ZEPHYRHILLS — Melinda Winner was in her 20s when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Born with the use of one arm, and now battling pain, Winner sank into depression. She gained 100 pounds and thought her dreams of being a chef were fading.
Winner, now 48, took control and lost the extra weight through walking and smarter eating. Through a series of adaptations, she rediscovered her love of cooking and regained her independence. She has written a book to help others do the same: A Complete Illustrated Guide to Cooking With Arthritis.
Winner has appeared on the Food Network and local newscasts. She conducts cooking seminars, where she demonstrates how to use everyday objects to overcome different physical limitations. She says her successes stem from sheer determination.
"I'm not one of these people that give up," she said. "I'm a true survivor."
While there are cooking tools made specifically for the disabled, Winner uses everyday items creatively, like using an apple corer to chop potatoes and using rubber-backed rugs to make standing for long periods of time easier.
Winner also organizes her working space to keep pain at a minimum. She hangs pots from a rack and keeps spices out where she can reach for them easily.
"It's always in the way you arrange your kitchen," Winner said. "You don't have to give up your life. You just have to reinvent your life."
While many cookbooks for people with arthritis focus on cooking foods to help control the disease, Winner's cookbook has recipes for everyone. She said the secret to keeping pain and inflammation down is buying fresh ingredients and staying away from convenience foods.
"Any time anything is precooked or prechopped, it has to have preservatives in it," Winner said. "When you have an autoimmune system disease, when you put extra chemicals in your body, you get sicker."
The cookbook includes recipes for people with diabetes and high blood pressure. Asked about her favorite recipes, Winner mentioned a couple of innovative cakes that use unusual ingredients.
There is the grapefruit cake. A purple cake made with Jamaican yams. And a red cabbage cake.
"If you like carrot cake, you'll absolutely love it," Winner said of the cabbage cake. "It is incredibly moist, and it's an awesome cake."
Winner says her cooking style is "Southern Yankee," which has been influenced by her family's deep roots in Zephyrhills and the years she lived up North, where she attended culinary school in Pennsylvania and worked at the Sheraton Inn in Uniontown.
She also volunteered in the Gulf Coast region after Hurricane Katrina. She has three grown children and five grandchildren and enjoys horseback riding, swimming, traveling and hiking.
When she first found out about her arthritis, Winner thought the end of her cooking days was near. Now, even when it takes a day or more to prepare a recipe, the act of living her passion keeps her going.
Winner said it is important to keep things in perspective, even on hard days.
"It's okay if you have a really bad day, because there are some days it's almost impossible to get out of bed," Winner said.