Kathy Kline described her son, Mike, as a hard-working, family-oriented man, who was a lot like his introverted mother. He was her No. 1 taste-tester and he loved to garden.
When he suddenly died in 2008, Kline admits she lost her passion for cooking. The regular Sunday brunches — where upwards of 20 would attend — weren't the priority for her as they once were.
"We still have get-togethers, picnics and some brunches," she said. "I haven't gotten my passion for doing that back yet. It's still baby steps."
And one of those baby steps for Kline, 61, was completing her cookbook, "Plain Jane Vanilla — With a Twist." She started the cookbook in the fall of 2007 and had about 50 recipes completed before her son's death in the spring.
After Mike's death, Kline would revisit the cookbook occasionally, until last fall, when she decided it was time to finish it.
"I had to get this done for myself and for him so I could move forward," she said.
The 143-page cookbook contains more than 328 recipes and meal plans that she spent years whipping up at Saint James School in Hagerstown as well as family recipes.
Kline said the name of the cookbook, "Plain Jane Vanilla — With a Twist," is a reflection of who she is.
"It just kind of personifies how I see myself and how I like things — just plain and simple, uncomplicated. Life isn't always that way, but that's the way I like things," she said during a telephone interview from her home near Boonsboro.
Kline learned to cook as a child at the apron strings of her grandmother and mother. Her mother worked so Kline would often make sure dinner was on the table after school for her and her two younger brothers.
Her enjoyment of cooking followed her into adulthood. "It's something I've always liked," she said.
In 1975, Kline went to work as a kitchen helper at Saint James School half-way through the school year. When one of the cooks decided not to return in the fall, Chef Paul Henry offered her the position. It was under Henry's tutelage that Kline said she gained on-the-job training.
"It was a first real job I ever had," she said.
When Henry passed away in 1981, Kline was asked to oversee the kitchen and dining room. She headed the kitchen until she retired in 1993.
While at St. James, Kline learned to keep the students at the boarding school fed. One of her jobs as cook was preparing meals for 120 students at breakfast, 200 students at lunch and between 130 and 140 students for dinner time.
The job taught her to do meal planning, which she often did for the entire school year before classes even started. She would pencil in the menu, then as the months went by would add seasonal items.
Favorite recipes of the students included her cinnamon buns, homemade rolls, cheese soup and Chicken Salad a la St. James, all of which are included in her cookbook. She said many are recipes she adapted over the years and ones she served to students at St. James.
As for her cookbook, Kline is hoping people will enjoy the recipes. But she's hoping that they can take away so much more.
"I want people to really be aware how fragile life is. Take it a day at a time and enjoy. You never know what's going to happen and when," she said. "And I just kind of want people to be aware, you just never know. Mike's death was such a shock. It'll be four years on April 6, and it doesn't seem real."
Kline hopes by telling her story that people will "take that minute to say ‘I love you' or 'I'm thinking of you.'"
Often, she said, people think "I'll do it later."
"Sometimes later just doesn't come. That's why we do the Sharing Gardens," she said.
The money she raises from the cookbook will go back into the Sharing Gardens, which are memory gardens on her and husband Joe's property. One of the things she and Mike would do is garden. Kline allows anyone to come by and get a plant for his or her own garden. She'll have a variety of flowers this season.
"I decided to make any of the plants available for sharing in memory of Mike and other loved ones, to keep his memory alive," she said. "Any money I make is keeping the gardens and plants up so I can continue to do it."
Kline encourages people to come and leave with a plant.
"I've had people come bring their buckets, their shovels, and whatever they're looking for, they dig up and off they go. I found (the plants) multiply so fast that I have been able to do it."
Today, her grandson, Garron Long, 12, the son of her daughter, Julie Kline, helps his grandmother in the garden as well as in the kitchen.
Garron, she said, likes to make bread and pizza dough. He also likes to make hamburgers on his George Foreman grill, and share his recipes with his classmates.
Kline admits she is still healing from her son's loss, but by doing the Sharing Garden as well as her cookbook, she is keeping his memory alive.
"(Losing a child is) the hardest thing you can ever go through," she said. "There are no shortcuts. I've tried them all."
About the author
Author: Kathy Kline
Title: "Plain Jane Vanilla — With a Twist"
Publisher: G&R Publishing
Pages: 192 pages
Retails for: $13.50 plus tax
Available locally at: Roostervane Gardens, 2 S. High St., Funkstown, and Hudson House, 1 S. High St., Funkstown and Turn the Page, 18 N. Main St., Boonsboro; or send a check for cost of book at $5.25 plus shipping and handling per book to Kathy Kline, Memo: Plain Jane Vanilla, 8125 Sharpsburg Pike, Boonsboro MD 21713. Or contact Kathy Kline at 301-582-3519 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
2/3 cup milk
2 squares unsweetened baking chocolate
2 cups white sugar
2 tablespoons white corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons butter
Nuts, optional (see cook's note)
2 tablespoons peanut butter, optional
Heat milk in medium saucepan, until scalding (milk forms skim on top, but no boiling). Remove from heat and stir in chocolate with a wooden spoon until dissolved. Return to heat and add sugar, corn syrup and salt. Mix well, stirring often, and cook over medium high heat until mixture comes to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook until soft ball stage, about 5 minutes. Test by dropping a spoonful of the mixture into a small container of cold water. If you are able to shape it into a soft ball, it is ready. Remove from heat and add, without stirring, vanilla and butter. Let this set, undisturbed, until bottom of pan is comfortable to touch. If desired, you can add the nuts or peanut butter. Beat until fudge thickens and loses gloss. Pour into an 8-inch-by-8-inch buttered dish. Let set up and enjoy.
Cook's note: Kline says she doesn't use a candy thermometer. You just know from trial and error (and I have had lots of errors). Kline likes black walnuts.
— Courtesy of Kathy Kline