my tribute to a wonderful woman who changed my life and continues to affect it
I’ve written about a few of the cooks who influenced me, from my grandmothers to friends and family members to Patricia Wells to Suzanne Goin …. Today I’d like to tell you about the cook and her book who influenced me the most — in cooking, certainly, but also in life.
One of my closest friends growing up was Marty Roos. We spent tons of time together; consequently, I was at his house a lot. It was a warm and fun place to be. I loved his two older sisters, Dorothy and Stephanie (who could make me laugh like no other) as well as his parents. Mr. Roos, Stephen, was one of the kindest people I’ve ever met and had a dry sharp wit that could knock you flat. Mrs. Roos, Fern, was a caterer so she was usually in the kitchen cooking for her family and/or cooking for one of her many clients/parties.
Fern Roos started her catering business in 1973 with her best friend, Renee Bennett. In the years leading up to 1973, Fern and Renee made sandwiches and food for their temple as well as their many friends. Renee’s father, Pop, suggested they start a catering business… and so they did. They called their company fernee’s and turned it into one of the most successful catering businesses in our area of Southeast Texas which is called The Golden Triangle, formed by the towns of Port Arthur, Beaumont and Orange. For well over 25 years, fernee’s was the go-to for gatherings small and large, sometimes very large, in our part of Texas.
I doubt Mrs. Roos thinks of herself as an early progressive feminist. Yet back in the 70s, when women were fighting for equality, for good jobs and for the rights men had, Fern and Renee started their own business without anyone’s approval. Against the typical odds that kill a majority of restaurants and catering companies, they created a business that thrived for almost 30 years. They were so successful that later in their career they would be asked to speak to college students on how to start and run a successful business.
Like many successful businesses, the friends divided the labor. Fern ran the kitchen and Renee ran the business side. Mrs. Roos, now 80 and as vibrant and energetic as always, recently told me, “When you cook something and you know you’ve made something that is really good, it’s so gratifying. So satisfying. It’s what I needed to be doing. It was the most rewarding thing I could ever have done. I don’t cook much for myself but I love to cook for other people. I can be real down and when I start cooking or baking I start to feel much better. We would cook for 500 people at times. At first I got scared or nervous. But that went away and Renee and I had such a good relationship, we just had fun. Renee was the perfectionist – she would actually measure the brownies when we cut them. She could make a table look like something out of a magazine.” Of Renee, who recently passed, Mrs. Roos said, with her wonderful laugh, “Renee looks down at me from heaven horrified at how I cut my brownies.”
I remember them working so hard! “Sometimes we’d have 20 parties a month,” Mrs. Roos said. “This was hard work. We’d come in and sleep for a couple of hours and start over… you have to be so organized. I remember once Lily Wright, our dear friend who helped with the cooking and everything, fried 1500 pieces of fried chicken for a party. The house smelled like chicken for a month.”
And now that it’s over? “I don’t miss the work.. we worked very hard. I don’t miss the cooking; I miss the people. Certainly the people we cooked for; we made a lot of wonderful friends. But I miss our staff. Our staff was so incredible.”
On her staff she has wonderful words: “Pay your staff well, even the dishwashers. If you pay people well, respect them, talk to them, they will know you love them and work hard for you.”
It’s that last statement that has the most meaning for me. I certainly loved watching Mrs. Roos cook… and LOVED eating her wonderful food… oh my. But more than anyone I’ve ever met, I learned from Mrs. Roos how to treat people. I’ve never met anyone who treated the people around them better than Mrs. Roos. She taught me the importance and benefit of being generous, kind and decent. I still fail daily at each but her approach to life and people taught me so much. In her kind, lovely and optimistic way, Mrs. Roos had an enormous effect on me, as well as all the people around her.
As for the food? It truly was wonderful. Fern and Renee eventually published a cookbook, days with fernee’s, that was wildly popular in our area. I cherish my copy. The last copies were destroyed when the Roos family home was ruined by hurricane Harvey. As such, Mrs. Roos has given me permission to post a few of the recipes for which fernee’s was best known, and a couple of others I love that mean the world to me. (Below I’ll give a brief description of each with a link to the recipe. )
In the meantime, does Mrs. Roos still cook? Not nearly as much. And like many chefs, her cooking today is often more simple than it used to be. “I love to make a good piece of salmon and some vegetables for dinner. It’s very satisfying,” she told me. But when her grandkids ask, as they often do, you can find her frying up Lily Wright’s chicken, making burritos, or any of the fernee’s favorites the grandkids also have now come to love.
Let me end this section with Mrs. Roos herself:
“I love the personal gratification cooking gives me. I know it well, I know how to do it … which doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes. I just love doing it. It’s like an artist standing back and looking at their picture. I don’t even mind the mess. It’s so satisfying.”
FERNEE’S CLASSICS (and a few personal memories)
Perhaps the two most popular fernee’s dishes are the beef tenderloin and the marinated shrimp. Both are simple to prepare, yet incredible. I love everything about the tenderloin, including that it uses a seasoning dear to the heart of anyone from southeast Texas, Tex-Joy Steak seasoning.
fernee’s Beef Tender recipe
As for the marinated shrimp? Mrs. Roos says, “There were people who wouldn’t buy the cookbook when it came out but would get caught in the stores trying to find the marinated shrimp recipe in the book and copy it before anyone saw them.” I can attest the marinated shrimp is that good. I make a few different versions of marinated shrimp, including one with a red sauce that is divine. Yet the last time I was at the Roos’ house, Mrs. Roos served me the shrimp and I remembered just how damn amazing it was. It’s once again my go to recipe.
fernee’s Marinated Shrimp recipe
That afternoon was wonderful by the way. In was the last time I saw Mr. Roos, who passed not too long after Harvey. Mr. and Mrs. Roos and I laughed and reminisced for a few hours, talking about all the wonderful times we had in their house and in our neighborhood. It was a very special time for me, one I’ll treasure for a lifetime. I’m thankful to continue to be in touch with Mrs. Roos, not just for this post but to occasionally connect and talk about life and, of course, cooking.
Mrs. Roos’ burritos remain legendary. She would make a huge batch of them, because they freeze beautifully, and anytime you were at the house you could ask for a burrito and she’d pop one in the microwave. I can’t begin to tell you how many of these I ate over the years. I loved them so much one Christmas she showed up at our house with a bag full for the freezer. They didn’t last much past New Years’.
Then there’s her Caramel Banana Pie. I love this so much I asked her to teach me how to make it when I was in the 10th grade. I’ve been making it ever since. It only has three ingredients (and a graham cracker crust) but my goodness, is it killer!
fernee’s Caramel-Banana Pie