TORRINGTON – Eastern Wyoming College President Lesley Travers credits her mother and grandmother for her love of cooking.
“My mom and my grandmother were both fabulous cooks,” Traver said. “We were encouraged to try everything – just one bite. It wasn’t an ‘eat your peas or you can’t leave the table’ sort of thing.
“My mom would make weird things and describe them almost as an adventure,” she recalled. “She would make, you know, lobster and we’d hear about the story, where you get lobster. She’d really taught us a lot.”
Those early days in the kitchen helped shape Travers’ later life – making her arguably one of the best cooks in eastern Wyoming. It was all about family and traditions around the holiday table – carrying on the existing ones and establishing new ones.
“I love the idea of traditions,” Travers said. “I had my own family and I just wanted to start my own. I probably cook the most wicked turkey dinner you’d ever want to eat.
“You just don’t get dry turkey at my house. The secret is just don’t overcook it.”
Preparing holiday dinners – particularly Thanksgiving – can be a stressful time. But Travers believes it doesn’t have to be.
When her children were growing up, Travers would cook a turkey just about every month. Even with that experience, she said, she plans out her menu in advance. Lists of what she’s fixing, when she needs to start what, and prepping in advance goes a long way toward making the process seamless, she said.
“Even for me, I write down the recipe,” Travers said. “I’ll have them in a stack by what I need to do first.
“I kind of have it down to a fine art, but I have these recipes all ready. I’ll have what I need to get done in the morning, the night before – at 1, I’ve got to start this. I kind of have a map. It just helps, I think.”
Travers’ preparations begin the night before, she said. She’ll chop vegetables, start salads, make the dough for dinner rolls so it can rise overnight – anything and everything she can do early so it’s just a matter of assembling the ingredients.
The traditional Travers Thanksgiving includes a 22-pound turkey, to ensure everyone gets their fill. She has the timing down so she knows when it has to be in the oven to be ready for the holiday dinner at noon, she said.
“Timing is huge,” Travers said. “You’ve seen it – you go to someone’s house for dinner and they’ll say the rolls aren’t done, or everything’s ready, but the turkey still needs some time.
“I think that’s kind of it, really. Timing – particularly for holiday meals – that’s literally why I have my list and go down it.”
Travers also recommends people know their spices – how they’ll interact and how much of something to use. Also, one of the most common mistakes cooks make is too much salt. A light hand with that particular seasoning goes a long way, she said.
“You can always add salt,” Travers said. “I’d rather have people ask for the saltshaker.
“And not knowing your spices – people don’t understand those kinds of things,” she said. “People think parsley is great – the recipe calls for two tablespoons so I’ll put in six.”
Advance planning also helps make sure nothing is missed. Travers tells the story of one Christmas dinner where her family was almost in revolt, because she forgot one key menu item.
Prime rib, baked potatoes and shrimp cocktails – with her homemade cocktail sauce – are tradition Christmas fare for the Travers family. But, one year, she forgot the shrimp cocktail.
The grumbling started up and down the 12-foot dining table as soon as the omission was noticed.
“That year, the kids said, ‘Mom, where’s the shrimp cocktail?’” Travers recalled. “I said I guess I forgot.
“So, down the table, they’re mumbling – ‘She forgot the shrimp cocktail.’ ‘Are you kidding me?’ I thought they were all going to get up and leave. They all say that was their worst Christmas.’”
The important thing to remember is holidays – even Thanksgiving – are about more than the food, Travers said. They’re about the people.
“It’s the camaraderie,” she said. “It’s the love.
“We get together a lot over food,” Travers said. “We’ll just sit around and chat and just have a good time.”