"I've been in all kinds of homes - from the Melton's on down - and I'll tell you the truth: I'd rather cook for children. You feel you're really contributing something and there's all that love they give you."
Willie Carter talks just like she cooks: straightforward and good. By her own admission, it's been 54 years since she first worked at a stove and 10 years since she came to the Georgetown Children's House. She's retiring at 65 because "I've stayed on my feet a lot, but it's time I got off them. They're wearing out. For the first time I can say I'm tired."
There has been no dimming, however, of her enthusiasm for those she refers to firmly as my children. There are about 60 of them at the day-care center, ranging in age from 3 to 12. Problem eaters? Bored? No indeed. "You don't have to worry about children eating," she says. "They'll eat anything that's edible."
An example popped to mind: "Okra. I never thought they'd like okra, but they do. They say they want the little green things with the white seeds. It's all in how you prepare it." In other words, though she is far too polite to point a finger, she feels bad cooking rather than closed minds is responsible for closing little mouths to many nutritious foods.
Texture and flavor are important, as is color. ("You eat with your eyes, too," she says, explaining why she uses paprika to give mashed potatoes a pink tone.) "Every pea in that pot has to be correct as far as I'm concerned. Anybody can throw something together and serve it. Making it edible is what I want to do for them. I'd rather spend more time and cook it right."
What does that mean? Her beef stew will quickly erase that image of a pieces of stringy meat and tired, watery vegetables swimming in a lake of grease "I use lamb and beef," she said. "The lamb makes the beef so much better." The meat is browned, then simmered with a generous amount of onion. Carrots and celery are cooked in a separate pot until just tender. Potatoes are brought to the same stage in a third pot. She thickens the potato water with a butter and flour roux, then combines the liquid and vegetables with the meat and onions for only a brief time before the dish is served.
"Nobody ever told me how to do it that way," Mrs. Carter explains. "It's just my way. For my children I always save out some carrots and celery and add them to each portion so nobody misses them."
Like many fine cooks, Mrs. Carter credits instinct for her ability to make ordinary ingredients taste special. She doesn't need written recipes or timers and a total flop at the stove is inconceivable. "I don't have that kind of problem," she says matter-of-factly. "I guess I've just been at it too long for that to happen.
"Over the years I've leanred a whole lot of things that don't work and a whole lot that do. I follow anybody's recipe once to see how it's done. Then I work it out to see what I can do with it myself. I don't try to please other people. I just try to please myself and chances are others will like it."
Unlike many fine cooks, Mrs. Carter didn't learn at her mother's knee.
"My mother hated to cook so bad." she recalls. "She just didn't like it. She's the only person I know who could make Jello so it wouldn't congeal. She would get a box and read the recipe and we (kids) would cook."
Mrs. Carter came here from her native Dallas in 1941. Widowed, she lives with two of her sisters. She's at the day-care center - located in a large townhouse on N Street - by 8 most mornings, often bringing in extra ingredients she decides to buy herself or home grown herbs.
The weekly menus she writes are balanced, both nutritionally and in terms of treats and duty foods. The children get pudding, pie or apple crisp for dessert, but they also are given fresh fruit. Juice and milk are served three times a day, cooked cereal appears in the winter. If there is cake at lunch, the snack will be a nonsweet. "In fact," she says with a broad grin. "We have so many birthdays they get pretty tired of cake after awhile. Someone will ask for peanut butter and jelly for their birthday.
"When they get something unfamiliar, they may send it back. I only ask them 'Will you taste it?" I guess it's the tone of voice. I speak with authority, but still with love. They know that and they'll do anything for me. They do. Next time they come back to the kitchen to show me their plate and tell me it's so clean I don't have to wash it."
The clean plate act isn't done with a stacked menu, she hastens to point out. When hot dogs are served, there's a trio of vegetables to be eaten before seconds are awarded.Her charges will polish off 15 pounds of meat loaf at a meal, but they also demolish 7 1/2 pounds of broccoli. Often frozen vegetables are steamed and are so brighly colored on the plate that the children - perhaps accustomed to the color of canned vegetables - accuse Mrs. Carter of serving them raw.
Like all children, those at Georgetown Children's House are subject to eating fads. Many of them are Spanish-speaking and respond enthusiastically to spicy foods suchs as chili con carne. Mrs. Carter's cheese souffle, macaroni and cheese and fresh fruit-enriched Jello are much in demand also, but such oldies and goodies as Welsh rarebit and corn pudding no longer please the youthful palates.
The emphatic thumbs down given by a three-year-old to "the black pie" (a tart of French pastry filled with blueberries) is offset by the equally surprised popularity of pickled cucumbers. What made Mrs. Carter think the children would eat pickled cucumbers? "I remembered them from when I was a child."
In addition to the use of fresh and nutritious foods. Mrs. Carter has been praised for the economy and cleanliness of her kitchen. The daily feeding cost per pupil at the house is barely 75 cents and she takes considerable pride in an unbroken record of perfect scores on regular inspections by the D.C. Health Department.
After July the Georgetown Children's House kitchen may be as efficiently run and even as clean. But, like the fictional Brookfield School without Mr. Chipps, something that has no expression in the language of statistics will be missing.
"I could have made more money other places." Willie Carter reflects, "but that's not quite the point. I think they need me more here. The mere fact you're giving these children something they enjoy so much inspires you. They ask me for recipes, they're full of 'whys and 'whens.' They feel free to care for me.
"When a child says he loves you, you can depend on it."
A sampling of Mrs. Carter's child-pleasing recipes follows. MACARONI AND CHEESE (10 to 12 servings) 2 pounds American cheese, grated or diced 4 cups cooked macaroni 9 eggs 2 cups milk Salt and pepper to taste 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard 3 or 4 shakes paprika
Line bottom of a 3-quart ovenproof bowl with cheese pieces. Top with macaroni. Beat eggs until lemon-colored, add milk and seasonings and pour over macaroni. Place in a preheated 425-degree oven and bake 45 to 50 minutes, or until the filling has the consistency of cooking custard. SPANISH RICE (12 servings) 4 pounds ground beef 4 medium onions, peeled and minced 1 can (2 pounds) tomatoes 2 green peppers, seeded and finely diced 2 beef bouillon cubes 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste 1 1/2 cups rice
Saute ground beef in a frying pan with onions over low heat until unions are softened and meat is well browned. Stir frequently. Meanwhile pour tomatoes and their liquid into a saucepan and cook uncovered at a steady boil. After 15 minutes, add diced peppers and bouillon cubes and continue cooking until liquid is well reduced and thick. Cook rice separately by package directions.
Transfer beef and onions to a large pan or pot. Add tomato mixture and rice and mix thoroughly. Heat together for 10 minutes, or until ready to serve, stirring to prevent sticking.
This recipe may appear to need more tomatoes, but Mrs. Carter expects generous additions of catsup at table by the children. CHEESE SOUFFLE (10 to 12 ervings) 1/4 pound butter (1 stick) 2/3 cup all-purpose flour Dash paprika Dash dry mustard 1 pint milk, heated 12 or 13 large eggs, separated 2 pounds American cheese, sliced or cubed
Melt butter in the top of a double-boiler over direct heat. When it gives off a nutty smell, add flour and generous dashes of paprika and mustard. Stir well, then pour in milk and place over simmering water and cook until thick.
Beat egg yolks until lemon-colored. Stir yolks into sauce, then stir in cheese. Beat whites until stiff but not dry. Off the heat, fold in whites quickly and pour mixture into a lightly greased, 3-quart ovenproof bowl. Bake in a preheated, 400-degree oven for 30 to 35 minutes until brown on top. Serve at once.