Chris White is alone on the dormant lawn of The Fountains, adding fist-sized chunks of wet pecan wood to a sooty smoker. Tomorrow is rib day at the senior living community in Grand Junction; the ribs have already been steamed and coated with a house-made dry rub. ※The steaming is the first phase of getting them to fall off the bone,§ White, the chef and kitchen manager, says. Another hour or more at 250 degrees in a bath of pecan smoke being the second.
When it comes to food, senior living certainly doesn＊t serve up notions of haute cuisine. Salisbury steak. Frozen Peas. Jello. In the typical paradigm, meals are served in plastic partitioned dishes at very specific times by people in scrubs (lest you forget, even for a second, where you are).
Enter the guy at the smoker and his kitchen staff. ※Ninety percent of what we serve, we make,§ White says.
White is a career food guy from Boston. He has worked all over the country. With a thick New England accent, he says, ※I wanted to be an artist.§ Painting. Writing. Poetry. ※I was published.§ But he now attests that his position at the helm of The Fountains’ kitchen, essentially shifting a paradigm, scratches that creative itch.
That reinvention means an on-premise herb garden. And not a decorative one, either. It is a real one, productive enough to supply the kitchen all year round. House made bread, cheese, and pasta. Locally-sourced greens, beefsteak tomatoes, peaches, and squash. ※Whatever they want, we will get it,§ White says. The Fountains has more than 100 residents at any given time.
※If I have any objections [to the food], it is that it keeps shrinking my shirts,§ Norm Rosling, a Fountains resident says, patting a belly that is attempting to escape past a row of buttons on his neatly tucked plaid shirt.
On this given day, bread is being baked. Ribs are being smoked. A dessert is being baked. Shrimp is being scampied for a lunch special and eggs are being flipped to order for a mid-morning straggler who is still hoping for breakfast. At The Fountains, there is no cattle call. You eat when you’re hungry, just like home. By 10 a.m., two prep cooks have their heads in cookbooks, for which there is an entire dedicated shelf. ※He [White] encourages us to experiment,§ Marlyn Hawkes, the breakfast and lunch lead cook, says. ※I like it.§ Casual observation suggests that everyone in this kitchen (and there are at least five people currently engaged in the act of food making) likes it and likes each other.
※Meals are the one thing that everybody comes out of their room for,§ Jon Tadvick, the director of The Fountains says. According to Tadvick, the majority of the residents were ranchers. ※They did not do frozen. So when Chris says this food is from scratch, that resonates with them.§ They could easily live up to the institutional stereotype and save money. ※Creamed corn, mashed potatoes, you know. But we don＊t. I refuse to,§ says Tadvick, who holds a firm belief that expanding the sensory elements of daily living improves the quality of life. ※Good food makes for happy people.§
However thoughtful, meals can present a definite learning curve. ※I do experience the Meat’n’Potatoes generation first hand,§ says White.
One of the most exotic things eighty-nine-year-old Frank and Wendy Hess used to eat were mushrooms. ※We had a bread and butter routine,” Frank says with a knowing smile. After sixty-five years of marriage, he can still make his wife chuckle. They both readily admit to having had a conservative palate before moving into The Fountains four months ago. For them, this could mean that anything with a mushroom was wild. ※Now, it’s every other day we have mushrooms.§ Wendy is laughing harder now. Frank is not complaining, he insists. They are acclimating. Wendy confesses to her pants not fitting quite like they used to.
※This food creates community. This is where we come to share stories and laugh,§ says Rosling, the guy with the compromised buttons, extending a sweeping arm across an almost empty dining room. He was the late- morning straggler on this day. His plate was clean.