BY GINNA PARSONS
SALTILLO - Ask Mary Alice Stanley for a recipe, and you're likely to get ingredients like a pinch of this and a sprinkle of that.
That's because Stanley learned to cook from women who didn't use cookbooks, but their memories. "I learned from my grandmother, my mother and my wonderful mother-in-law," said Stanley, 74. "They didn't measure stuff then. It was a pinch of this and a handful of that - flour and sugar. That's the way I cook a lot of times now."
It doesn't seem to matter much to folks whether Stanley uses a recipe or not just as long as she cooks something good - and she's been cooking good food for folks for quite a while.
Stanley's love of cooking goes back 30 or more years. For the longest time, she tried to get her husband, Allen, to buy her a restaurant. "But my husband said no, that was too confining. After he died (in 1982), I didn't know what I wanted to do, so I went to work in a restaurant. I've been in the food service business ever since."
Stanley works full time cooking breakfast and lunch for 30 or so residents and staff members at Dogwood Plantation, an assisted living home in Saltillo; she's been there for eight years, since the day it opened.
Before that, she cooked at Barbara's Place in Saltillo. For a few years before that, she lived with and cooked for Bud and Charlene Fletcher and their children in Baton Rouge, La., after cooking for them first in Tupelo. "When I got their children raised, I moved back here." (The Fletchers also moved back to Tupelo a few years later.)
Earlier still, Stanley spent five years cooking at Mrs. Delby's restaurant on South Gloster Street in Tupelo, where Hunan Chinese Restaurant is located today. This was her first time to cook for the public. "It was just good, family-type food there," Stanley said, and that's still the kind of food she prepares today.
Stanley's family, which includes two daughters, three granddaughters and six great-grandchildren, is partial to her fresh apple cake, her chicken and dumplings and her chess pie. "When my family is gathered, we have to have chess pie," she said.
Stanley herself likes smothered steak and ham and biscuits. "I don't care for chicken. Period. I've fried so much chicken in my life that I've gotten to where I can't eat it."
Born in Tupelo to Myrtle and Paul Lanphere, Stanley and her family moved to Saltillo right after the Tupelo tornado in 1936. She was only 8 at the time, but she remembers the day and its aftermath. She also remembers many happier times before the storm and, in fact, attributes her love of cooking to those times. "I feel like I inherited my love of cooking from my grandmother (Cordelia Dugard)," she said. "They ran a boarding house in Tupelo and she cooked for the men who worked at the mill nearby. This was in the early 1930s. She cooked for 35 or 40 men, three meals a day. I can remember her dining room; she had a big long table and she had a huge kitchen. I think that's when I got interested."
Do you know a good cook? Send your nominations to Cook of the Week, P.O. Box 909, Tupelo, MS 38802. Or you can fax them to 662-842-2233 or e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Each Cook of the Week will receive $10 from the Daily Journal.