Everything about Diane Brown is a welcome. Even driving directions to her home are inviting … “turn right on the third road to the right; look for the fence and the red brick house; we’ll leave the gate open for you. …”
Driving up to her property, you can almost imagine the inside of her home. There’s a red barn and pasture and a white fence surrounding the property. The porch is situated under perfect dormers. It is tidy and comforting – a picture from a magazine. She welcomes visitors in her apron with a big hug, even though she’s never met them.
The kitchen is the centerpiece of her home, and the retired family and consumer sciences teacher was intentional in that design.
“I have to say, this is our retirement home,” Diane says with a smile. “We had this plan. If you notice, everything is wheelchair accessible. When our parents got older, we knew we had to build for that.”
Diane and husband Denny designed an open-concept kitchen, where no gathering place is out of eye sight of the stove. Decor is seasonal and creative, especially in the kitchen, where glass-front cabinets line the room – perfect spots for displaying collectibles.
“I decorate with memories,” Diane says during a tour of her home. “Everything here has a story, and that’s how it should be.”
Snowflakes displayed on a china hutch in the pantry were crocheted by a teacher friend by hand. Tens of Christmas village churches were each gifted by a friend or relative over the years and adorn a top shelf in the sun room. Tablecloths ironed and hanging in her pantry are handed down and handmade. There is one themed for any event you can imagine. And the dishes … all of them nearly … tell their own stories, passed down from both sides of her family.
“When we’ve had to clear out houses (of grandparents and parents who have passed away), I got all the dishes,” she says. “I am a dish person!
“I am the only child of only children, and so, we’ve cleared out several houses over the years. But that is just material stuff, you know? The family being together is what I miss. The one thing you really miss over the years is them. That’s the hard part.”
Her mother, Norma, lives in nursing care in Greenbrier. Although she is unable to join the family for meals, Diane makes sure to keep her room decorated with a full-sized tree for each season, and although caretaking is difficult, having a way to honor her mother makes her happy.
Diane keeps memories alive in one significant way – the kitchen. Every Sunday, the whole family comes over after church for lunch. In total, there are the regular nine – both of her sons and their wives, two grand girls (Callen and Chandler) who call her “NanaDi,” her husband’s father (94) and Denny and Diane.
Even her utensils are storytellers.
“I mix and match them,” she smiles. “Certain forks and spoons, you know when you pick them up ... that’s them. I have pieces from my favorite people.”
Diane keeps recipes from her grandmothers at the ready. She explains that growing up, she lived within walking distance of both sets of grandparents in Floral, Arkansas, near Batesville. She first learned to make cakes and then how to store foods from them.
Her mother’s mother, Naomi, was a school cook, back when it was prepared from scratch. She made cookies every day. Her father’s mother, Eva, let Diane cook in her kitchen as a young girl.
“And she never made me wash dishes,” Diane laughs.
Recipe books and handwritten recipes tucked away in a wooden file drawer are prized possessions.
“This pineapple, whipped cream coconut cake is one I am still trying to perfect,” she says, showing a tattered, handwritten recipe with notes from the many tries. “This was my mother-in-law’s recipe. She used to buy the cake from a Mrs. Cousins in Floral. Then she got the recipe. This thing requires freezing as a step! It takes three days!
“I am so desperate to get that cake right!”
Her most sought after dish is her chicken and dressing, also a passed down favorite. But Diane doesn’t have it written down, and she knows she needs to remedy that.
“I know, I know. … The only measurements I have are in my brain,” she says. “So much of my cooking is like that. I just get a big bowl and make it ahead of time and freeze it. …”
Diane says everyone can cook, and she dismisses the idea that one cannot. She taught Mayflower High School and University of Central Arkansas students the value of cooking and etiquette and budgeting for more than three decades.
“Take this lasagna recipe for instance,” she says. “It’s delicious and doesn’t have to cost a fortune. And you can freeze it. Just make sure it is sealed in the pan you made it in tightly with aluminum foil. Make sure any holes in the handles are also sealed. Use it within a month, and thaw it in the fridge.
“Time is so important today. It’s OK to use no-boil noodles and canned sauce. And you can use gluten-free noodles or vegetables if you don’t do meat. When you’re cooking for everyone from 94 to 8 years old, be ready to make adjustments!”
Another good rule of thumb is to keep canned chicken, chicken broth, vegetable broth and egg noodles on hand to put a chicken noodle soup together on the fly. Refrigerator rolls are good to keep in the freezer, too.
“The thing is, I love to cook, but I want to spend time with family, too,” Diane says. “Christmas will be over soon, and we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ our Lord. And we celebrate his blessings of family and special people in our lives, too.
“And as we begin the New Year and have that list of all the things we’re gonna do, we cannot forget making special time for family all year long.”
No Boil Lasagna
• 1 LB ground beef
• 1 medium onion, chopped
• ¼ teaspoon garlic salt
• 1 can/jar of spaghetti sauce (25-32 oz.)
• 16 oz. cottage cheese or ricotta cheese
• ⅓ cup parmesan cheese
• 16 oz. shredded mozzarella cheese
• No-boil lasagna noodles
Brown meat, onions, garlic salt, and salt and pepper. Drain excess fat and add spaghetti sauce. Remove from heat. In a 9”X13” pan, spread about 1 cup of meat mixture. Place a layer of lasagna noodles on top. Spread noodles with half of the cottage cheese and parmesan cheese, which have been beaten together. Add half of the remaining meat mixture on top with half of the mozzarella cheese. Repeat layers of noodles, cheese, meat and cheese. Cover with foil, making sure edges are well sealed. Bake for 1 hour (may take longer) at 350 degrees. Let set 10 minutes before serving.