingredients (you can use a mixer to shred the chicken). Refrigerate.

CARRIE’S SALMON

Atlantic salmon fillets, skin on

Blackened seasoning

Avocado mayonnaise

Generously sprinkle both sides of fish with blackened seasoning. Spread avocado mayo on both sides of fillets. Place on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake at 425 degrees for 25 minutes or until flaky.

Note: You can cook roasted vegetables at the same time to round out a meal that’s fast and easy.

MOMMA’S CHILI

1 pound ground chuck, cooked and drained

1 pound ground sausage, cooked and drained

1 chili kit (omit masa and salt)

1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce

1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes

1 can chili beans

1 can kidney beans, drained

1 can pinto beans, drained

Water

Green onions, sour cream, cheese

Hot white rice or corn chips (optional)

Combine meats, chili kit, tomato sauce, tomatoes and beans in a large soup pot and add water. Bring to a slow boil and then turn to low. Simmer on low for 6 to 8 hours, stirring often. Garnish with green onions, sour cream and cheese. To serve “Hattiesburg-style,” serve over hot white rice or with corn chips.

MAMA’S VEGETABLE SOUP

Leftover frozen vegetables

Leftover meatloaf

Tomato sauce or diced tomatoes

Water

When you have leftover vegetables (peas, corn, carrots, green beans, etc.), add them to a freezer bag. When the bag is full, make a meatloaf.

The next day, crumble the leftover meatloaf in a soup pot and add the bag of mixed vegetables from the freezer. Add a can or two of tomato sauce or diced tomatoes. Add water if needed and let simmer on the stove or in a Crock-Pot. This soup will never taste the same twice!

MEXICAN CORNBREAD

4 eggs beaten

2 to 3 large onions, chopped

2 cans creamed corn

12 packs Splenda

1 jar diced jalapenos with juice

2 cups vegetable oil

4 cups self-rising corn meal

1 1/2 to 2 cups milk

2 cups grated Cheddar cheese

Combine beaten eggs, onions, creamed corn, Splenda, jalapenos, oil and corn meal. Mix well, then add enough milk to make moist. Add cheese last and stir. Pour in greased muffin tins and bake at 400 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes. Yields about 8 dozen muffins. These freeze well.

CHOCOLATE CHIP CAKE

1 cup oil

1 box butter-flavored cake mix

1 small box instant chocolate pudding mix

8 ounces sour cream

4 eggs

6 ounces chocolate chips

1 tablespoon vanilla

1/4 cup water

Combine all ingredients and mix well. Pour batter into a greased Bundt pan. Bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour. Put on a rack to cool, 10 to 15 minutes. Do not let cool completely. Turn out onto a serving dish. If desired, sprinkle with powdered sugar and garnish with fresh strawberries.

DO YOU KNOW A GOOD COOK? Send your nominations to Ginna Parsons, Cook of the Week, P.O. Box 909, Tupelo, MS 38802. Or you can call Ginna at (662) 678-1581 or email them to ginna.parsons@journalinc.com.

ginna.parsons@journalinc.com

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