Seasonal Pantry: How to make Evelyn Cheatham's potato tart
In the winter of 1996, I was working on my ninth book, “California Home Cooking.” There was a recipe I wanted to include, one served at the little café on Mendocino Avenue near College called Tweet’s, which had closed. Finding it became my mission for a time.
I had become friends with the owner — Evelyn Cheatham, who passed away in Santa Rosa late last week — during the café’s tenure but had lost touch. After a few phones calls, I had a number for an ashram/retreat center in upstate New York where, I was told, I would find her. I called and after being transferred a number of times, I heard her familiar voice and laugh.
“I can’t believe you found me!” she exclaimed.
She had gone there for a year of service, which involved feeding, if memory serves me right, 10,000 people three meals a day. The place was so big that it had three professional kitchens and bus service that connected them. She ended up staying for three years.
She talked me through the recipe, the book was published, and before long, Evelyn returned to Sonoma County.
Not long after her return, she launched, by request, a culinary training program at the county juvenile probation camp adjacent to Shone Farm. I visited several times, watching her work her unique brand of teaching with the young men in the camp’s program. I could see them blossom under her firm but loving guidance. Several said they thought they’d like a career in cooking or baking. I wrote a newspaper story about the program and had Evelyn and several of her students on my radio show, Mouthful (KRCB FM, 6 to 7 p.m. Sundays).
Not long after her return to the county, she began her tradition of preparing Christmas dinner for anyone who requested it. Friends donated all the ingredients and their time, with kids still in elementary school joining retirees and every age in between for three days of cooking.
Come Christmas morning, people arrived with plates of cookies. There were gifts, too, all beautifully wrapped. Cars were loaded, directions were given, and by 1 p.m. or so in the afternoon, every last dinner — more than 500, eventually — had been delivered. Portions were generous and could feed a family for a day or two, not just one meal. Single people received enough to invite a neighbor or two.
In a story that illustrates the remarkable spirit of this extraordinary woman perfectly, she was walking to her car one Christmas afternoon, holding a single meal, for herself. She was, of course, exhausted, but everyone had been fed and the kitchen had been cleaned. As she walked to her car, a man came running up to see if he was too late. He’d gotten some details wrong and thought he needed to pick up his own meal, so never signed up for delivery. She handed him hers and, I feel certain, gave him a big hug that warmed him for the rest of the day.
I think of Tweet’s often and laugh about how she probably couldn’t use the name — her childhood nickname — now, as people would assume it had something to do with Twitter. Of course, knowing Evelyn as I did, she may have done it anyway and just laughed about it.