Didier knew something good was happening. It involved dough, the heavy kind that built upper arm muscles and/or killed motors on electric hand mixers. From his vantage point on the floor, he watched the countertop action, head swiveling to chart the progress.
Dinner was coming.
Erin Hensel, 12, a seventh-grader at Dunedin Middle School, wrestled with stirring in the last of the whole-wheat flour. Her sisters, Amy, 10, and Alex, 9, both students at Garrison-Jones Elementary, stood watching in aprons.
Long before the Obamas made Portuguese water dogs famous, Didier was dining well in Dunedin. He ate the expensive dog food Michael and Susie Crawford bought for the house canines.
But now the family was stepping things up a notch and cooking from scratch, newly resolved to feeding their three dogs — Didier, along with Corey and Stitch — as mindfully as they fed themselves. Alex stirred a simmering dog entree on the stove. Amy and Erin shaped dog treats and cookies on the kitchen island. Susie and the girls ordinarily spent a lot of time at the kitchen island, turning the bounty from Erin's backyard garden into dinner for people.
This time, it was the dogs' day.
It's hard to say how many people cook for their dogs. But Anna Cooke, editor of the New Barker, a magazine for dog lovers in Dunedin, thinks the number is on the rise.
"Sometimes I wonder if the shift that I'm noticing is because I'm so ensconced in this world, but I do feel that over the past four years the numbers are increasing. Empty nesters, singles and married people with no kids — people dote on their pets."
Cooke says more people started questioning traditional dog food in the aftermath of the large-scale Chinese pet food recall in 2007, which caused renal failure and other illnesses in pets worldwide.
"We only recently started reading labels. The first items on the ingredient list are the most important. If it says 'by-products,' you just don't know what you're getting. But if we're honest with ourselves, it's hard to know what a balanced diet is for dogs."
That's where chef John Lewis comes in.
Best in show
La Maison Gourmet in Dunedin has had many incarnations, as retail kitchen store, restaurant and cooking school. Last month, about 20 people convened for what may have been the bay area's first "cooking for your dog" class. The four-legged were not invited to participate (a large photo of Lewis' dog stood on the wide kitchen counter giving benediction), but the assembled dog owners were eager to talk about their absent companions.
A brief lecture on dos and don'ts preceded the class, then the students broke into small groups to tackle recipes. Jane Byers of St. Petersburg was there learning to make dishes for Cabot, her 140-pound Newfoundland. Betsy Toelle of Clearwater hoped to pick up new recipes for her three pinschers and one cocker spaniel.
"I've been cooking for dogs for seven or eight years. Two of my dogs had health issues, stomach problems and obesity. Commercial foods have lots of filler. Eighty percent of my dogs' food is homemade. They have fewer health problems now and homemade biscuits are really economical."
But are they? A 1-pound bag of Milk Bone Natural Snacks rings in around $5. In Lewis' Veggie Cookie recipe, the most expensive ingredient is whole-wheat flour — about $2.70 for 2 pounds, so $1.35 for the required 4 cups — assuming you already have your pantry stocked with herbs and garlic and your crisper holds lots of veggies. As with cooking from scratch for humans, a well-stocked pantry is essential. But unlike humans, dogs are not good candidates for super low-fat or vegetarian diets, nor a carnivore's diet of all meat. They need a balance of amino acids from protein, fatty acids and carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and water.
Veteran dog cooks Patrick McGhan and Sally Fonner of Dunedin make meals for Lady Samantha, a Great Dane, and Sir Dog, a golden retriever. They prepare dishes of cooked chicken, beef and lamb with brown rice and vegetables, but how do they know how much is enough and what ratios work best?
Says Fonner, "Dogs have many of the same health problems that people do. Pay attention to your animal — their skin is talking to you, their eyes are talking to you."
As the class wound down, participants shared resources. Veterinarian Shawna Green at Medicine River Animal Hospital in Pinellas Park practices traditional and alternative medicine that includes a focus on special diets. And for reliable reviews of commercial dog foods and treats, members of the group suggested the Whole Dog Journal (whole-dog-journal.com).
The efforts of the class were scooped into plastic containers and bags as Lewis gave his last words of encouragement. Why would you feed "man's best friend" anything you wouldn't eat yourself?
New to all this, participants Susie Crawford and her three girls seemed convinced. A week later the aprons came out and Didier and crew started loitering.
Stitch, a Jack Russell, and Corey, a golden retriever/St. Bernard mix in a sporty windbreaker, joined Didier at a row of metal bowls to sample the goods. Beef and brown rice dotted with green beans and other wholesome, people-food ingredients. The trio dug in, much to the satisfaction of the cooks.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog is at tampabay.com/blogs/dining.