New Senior Center cook adapts life in the kitchen

By Dave Faries, Editor
Posted 10/11/21

Terra Hannon still cringes when she recalls the country fried steak episode.

The new head cook for the Mexico Senior Center had prepared for the usual crowd. Her team had meat and all the fixings …

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New Senior Center cook adapts life in the kitchen

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Terra Hannon still cringes when she recalls the country fried steak episode.

The new head cook for the Mexico Senior Center had prepared for the usual crowd. Her team had meat and all the fixings ready and waiting for the center's lunch service. Then it happened.

"We got slammed," Hannon recalled.

With people still waiting in line, the kitchen ran out of country fried steak. Hannon scrambled to find something she could prepare quickly to satisfy the center's guests.

"I was pretty upset, but we got things cooked," she said. "And the people were very forgiving."

She actually anticipated the unusual on a different day -- Friday the 13th, the day in August when she took over the facility's kitchen duties. But that day went smoothly, as has pretty much every other lunch.

Because Hannon handled the country fried steak incident so deftly and because the Senior Center's buffet line continues to draw crowds, it may come as a surprise when people learn that this is her first time running a professional kitchen. And it's only the second time she's held a job in one, if you count the bit she served at a Kentucky Fried Chicken as a teenager.

Hannon is a Certified Nursing Assistant who spent the last five years as the activities director for the King's Daughters Home in Mexico. But she came to the Senior Center with a good idea of what to expect.

Every month -- every non-pandemic month -- while at King's Daughters, she would bring residents over to the center so they could have a meal with friends outside the home. She often helped out in the King's Daughters kitchen, as well.

"I know how to cook, I'm just learning to cook for a big group," Hannon explained.

Unlike a restaurant, the Senior Center does not employ a staff of line cooks. Hannon relies on an assistant who helps prepare and a dishwasher who cleans up. This gives Hannon the time to plan out the next three months of menus, order the ingredients, fill out necessary paperwork, begin work on the next day's meal and all the other tasks that fall on a head cook's shoulders.

It's a challenging role, made more so by the particular needs of the center's patrons.

When preparing a recipe, Hannon must be wary of too much salt. Some of the diners have conditions that could be triggered by a rush of sodium. She can't pour in large amounts of sugar, either. There are many guests living with diabetes.

And there is the fact that people's perception of flavor wanes in their later years.

"Trying to season things up is a challenge," Hannon said. "You have to find inventive ways to season."

Another issue is simply plotting out what is needed. As in the country fried steak fiasco, there's no way of knowing ahead of time how many diners will show up on a given day.

"We plan on a large group, but sometimes it's a small group and we have food leftover," she pointed out.

Yet the center has a steady crowd. And Hannon is spending her spare time noting dishes they prefer, as well as those that are not so favored.

Clearly the country fried steak is a winner. Guests also enjoy the taco salad, fried chicken, meatloaf and anything barbecue.

Less popular meals include ham and the sweet and sour chicken, at least until Hannon tweaked the recipe.

"Some don't like liver and onions," she added.

Adapting to customer's tastes and improvisation is just part of the deal for Hannon. She knows that every role in a professional kitchen involves change, action and drudgery. She also knows that every chef, every cook and every professional kitchen survives a catastrophe.

Next time, Hannon says, she will order more meat for country fried steak day.

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