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Simple and convenient cooking

August 17, 2003

Bonnie Elgin has been cooking Gourmet Chicken, her family's favorite dish, since 1976. She found the recipe in the Virginia Pilot newspaper when she and her husband, Dan, who was in the Navy, lived in Norfolk, Va.

She had grown up in Cumberland, Md., and met her husband when she came to Hagerstown to attend Hagerstown Business College. They married in 1968.

The couple lived in Alexandria, Va., for four years before returning to Hagerstown in 1980. Elgin says it was hard for her to return to small-town life in Western Maryland. After a couple of years, she was happy to be back and living in Hagerstown.

"It's nice to have neighbors who know your name," she says. "It's a wonderful feeling."

The Elgins' three children are grown and out of the 70-year-old brick colonial home where the couple has lived for nine years. Bonnie and Dan Elgin share their home with Arthur, a 9-year-old "mostly Lab" named in honor of Bonnie Elgin's grandfather.

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Elgin, 54, has worked for the Social Security Administration since 1975, managing a staff of 11 in the Hagerstown office. She doesn't like grocery shopping, but she does like to cook when she has time. Elgin likes dishes that are simple and convenient - without long lists of ingredients. Her husband loves spaghetti, and she has devised some tasty shortcuts for sauces. She will buy a jar of prepared sauce and make it her own by mixing in a can of stewed tomatoes - now available with different seasonings.

"I always have things on hand," she says.

Staff Writer Kate Coleman recently joined Elgin in her bright kitchen, fragrant from the baking Gourmet Chicken, Chocolate Upside Down Cake and Aunt Dora's Peach Petal Pie. One of her sons and his wife were coming for dinner along with three of the Elgins' six grandchildren, happy about the evening's menu.

Do you cook dinner every night? How often are you in the kitchen?

No. Probably a couple of nights a week, I tend to cook a larger quantity than I would need for dinner, and then we might eat it a second time that week - so it's usually something we love, or I might freeze it and pull it out a week or so later.

Where did you learn to cook? Did you cook with your mom growing up?

Well, that's interesting. I'm one of nine children - next to the oldest. As a young teenager, I tried cooking twice, and my younger siblings refused to eat what I cooked, so my mother wouldn't let me in the kitchen anymore.

When I got married, all I knew how to fix was cinnamon toast. I had always heard that the way to a man's heart was through his stomach, so I knew I had to learn fast to keep my husband happy. When I would try something that I had eaten at somebody's house - my in-laws' or a relative's home - I began picking up recipes that I liked. Rarely would I crack open a cookbook, so a lot of it was by trial and error.

When our kids came along, I made a serious commitment to fixing a well-balanced meal every night. It just felt like something a good mom should do. That's probably when I really honed my skills.

My husband doesn't mind cooking either. He doesn't very much, but my husband doesn't mind throwing burgers or chicken on the grill and potatoes in the microwave. Now that the kids are gone, we try to stick to really simple meals, but we still want them to taste good.

What's your favorite thing to cook? Desserts. I have a horrible sweet tooth. It's like a curse. And while I don't want to spend a lot of time putting main-course dishes together, I will labor over a scratch cake for hours and dirty every pan in the kitchen, my husband says.

I loved layered cakes, and usually during the winter months I'll bake cakes and (make) soups.

Love homemade soups. Throughout the winter I'll make lots of soups. In fact, every year on Super Bowl Sunday, we host a soup party. Your ticket to get in is to bring a pot of homemade soup. One year we had nine pots of soup in this kitchen. It gives me an opportunity to experiment with new soup recipes.

You've had the Gourmet Chicken recipe since 1976? It's a family favorite?

Yes. Friends love it. I've never made it that I haven't had people just oohing and ahhing.

Why do you keep making it? What makes it successful?

When I tell somebody I'm going to fix it for them, they get excited.

It's not too complicated?

No. It's so simple. It's just such a few ingredients. Another thing that's great about it is I can make it up the night before, and stick it in the fridge and then come home and pop it in the oven.

Does your family have a favorite - other than the Gourmet Chicken?

My husband likes spaghetti. I do pork and sauerkraut throughout the winter, but Gourmet Chicken is probably tops. They like the Chocolate Upside Down Cake.

Are desserts your favorite thing to eat?

I love to eat desserts, but when I make a cake, I never keep it in the house more than a couple days. It goes to work with me, or to work with my husband, or home with the kids, because I would end up eating it all by myself.

You're tiny.

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