60 years of ‘doing it right’
Posted: November 21, 2012
The Winchester Star
Winchester — Half measures have never been enough for Joe Alger.
When Alger, 67, of Frederick County talks about his long career as a cook — it’s been 60 years since his mother taught him to make his first dish — there are two sides to his story.
First there is his career. Alger worked 21 years as a cook in the U.S. Air Force, most of that time as a general’s aide, whose duties included being personal chef to a general’s family. In his case, he worked for four different generals.
Then there is the other side — the part of Alger that never wants to stop learning. It is that part that led him to work unpaid in a bakery and butcher shop when he was starting his military career and to visit the kitchens of local restaurants in every country he was stationed in to learn more about his craft.
“I wanted to learn all about the field I was going to be in. If I was going to do it, I wanted to do it right,” said Alger.
Alger’s career included serving in Germany (three times), Langley, Vietnam, South Dakota, Ohio, Italy, Turkey, Washington, D.C., and Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, where he retired in 1987 as a master sergeant.
Whether it was learning the best way to store tomatoes in Italy — not in a refrigerator — or how to make liver not only palatable but tasty from his German wife — soak it in milk or buttermilk for an hour before cooking — every stage in his life and career left Alger a better cook.
But even after six decades, Alger doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. He will share his knowledge with anyone who asks and offers cooking demonstrations at his church, Relief United Methodist Church, that are open to the public.
But Alger is still growing, experimenting and learning with every new combination, every new technique tried, and that is what continues to make cooking enjoyable and exciting for him.
“If a recipe sounds good, I will try it, even if it is only once,” he said. “I just get tired of the same thing all the time.”
It is amazing the skills and tools Alger has collected through the years and is willing to share with people, said the Rev. Aaron Fitch, pastor of Relief UMC. He was the one who suggested Alger offer the cooking lessons, which would not only be entertaining for members but a nontraditional way to introduce others to the church.
Since summer 2011, Alger has held five cooking demonstrations, and the breadth of his knowledge and his international experience is always evident, Fitch said.
“I think it helps people experience different types of cooking,” said Fitch of Stephens City. He will tell stories of when he lived in different countries, and “it broadens people’s thinking.”
Alger was raised on and first learned to cook traditional southern food — fried chicken, dressing, cake, homemade applesauce, deviled eggs and fruit cobblers. Learning to cook from his mother was a rite of passage in the Alger family, who live in Frederick County. Alger had five brothers and seven sisters, and all of them learned their way around a kitchen, he said.
The idea was that even if he got married and his wife cooked, if she got sick, the family “wouldn’t go hungry.”
“I always thought that was a good lesson,” he said.
Alger’s first cooking lessons were conducted on a wood cook stove, a tool he still loves today. He has an old-fashioned stove in his workshop that is more than 100 years old, and when it gets cold, he likes to light it and put on a pot of beans while he is working.
In 1966, knowing he would be drafted, Alger joined the Air Force. His first assignment after basic training and quartermaster school was in the kitchen at Hahn Air Force Base in Germany. It was in Germany that he met his wife, Uta, whom he married in 1967. She went with him everywhere he was stationed except for one year in Vietnam.
It was also in Germany that Alger started a pattern of learning about local cooking techniques. On his days off, he worked unpaid in the base bakery and butcher shop, both staffed by German civilians, simply to learn more.
A few years later, in Bien Hoa, Vietnam, Alger learned about stir fry and cooking different specialty dishes. One tip he picked up with stir fry is to cook each vegetable separately and push it to the side, only mixing them at the end.
“Depending on what crunch level you would like to have, you can’t just throw them all in together,” he said.
While stationed in South Dakota, Alger worked part time in a steak restaurant owned by an Italian family, which made him want to learn more about their cuisine. The restaurant owner’s wife made pasta fresh daily, and later when he was stationed in Rome, the first thing he did was buy a hand-cranked pasta maker.
Also while in South Dakota, Alger was called to interview for a position as a general’s aide in Ohio. Two days after the interview, he and his wife packed up and moved. The position meant that anywhere the general was serving, he had the option to go with him.
A year after getting the job, the Algers were stationed in Rome, which he refers to as a “wonderful two years of vacation.” Several restaurant owners let Alger behind the scenes, where he learned their “different techniques for using marinara sauce and their wonderful use of garlic and the art of cannoli.”
He learned to make lasagna with “REAL cheese” — not cottage cheese or ricotta but two kinds of parmesan and provolone.
Cooking with herbs was another big lesson. So many people think it is difficult, but it really boils down to not knowing what to do with them, he said.
One use for basil is to sprinkle it and salt and pepper on slices of tomatoes and bake them for 20 minutes at 350 degrees. Put them on a rack in a sheet pan so they are not lying in their own juices. The slices can be eaten as they are, on a slice of crusty bread or added to any dish that calls for tomatoes.
Tomatoes are important in the Italian culture. Alger learned to never refrigerate them as it robs them of their flavor. Plum tomatoes are the best buy in winter both with price and flavor, he said.
Because of the fresh market stalls that people visited daily in Italy, the Algers stopped freezing their meat whenever possible. It is better to buy it the same day it will be cooked for maximum freshness, he advises.
The second and third times in Germany, Alger learned less from restaurants and more from his wife and her family. He always hated liver growing up, but after he got married, his wife changed his opinion.
She soaks liver in milk or buttermilk for an hour before cooking it, which “takes away that certain taste people can’t stand,” and then flours it, browns it and “cooks it with lots of onions.”
In Turkey, Alger set out to learn to make phyllo dough, which is the basis of many pastries, including baklava. He made it once and realized it was too labor intensive when there are plenty of quality alternatives with pre-made dough.
One thing he did take away from Turkey was using a manual Turkish coffee grinder to grind his herbs, because “they are so much more pungent when they are not pre-ground.”
After he retired, Alger and his wife bought Green Palm in Winchester, which became Alger’s Green Palm, and ran it for six years. They sold the restaurant when his doctor told him to slow down because of health reasons.
Alger became a dietician at Evergreen Nursing Home in Winchester for nine years, where he worked until he fully retired in 2002.
Today, he devotes his time to spending time with his family, working in the couple’s ever-expanding garden and volunteering.
There is always time to get in the kitchen though, he said. Especially with the abundance of fruits and vegetables he and his wife have been growing, he is still coming up with new ways to please people’s palates and put smiles on their faces.
“I don’t think you can have too much knowledge. If you stop learning, you stop living,” he said.
Alger’s next cooking demonstration is at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 20 at Relief United Methodist Church. Admission is by donation. For reservations, call 540-667-8963.
— Contact Laura McFarland at email@example.com