Food is work and play for Johnson

January 18, 2012

By TRISHA VAUGHAN - Bulletin Accent Writer

Tamara Johnson grew up around people who knew how to cook and did so often.

Johnson, 46, said her mother, Laverne Ramey of Spencer, let Johnson and her sisters do what they wanted to in the kitchen and encouraged them to try new things. Although the girls watched Ramey and tried out their own recipes, being left to their own devices sometimes proved too much.

“There were flour fights,” recalled Johnson, who lives in Spencer and is the new kitchen marketing manager at the Spencer-Penn Centre. She added that she and her sisters always had to clean up when they made a mess in the kitchen.

Johnson’s father is Earnie Shaver (better known as Earnie Shavers) of Las Vegas, a well-known professional boxer who has sparred with Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes and many others.

Johnson didn’t spend time only in her family’s kitchen; she also took home economics in school and cooked with other families. Because her family traveled frequently when her father was boxing, she met all kinds of people from different places.

Family friends were of many ethnic backgrounds, including Greeks and Italians, and they cooked dishes that Johnson later made for her own family, including her children, Diandra Johnson of Texas and Mark Johnson of Norfolk.

If Johnson’s family ate something at a restaurant, her mother would go back home and put her own spin on it. Once in New York, Johnson said, her mother asked a chef for his tomato soup recipe, and the chef agreed to give it to her — for an autograph from the famous boxer.

From as early as age 8 or 9, Johnson said, she remembers making grilled cheese sandwiches and baking cookies. She learned to make black-eyed peas and rice and fried chicken from her grandmother, the late Willie Bell Shaver, whom the family called “Madea.”

Johnson said her grandmother always kept a garden, so fresh fruits and vegetables were included in every meal. One of her favorite things was her grandmother’s big strawberry patch.

Johnson still tries to incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables into her meals. She doesn’t have a garden, but her neighbors always share their bounty with her, she said.

Although she grew up in Ohio before moving to Spencer when she was a junior in high school, Johnson said she always lived in rural places where she could be outside. Both of her parents grew up in rural areas and planted gardens, she added.

Some of her favorite foods to make are desserts — such as cakes, pies and cookies — and casseroles. She also enjoys entertaining her friends and family.

“It’s a different feeling when you’re cooking for other people — cooking from your heart,” she said.

She frequently substitutes ground turkey for beef, which is easy because she is “not a big red meat-eater anyway.” She also cooks a lot of chicken, fish and lean pork.

“Don’t be limited. Be creative,” with food, she said.

Johnson taught her children to cook the basics.

“They’re not going to starve!” she said with a laugh, adding that her son makes “the best grilled cheese sandwiches.” When she cooks for her children, they often request mashed potatoes with gravy, quiche, broccoli and cheese, and macaroni and cheese. She cooks a great deal of chicken because it can be made many different ways, and she enjoys grilling in the summertime.

When Johnson’s family — including her sisters and their children, her children and her mother — gets together, it is usually for a week, so Johnson’s mother will prepare each of her girls’ favorite foods, one each night. When it is Johnson’s night, she said, she requests linguine with clam sauce.

Two of Johnson’s sisters live in Charlotte, N.C.; one lives in Roanoke; and one lives in California.

Johnson said she likes to travel, usually to places that are warm and tropical. Before beginning work at the Spencer-Penn Centre, she worked in the hospitality industry in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

In her role at the center, Johnson is coordinating several classes, including candle and soap making, and is open to suggestions for more. On Feb. 18 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., she will host a Battle of the Cupcakes, during which attendees will be matched with one of two professional bakers. The bakers will teach students to make and decorate cupcakes, and at the end of the class, the teams will face off to see who can create the best cupcake.

Registration costs $20; call 957-5757 or email by Jan. 31. There is no age limit for the class, and those participating will receive a decorative apron and take home a dozen cupcakes.


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