HERNANDO BEACH — At the April 2008 board meeting of the Democratic Women's Club, members buzzed about how splendidly their tribute to Women's History Month went when someone piped up:
"What about the men?"
And the women paused. It did seem a bit ungracious to spend so much time focusing on women and not doing anything for their male counterparts. They tossed around ideas. Not anything expensive. Something they didn't have to fret about planning.
At the end of their quest to find something to celebrate men, they decided to do this:
Let them cook for the women.
"I like to think of it as showing off what they can do," said Dr. Yvonne Nelson, president of the Democratic Women's Club in Hernando County.
"Guys who cook tend to be very proud of their cooking."
They named the celebration "Men Who Cook." Their first event was last August at Linda Pedersen Park. It was such a success that they held "Men Who Cook II" on Saturday at the same location. Six men participated — mostly willingly.
"There are certain things you do to live in peace," said John Neil, 69. His wife, Terri, is a club member and urged him to cook.
"I only did this because I was threatened," Neil said.
His friend Donald Simpson nodded.
"His wife got me, too," he said, then both burst out laughing. Truthfully, Neil and Simpson are serious cooks. They both grew up in the Bronx and learned to cook by watching their parents. Both of their fathers worked for the Postal Service. When Neil's father retired, he became a short-order cook. Simpson's father, who fought in World War I, had a magical ability to whip up something mouthwatering from a seemingly empty pantry. Simpson remembers coming home from school one day and his dad was in the kitchen. The smell was dizzyingly good.
"What is that?" he asked.
"Bread hash," his father said.
He was able to take bread and onions and, with spices, make it into a meal that 73-year-old Simpson still longs for. His mother, who was a piano teacher, died in 1973. His father stopped eating after she died. He died the following year.
Simpson's father wrote a cookbook that was never published. It seems to have been lost, but Simpson hopes to find it. When he cooks, it makes him feel close to his parents — eggnog at Christmas, pork dishes at New Year's, collard greens, pound cake, chicken and dumplings, cookies, all from scratch.
Simpson, who was a bridge and tunnel officer in New York before he retired and moved to Spring Hill, never uses a recipe and never writes his own creations down. He dreams of things that sound good to him.
That's what happened Saturday. He was signed up only to bring mojitos, but two days before the event, he kept thinking of a seafood pasta dish — lobster, clams, shrimp, chorizo in a tomato sauce with scallions that simmered for hours, ziti pasta, ricotta, mozzarella.
"Let me give you a taste," he said, ladling it into a bowl. "Take a bite and then I'll answer your questions."
Neil, a retired police sergeant, made his famous chili — with secret ingredients he wouldn't reveal. Their friend, Ray Curtis, whose wife is the club's membership chairwoman, made meatloaf. He says a teeny bit of mustard seeds makes the difference.
"It's not hard," said Curtis, 71, who worked with Simpson in New York. "Meatloaf is a glorified hamburger."
The danger of hosting something like this is being upstaged. Last year, James Yant, a 63-year-old Hernando County School Board member, made not only one fabulous dish, but two.
"His ribs were to die for," said Nelson, the club president. "And then he had the nerve to bake a carrot cake on top of that."
This year Yant had the decency to just bake the cake, which was quickly reduced to crumbs. Then the crumbs were eaten.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: If you've tried making James Yant's carrot cake and it didn't come out right, you've got the perfect excuse: The recipe that appeared with the article should have called for 2 cups of flour, and the icing should be made with only one stick of margarine. Yant, who concocted the cake 20 years ago by tinkering and pulling ideas from other recipes, said he erred in providing his creation from memory. Though it's not his fault: A reporter kept chatting with him as he tried to write it down. "You were asking a lot of questions," he told the Times.