Birney Imes: In Rita's kitchen

November 5, 2011 10:34:00 PM

Birney Imes - [email protected]


If Rita Jones ever invites you for dinner, don't even bother checking your calendar; just say yes. In a minute I'll tell you why. 


We got to know Rita back in the late 80s. Our children were the same ages, and we were in a group together fighting the good fight for public schools. 


In the mid-90s, divorced and with three boys, Rita started baking bread. She calls that period the worst time in her life. Her sister, Luberta Taylor, the much-vaunted Hunt middle-school math teacher, gave her a sourdough starter. 


The gesture proved to be a life raft of sorts for Rita. 


"Baking is an outlet that keeps my mind on positive," she says. "It disciplines you; you have to be conscious of what you're doing." 


Baking was also a way to supplement her income. She was an assistant teacher at Union Elementary. Soon she was producing 12 loaves a week and selling them for $2.50 each-- a hard-earned $30. 


As the youngest of four girls (among eight children), cooking was not something that came early or easily to Rita Phinisey. As a child, she had bathroom detail in her family's Sandfield home; the older girls did the cooking. 


A husband and children got Rita into the kitchen. Other than the occasional batch of croissants, she did little baking. 


When she began making bread, there were unanticipated consequences. Her customers would call her a few days later declaring it the best they ever tasted. 


Praise was what she needed at that time in her life. 


"It's my vanity, but it was nice," she laughs, years later. 


The kids grew up and left home -- one of them, Nicholas, is back for now as band director at West Lowndes High school -- and Rita changed jobs. She cut back on the baking. 


Every now and then she runs into someone who asks, "Do you still make that bread?" 


The praise has had the desired effect; Rita is back baking bread, though not at the same pace as before. The fruits of her kitchen labors now go to friends and family. 


On weekends when she's not working, she hosts dinners for specially selected couples, either fellow members of Missionary Union Baptist Church or family. These aren't casually thrown together affairs, and the guests must observe certain ground rules. 


"They can't have plans to go out afterward," she says. 


Rita doesn't eat with her guests; she cooks, serves and talks. She only invites two couples at a time, usually two months in advance. 


If diners are expecting soul food, they're in for a surprise. 


"Takes too long to prepare," says Rita, who tries to give her diners something they're not going to find in restaurants. 


A menu she's presently working up includes pickled shrimp cocktail, Japanese steak rolls, steamed seasoned rice and oven-roasted vegetables in season. She has her own version of shrimp and grits -- with a tomato sauce, and she serves a chicken breast stuffed with spinach and shrimp. 


Her salad dressing of the moment is a white vinaigrette She makes a vinaigrette, then, just before serving, adds heavy cream. 


The payoff for all the work and expense? Like most of us, Rita enjoys praise, but more importantly, it's the pleasure she gets being in the company of people she cares about and seeing them enjoy something she made especially for them. Do not mistake her generosity for good deeds, says Rita, exhibiting candor as rare as it is refreshing. 


"It's all about me," she says. "This is something I do for me." 


In 1998 I wrote a pre-Christmas column titled "10 gifts for under $10." One of those items was Rita Jones' homemade bread. 


Several weeks ago Rita was cleaning out a drawer and found the newspaper clipping. A week later a loaf of bread appeared at my office door accompanied by a note from Rita. The note said she had started baking bread again and wanted to offer a late thank you for the article. "It's not much, but it is baked with love," she wrote. 


I would beg to differ; the bread was delicious, alone with butter or slathered with peanut butter and honey. There is something intangible about food someone has made for you; it has an energy and flavor store-bought foods lack. 


We ate every crumb.

Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.