We’re about nine months into operations and so far, everyone truly seems to enjoy the food at The Inn at OxBow Acres. I’ve been cooking for a lot of years now, but it is necessary to tell you the secret of why I can hold my own in the kitchen. You see, my wonderful friend of 46 years was recently laid to rest. I was unable to travel to California to her memorial last month – family and friends went in my stead – but I thought I could share a bit of a tribute to the woman who taught me about all things related to cooking. Mary Lash, my 4-H Club leader, is the real reason guests enjoy my meals.
From the time I was very little I wanted to live on a farm and continually begged my parents to move to the country. We lived right on a busy avenue in Downey, California– not exactly a rural area except for the cows at the Rockview Dairy. Downey is a suburb of Los Angeles and at that time had a population of 88,000. To appease my longing for farm life, my mom suggested I join a 4-H club when I was 11 years old. I was so excited because I thought I would learn all about agriculture and then really convince my parents to move! It was quite disheartening when Mom signed me up for the Foods and Nutrition and Clothing projects. I was a bit of a tomboy growing up in the midst of a cultural revolution, and homemaking did NOT appeal to me at all. Nevertheless, we drove over to Paramount High School, and that was when I met the 4-H leaders, Mary (Lewis) Lash and Ed and Emily Lewis. That was a life changing event for me! Mary had been a Home Economics teacher at Paramount High School for many years, and her classroom encompassed a huge wing that was set up with about six individual kitchens. In fact, Mary continued in this position long after I grew up and gained the prestige of becoming the longest-tenured teacher in the country – 67 years! In her classroom I learned the science of cooking and I helped to prepare meals for my club members every week. Home economics was rapidly losing popularity in the 70s and 80s, but essentially, I took home-ec year-round for over seven years! I grew to appreciate those 4-H projects, and my participation in the club did eventually get me involved in raising rabbits. Before long, I was blessed to make “real country” 4-H friends who raised livestock on the outskirts of LA County. It turned out to be the next best thing to moving since my parents remained in my childhood home. I never persuaded them to leave – in fact, the Downey house is still in the family today.
Mary, Ed, and Emily not only mentored me in the Greenleaf 4-H Club, they took me into their home – the closest thing to a rural home that area. Built in 1871, it is the oldest residence in Downey and surrounded by a tall, secured chain-link fence. I’ll never forget driving to 9497 East Foster Road and ringing at the gate one Saturday morning. Mary and Emily welcomed in my father and me. As we passed through the walkway, rows of fragrant roses lined the path, and to my delight animals surrounded me! Lady, a gorgeous Collie, came to greet me as well as little flocks of chickens, ducks, and honking geese. I was in heaven! I loved the sights inside too – glass cabinets filled with Hummels, beautiful dishes, family photographs, and the delicious smells of fresh-baked goods. Outside in Ed’s workshop was the hum of the saws and lathes. The singing of birds and the fluttering of butterflies among the gardens absolutely entranced me. You can’t imagine how it filled a child’s soul!
Little did I know how much time I would spend at this residence working on projects, meeting incredible people, and doing odd jobs to make some spending money. This was in addition to my various club meetings throughout the week. Mary or Ed would drive me to a variety of county 4-H events on the weekends all the way from San Gabriel to Simi Valley. I always enjoyed talking with them and hearing about Downey and the surrounding cities when the land was covered with orange groves. The Lewis family was quite fascinating because they were the some of the first settlers in that part of California. Alongside their parents, Mary, Ed, and their cousins farmed the land and grew vegetables for Knotts Berry Farm and even Disneyland. They would describe the flowering trees, buzzing bees, and the heavy scent of orange blossoms that filled the air. I would simply marvel because the smog in the seventies created a blanket of hazy polluted air that made it hard for me to breathe. Visiting their home was like stepping back into a simpler time, and I always felt accepted and loved.
Mary taught me to cook and to cook well. From meal planning, shopping, cooking, and final presentation (making a plate look appetizing) the many skills I learned shaped the way I raised my family, celebrated holidays, and entertained guests. I even entered table-setting competitions at the LA County Fair. Who knew there was actually a division for setting an attractive table? Some of my children’s favorite recipes came from the cookbooks Mary would gift me over the years which included her creations. Mary insisted that “real” ingredients were the key – not the substitutes that were marketed on TV. Remember “I can’t believe it’s not butter”? Mary would KNOW it was not butter! Natural was always best. She taught me everything – even how to wash, peel, prepare, and store vegetables. (I grew up on canned and frozen products.) At the time I had no clue that all these skills would be essential to keeping my children (and eventually my guests) healthy.
I still marvel at how much time this dear leader invested in me and other children – all this outside of Mary’s teaching responsibilities at Paramount High School. I didn’t even know at the time that she was the director of the Future Homemakers Association, and I vaguely remember that she was involved in a service club called Corsaires as well as being active in her church. I just knew that Mary Lash invested countless hours into MY life. Mary developed leadership skills in me that I didn’t know I had. These have led me to positions of influence in my various occupations over the years. This selfless woman taught me etiquette, public speaking, organizational and administrative skills, and more. I know she touched generations of youth, but the seven formative years of my childhood (ages 11-18) set the trajectory for the rest of my life.
My husband and I married young, and my country living dreams finally came true. My brothers had always teased me that I’d marry a dairy farmer named Zeke. BRIAN is from New Hampshire, and he indeed was raised on a dairy farm!( Here’s another “coincidence”: When I was 10 years old, I watched “The Count of Monte Cristo” and developed a huge crush on Richard Chamberlain. I told everyone back then that I’d be Maria Chamberlain one day. LOL!) Anyway, Brian and I settled in New Hampshire in 1984, and each return to California meant a visit to Mary’s. I didn’t really know how much her physical home influenced me until after we had remodeled a laundry room in our previous house. I had designed it for my personal use not thinking of Mary at all during that process, but when I visited her in December of 2019, I had to laugh! My newly remodeled area looked just like a room in her house with ivory-colored cabinets and glass doors. I had subconsciously designed the cabinets that I’d scrubbed annually (for pay) while learning the value of spring cleaning!
During that particular visit, I recorded Mary as she told me details of her family history and travels over the years. What a fascinating person! At 90 years of age, she was as cheerful, engaging, and supportive as she was when I was a schoolgirl. She even had butter and sugar in a mixing bowl and was preparing to bake her famous cookies. As she let me out through the gate, I briefly considered the contrast between my pastoral home in New Hampshire and this little one-acre refuge in Southern California. Yet it was the love and dedication of Mary, and Ed, and Emily that gave me the ability to live well in the countryside and to serve well those who come to visit. If you like my cooking, it is because God has gifted my life with this incredible woman from this remarkable family.