The Anna Maria Island Sun Newspaper

Vol. 11 No. 35 - June 1, 2011


My Aunt Reney -- the original TV chef


Anna Maria Island Sun News Story

Aunt Reney became the first TV chef and dressed in
Chinese garb, she cooked chicken fried rice,
chicken chow mein and other Chinese delights for viewers.

Like most Irish Catholics, I was brought up on tasteless food.

My mother was a proponent of one pot cookery. Put it in one pot. Put the lid on. Boil the bejeezus out of it. Plate it up.

Mom's sisters were all good Catholics and lousy cooks. The only star in my culinary firmament was my Aunt Reney.

Reney had married outside of the Church. Apparently marrying a Protestant set her tastebuds free.

Reney's food was a flavor wonder. She used garlic when her sisters regarded onions with suspicion. She made macaroni and cheese with exotic white cheese and heavy cream and added tomatoes and bacon. She cooked Chinese meatballs, stuffed peppers and Hungarian goulash.

Reney's food blew out the doors on my mick palate and did the same thing for my mick digestive tract. My body's boiled-fish-trained digestive equipment would go into crisis after gobbling down Reney's lasagne. I discovered flavor and heartburn, gas and flatulence. I was the best ripper in fifth grade after a weekend at Aunt Reney's.

Aunt Reney was also the original Emeril – the first TV chef. She began as the grocery-store-lady-who-cooks-samples. You've seen them – the ladies at Publix cooking up little weenies in the electric frying pan.

Aunt Reney got a job sampling a line of Chinese food products at the grocery store – plum sauce, sweet and sour, and soy sauce – exotic items then.

Reney would have us kids over to roll up egg rolls and cut up chicken for the sweet and sour chicken. She became the best grocery-store-Chinese-food-lady for counties and somebody in marketing came up with the crazy idea of actually getting her to cook the egg rolls on TV.

Aunt Reney became Chef Rhee-Nee. They dressed her in one of those silk Chinese jackets, added a little eye makeup and a short hair cut, threw in some paper lanterns, and Irene was a TV Chinese chef. She cooked up chicken fried rice, chicken chow mein, cherry chicken, pineapple chicken, sweet and sour chicken, chicken in plum sauce.

The show had a good run – a couple of seasons – and then there was a management shuffle at the station, and the new TV genius decided that cheffing on TV was never really going to catch on. Why would anyone want to watch someone cooking on TV?

Like most food professionals, I don't get it either.

No professional chef I know resembles any of the crazies in the silly chef wars gobbledygook that plays on the tube. Most of the real pros are working hard in hot kitchens to keep them calm, clean, organized and battle free. If any chef ever behaved like those TV chefs, they wouldn't last an hour.

The real chefs proudly hone their craft day after day. They search methodically for the best product. They patiently train sous chefs and cooks in cooking methods. They work quietly and steadily through flames and sharp knives to prepare exceptional fare for their patrons. And every once in a while, late at night, after a long hot day in the kitchen, they grab a beer and watch anything but a dumb cooking show.

They deserve more respect than the crazies on TV.

My favorite TV chef is still Aunt Reney. I can close my eyes in the vicinity of a simmering spaghetti sauce and transport myself back to Aunt Reney's lasagna, the wondrous warm and sated feeling, and the noisy, flatulent walk back home to mom's boiled fish.

AMISUN ~ The Island's Award-Winning Newspaper