Hey, what#039;s cookin#039;?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 20, 2005

In an era when people are accustomed to &#8220nuking” a bland, pre-packaged frozen dinner, preparing good, home-cooked meals almost seems a thing of the past.

That's not the case at a certain rambling two-story farmhouse on the Ridge in rural Butler County.

Its big, airy kitchen is filled with cookbooks, rows upon row, along with spices and seasonings galore.

The Crenshaws – dad Tom, a poultry farmer, mom Mary Lou, a transportation planner for the state, and daughter, Jennie, a ninth grader at Fort Dale Academy – are what you would call a cooking family.

A bevy of colorful ribbons hanging from shelves and cabinets attest to the fact the Crenshaws are also good cooks.

&#8220I've already won eight ribbons at the fair this year in the baking contest – five first place blue ribbons, two second place reds and a tri-color,” Jennie explains. That's on top of the 15 ribbons she has already taken for her culinary efforts in past years.

&#8220The fair” is the Alabama National Fair in Montgomery, where Jennie has regularly been entering competitions since the age of seven.

It's late Friday afternoon at the Crenshaw home and dad and daughter are preparing the dishes they plan to enter into cooking competitions on Saturday.

Tom is making collard green and smoked sausage soup (his own version of a kale soup served at The Olive Garden) and chicken and dumplings; Jennie is preparing her &#8220Chicken Alice,” a variation of a dish she had enjoyed by Alice Kelly Jernigan of Greenville.

‘Sportsmanship without the sport'

Jennie is already an old hand at these competitions.

&#8220My friends and I started entering the pumpkin decorating contest in 1998. The first cooking contest wasn't until I was nine, in 2000. The toughest part for me, back then, was measuring the ingredients,” Jennie explains.

Entering fair competitions is like &#8220sportsmanship without the sport,” she says.

&#8220If I don't win, it was fun; if I do win, then yea!”

Some folks take the competitions far too seriously, Tom says.

&#8220It should be an enjoyable thing. One lady I know cries if she wins and if she loses. I hate to see her lose, because it upsets her so much. We're not like that,” he says.

Triumphs and flops

The Crenshaws don't mind critiquing one another's culinary efforts. There is good-natured bantering and liberal advice shared along the way.

&#8220Uhmm, soup's good but it needs a little something more – maybe more salt. And potatoes. Did you put enough potatoes in?” Mary Lou inquires, upon returning home from work and finding her family busy in the kitchen.

Jennie crinkles her nose over the cornmeal dodgers Tom is proposing for the collard and sausage soup.

&#8220I don't think cornbread is going to be good with it, Dad,” she says.

&#8220Well, we'll see. If it works, great, if not, we'll leave them out,” Tom says with a shrug of his shoulders.

As with any creative endeavor, there have been successes and failures in the family's quest for &#8220the blue.”

&#8220I was working on a recipe for root beer float pie, and I mismeasured and put a tablespoon of salt in, instead of a teaspoon…that didn't work out so well,” Jennie recalls.

On the other hand, her equally unique pumpkin fried chicken creation turned out to be a real winner.

&#8220I didn't think anybody would like it, but it won second place in the ‘Cooking with Chicken' contest the year I made it.”

Among Jennie's baking competition entries this year were pumpkin fudge, chocolate pumpkin cupcakes with orange cream cheese frosting and pumpkin bread.

&#8220Can you tell I like pumpkin?” she says with a grin.

Cookin' up a storm

The teen says both her parents like to cook and have always encouraged her to be creative in the kitchen.

&#8220They have always supported me by allowing me to try cooking and making new dishes,” Jennie says.

&#8220They've offered suggestions of ways to improve recipes, showing me how to do things, and making me taste things I didn't think I would like, but I did.”

Her ribbons throughout the years have been won honestly, her dad Tom is quick to tell you.

&#8220She might have needed help, say, getting things in and out of the oven when she was smaller, but otherwise, Jennie pretty much has taken charge when she is baking and cooking for competitions,” Tom proudly says.

&#8220We tell her she can take pride in the fact she did do it herself,” Mary Lou says.

The teen enjoys adapting and creating her own recipes, and her favorite dish to prepare is her own original recipe for fajitas.

Pounds of pound cakes

As for Jennie's favorite in baking, well, that's a family affair.

&#8220We get together and bake about 200 sour cream pound cakes each year at Christmas to give to our friends,” Jennie says.

Tom also enjoys barbecuing, grilling and smoking meats, and participating in low country boils.

&#8220I like to experiment with all kinds of recipes,” Tom says.

Mom Mary Lou bakes wedding cakes (including her own) and has done meals for up to 200 folks and finger foods for even larger crowds.

&#8220I'm not nearly as creative as Tom and Jennie, but I do like to cook and bake,” Mary Lou says.

The Food Network is also a favorite around the house – particularly for Tom.

&#8220If he had his way, it would be on all the time. Jenny and I like to watch it sometimes, but not as much as Tom,” Mary Lou laughs.

No joke – it's fun

It all started about a decade ago, when the Crenshaws were still living in Montgomery.

That's when Tom, as a lark, decided to enter his biscuits in the fair's baking competition.

&#8220I was surprised when I actually won a ribbon. And we learned how much fun it is to enter and be a part of the fair competitions,” he explains.

Jennie says she plans to keep entering the competitions through her high school years and beyond. &#8220Otherwise, it would be like a part of me is gone.”

Tom likens the Crenshaws to the farm family featured in the musical &#8220State Fair.”

&#8220It's something we really enjoy doing as a family. We look forward to it every fall.”

The family that cooks together…

According to Mary Lou, both she and Tom feel everyone should have at least a basic knowledge of cooking and sewing.

&#8220Tom had none when he went to college, but he had to develop those skills to survive,” she says.

Mary Lou says having a husband and a daughter who can cook is a real help.

&#8220It's often 6:30 or later before I can get home from work, and they will often have supper cooked when I get in,” she says.

&#8220Even when they don't, it is nice to have them help me with the cooking. When we cook together, we have a good time in the kitchen, all three of us.”

Tom says competitions like those at the Alabama National Fair are looking for good-tasting dishes that aren't super-complicated.

&#8220The judges don't want recipes with a list of ingredients as long as your arm and lots of complicated steps. Ease of preparation is one of the things you are judged on, along with appearance, taste and originality,” Tom says.

&#8220Cooking's not that hard, really – you just have to do the clean up,” he says with a smile.

Christmas time's a-comin'

Though the fair is now over, the holidays will soon arrive, bringing ample opportunity for the Crenshaws to use their culinary skills.

&#8220Tom can smoke a very good turkey and he also is very good at making cornbread dressing,” Mary Lou says.

&#8220I usually smoke several turkeys for folks in town for Thanksgiving, too,” Tom says.

A number of different pies will grace the Crenshaw's Thanksgiving table, and a variety of cakes will be offered at Christmas time to family and friends (not to mention those 200 sour cream pound cakes they bake to give away.)

And the luscious cake that appears annually on the front of &#8220Southern Living” magazine?

&#8220We always try that one, too,” Mary Lou says.

As for now, Tom's experimental corn dodgers have been given an official &#8220thumbs down” from the two ladies of the house.

&#8220Well, I kind of liked them. Oh, well, you win some and you lose some,” he says with a laugh.