Sunday, December 9, 2007

Local chef is quite a sight


Dolly McKernan drains the pot of water and removes the carrots and celery, placing them on a paper towel. She turns and sits down at her cutting board, removing a carrot and starting to methodically slice it into chunks.
It may not seem like a big feat, and for Dolly, it really isn’t. Plenty of time in the kitchen — teaching a cooking class for Braille Institute in Santa Barbara and cooking for her husband, Tom — has turned her into a skillful chef, despite losing her eyesight 15 years ago.

Her latest accomplishment is a 190-page cookbook filled with recipes from friends, family and students titled Cooking Without Looking. Although she’s been working on it for the past four years, the idea came much early, when she first started teaching at Braille Institute.
“A few years after I started, I said, Tom, boy I’d sure like to do a cookbook,” Dolly says, sitting in the living room of her Goleta home.
Tom, sitting nearby in an armchair, smiles and chimes in.
“She gained a lot of self-confidence from taking classes at Braille,” he says.
Since Dolly used to be a cake decorator, teaching courses and baking out of her home for many years before she lost her sight, it seemed natural that she would gravitate toward the cooking class they offered.
“After a while, she started to give a few suggestions,” Tom says. “So they asked her, Dolly, would you like to teach a class?”
A bit hesitant at first, she said her three sons talked her in to it after reminding her of some advice she gave them when they were still in school.
“If you make up your mind to do it, you can do it,” they told her. “So make up your mind and do it.”
“The next Monday I went in and said, OK, I’ll teach the class,” she says.
Since then, she’s taught a two-hour class once a week for nearly every trimester. Even though she’s taking some time off to visit family in Virginia and Michigan, Dolly says she plans to keep teaching the course and going on speaking tours with Braille Institute.
“I like speaking with people and encouraging them if they are losing their sight,” she says.
Dolly’s own loss of sight came in 1992. Tom remembers the day clearly. He was working out in the front yard when Dolly came home. He remembers she seemed distraught and went straight into the house.
“I went in and asked her what was wrong and she said, Tom, I can’t see out of my left eye,” he says.
He immediately took her to their eye doctor, who identified the problem as ischemic optic neuropathy, an inflammation of the optic nerve. Patients occasionally regain sight once the inflammation subsides, so they remained optimistic.
Three months later, she started getting vision flashes in her right eye. She recounts how at the hospital she watched the clock on the wall slowly shrink out of sight as each day passed.
Without missing a step, Dolly enrolled at Braille Institute and started adapting to a new way of life.
“I took every class I could get,” she says.
From learning to find her way around local stores and La Cumbre Mall in a cane training class to dining out at restaurants and learning to locate her food by having Tom or a friend map out her plate, Dolly slowly gained confidence.
She even kept bowling with her league team, and although her average dipped from her previous scores in 180s and 190s, one night she bowled a 198.
“She had the highest game that night,” Tom says.
She quickly settled into her cooking class at Braille Institute as well, giving lessons to around eight to 10 students on tricks to cooking without looking. Some of them are under the impression she can see when they first join the course, she says, and are skeptical about her ability to teach.
One particularly outspoken student who didn’t think Dolly could teach her anything was told to “give it three weeks” by another Braille Institute volunteer, Dolly says. After the third week, the student stayed late to thank Dolly for letting her stay in the class.
“It was well worth it,” Dolly says. “…During the 12 years I’ve been teaching, I’ve met a lot of wonderful people.”
Many of the recipes in her cookbook come from those people, donated to her through the years to use in her class. With more than 300 recipes to choose from at the beginning, she pared it down to 180, those most-loved by her students.
Although she doesn’t have a favorite, she recommends the cashew broccoli salad for large gatherings.
“It’s got a real good mixture in there,” she says of the book, which has recipes ranging from New Mexico Pork Stew to Asian Steak and Noodles. It also features a heartfelt introduction as well as a poem by a former student about making candy with Dolly.
It’s not a profit-making venture. She only had 300 printed, many of which she has already given away to friends and family. She is also donated a few dozen to the Braille Institute to sell in its gift shop, and will be holding a book signing there on Wednesday from 10:30 a.m. to noon.
“She just always had this desire to do a cookbook,” Tom says. “And when it came time to print it, she had a little pot of money saved up to pay for it.”
As Dolly finishes slicing up the celery and dumps the diced veggies in a container, she easily maneuvers over to the sink to clean off the knife before turning to the stove and stirring a large pot of minestrone soup.
“She always used to make me nervous,” Tom says. “She’d be chopping carrots and talking and one time we had a friend over who said, I wish you’d watch what you are doing.”
“I wish I could,” Dolly says with a laugh.

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