It was 1969, and 94-year-old Irene Jackson hasn’t stopped since.
“I can remember I made those little yeast rolls, and I used the top of a salt shaker to cut them out,” she said.
Jackson giggles telling the story, and explains that a “Tasters’ Luncheon” meant just that - getting a “taste” of everything the church members prepare.
Jackson is already preparing for this year’s Taster’s Luncheon Oct. 17, and will follow the tradition she’s since set for herself through the past 44 years of luncheons.
She’ll make four dishes altogether, two of one kind and two of another, one for each buffet table that is set out for the luncheon’s two seatings.
“Oh, I’m not really quite sure what they’ll be, but probably some chicken casseroles,” she said. “My daughter from North Carolina is coming to help, and I think she has an idea or two.”
When it comes to cooking, Jackson doesn’t have to worry about knowing how to help feed a crowd.
She’s had plenty of experience during her lifetime, after all, it was her husband’s family, the J.W. Jacksons, who acquired the old Clairmont Springs Hotel in Clay County in1911, and it was Irene Jackson who learned the ropes first hand of feeding hundreds of people from her mother-in-law, who everyone called “Mama Jack” or “Mrs. Jack.”
In those days, in addition to weekdays of feeding hotel guests in the 52-room structure, there were crowds numbering up to 200 at times jamming the hotel for Sunday dinner.
The dinner tables were set with a full four course spread every Sunday, and always one of the main dishes would be the hotel’s famed fried chicken, Mrs. Jackson said.
There would always be another choice for a main dish, and about four vegetables, a salad and a dessert that people would rave over. And always, the hotel’s favored yeast rolls.
In 1950, the price for the meal ran about $1.50, Mrs. Jackson recalls.
Tables were set family style, with platters of food delivered to each.
The Jacksons always knew how to handle extra visitors. Mrs. Jackson remembers one particular Sunday that a feature story ran in a local newspaper about the hotel and there were lots of extra guests to feed.
“We had to send our son to town to get more chicken that day, but we got everyone fed,” she remembers.
There were times through the years Mrs. Jackson remembers having to “ad lib” some of the fare.
One of those times was when she inadvertently forgot about her famous fudge pies that were in the oven when she went out to pick the fresh flowers that were always on the dinner tables.
Upon her return to the kitchen, Jackson had to do some quick thinking to resurrect the desserts somehow.
She saved the dessert by quickly creating chocolate pastry shells from the foiled pies and added dollops of ice cream on each one.
The guests loved the dessert anyway, and when one satisfied customer told Jackson they’d never had anything like that before, she simply said, “I never have either!”
Jackson has plenty of great memories about The Clairmont, which she worked at until retiring in 1972.
Since then, the main structure has burned, and there’s little left of The Clairmont’s old days, except for some of the walking trails still visible and the various springs that made the site a popular resort.
The hotel’s pavilion was a place where there were once dances and concerts, and there was an outdoor swimming area and ponds for relaxing around, too.
Jackson still drives to Talladega from her home on the Clairmont grounds to attend church at First United Methodist, where she’s been a member since 1950.
Looking back at some of the favored dishes she’s provided for the Tasters’ Luncheon through the years, Jackson has provided a few of her recipes for everyone to enjoy.
Whether or not they will grace the tables at the luncheon this year is up in the air. Like she said, Jackson isn’t quite sure yet what she’s going to deliver.
She just knows that she will, for her 45th year running, have her dishes on the tables.
Some of favorites through the years:
Poulet aux Fromages
Eight ounces wide egg noodles, uncooked
Mushroom sauce (see recipe below)
Three cups diced chicken
One and a half cups cream style cottage cheese
Two cups American cheese, grated
One half cup Parmesan cheese
Prepare noodles according to directions. In a 9 by 13 inch greased casserole dish, alternate layers of noodles, mushroom sauce, chicken and the cheeses. Bake for 45 minutes in a 350 degree oven.
One half cup onion, shopped
One half cup green pepper, chopped
Three tablespoons margarine
One can cream of chicken soup
One third cup milk
One six ounce can of sliced mushrooms
One fourth cup diced pimento
One half tablespoon basil
Saute onion and peppers in margarine. Then, blend in the remaining ingredients and use as directed above. This dish serves from eight to 10 people.
One and a fourth cups flour
One teaspoon baking powder
One half teaspoon salt
Three fourths cup sugar
One fourth cup shortening
One half cup milk
One egg, unbeaten
One teaspoon vanilla
One nine inch unbaked pie crust
Mix dry ingredients. Cream shortening. Add egg and dry ingredients to the shortening.
Slowly add the milk and vanilla.
Pour into the pie crust.
Slowly pour on warm topping (Recipe below). Sprinkle nuts on top and bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes. Serve warm with ice cream or whipped cream.
One fourth cup margarine
One half cup brown sugar, packed
Two tablespoons corn syrup
Bring all ingredients to a boil in a small saucepan, stirring constantly. Add three tablespoons water and boil for one to two minutes. Add one half teaspoon vanilla. Cool to lukewarm. Serves eight.
One half cup margarine
One cup sugar
One cup water
One cup raisins
One tablespoon salt
One teaspoon allspice
One teaspoon cinnamon
Two cups flour
One teaspoon soda
One half cup nuts, optional
In saucepan, combine the first seven ingredients. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, then simmer for five minutes without stirring and cool.
Sift flour with soda. Slowly add cooled mixture, mixing well. Add nuts. Pour into a greased and floured nine by 12 inch or 10 by 10 inch pan. Bake at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes or until done. Spread topping over cake and broil until bubbly on top. Serve cake warm with ice cream on top.
One third cup margarine
Three tablespoons Pet milk
The thirds cup brown sugar, packed
One half cup chopped coconut.
Mix and pour topping on cooked cake. Broil briefly. Serves 10 to 12 people.