A meal worth marrying for

Joette Van Ness of the West Creek section of Eagleswood Township, shares her mother’s joy of baking. She still makes her mother’s holiday recipe for Okie’s Poppy Seed Bread.

People say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach.

Joette Dodds Van Ness knows it works the same way for women.

Van Ness, of the West Creek section of Eagleswood Township, has been married to her husband Art for more than 30 years now. It was on the couple's second date that Art Van Ness proposed. For the former Joette Dodds, relaxing after a great dinner prepared by Art, the answer was easy.

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"None of the guys I'd dated had cooked for me. All they wanted to do was go out and drink beer. This guy had made an amazing Chinese meal," Van Ness, now 58, recalls. "We were sitting on the sofa, watching the fire when he turned to me and asked, 'Will you marry me?' I said, 'Yes.'"

The couple were married a year later, on Dec. 21, 1980. Her parents weren't thrilled.

"It's unusual that something that happened so fast would work," Van Ness admits. "But it did."

The union produced a son, Maxwell, daughter, Rebecca and a granddaughter - not to mention many happy memories.

"We're now married 33 years. He's such a gentleman. He still opens the door for me. He pulls out the chair for me. It's great," she said.

Maybe it was love at first bite because food was a large part of both of Van Ness' parents' identities.

Her mother, Faye Grunner Dodds, came from an Orthodox Jewish/Polish background. Grow-ing up in West Orange, Van Ness remembers her mother enjoying baking and making her own noodles.

"When I was in school, I would come home there was always something in the oven for dessert - there was always something cooking," she said. "We didn't have store-bought bread all the way through college."

Van Ness' father, Jeff Dodds, came from Chester, S.C. He introduced his wife to okra and grits and other staples of southern cuisine.

"We had eclectic meals. It was a mix of Jewish and southern cuisines," she said.

The family always had a garden, and her dad made his own sauerkraut and cured his own hams. Van Ness was her dad's companion in the kitchen. She recalls one time the pair saw "Julia Child or someone" making acorn bread on TV.

Van Ness and her dad thought it looked good, so they went out to the woods and gathered enough acorns to make their own. It didn't work out as well as on TV.

"We wound up breaking two meat grinders because the acorns were so hard. By the time we'd baked it, it was the worst bread we'd ever had - it was so dry," she said.

Van Ness met her husband in 1979 on a blind date set up by a friend.

"I was working in Point Pleasant and going to graduate school. My friend said, 'I have a guy for you to meet.' I said, 'No thank you.'"

Van Ness finally relented, and is now happy she did. The engagement meal was no happy fluke. Art Van Ness came into the marriage with a strong background in cooking, eventually making a career of it.

He had worked in the commissary while in the Navy, learning to cook there. After his service, he got a job working in the kitchen at Point Pleasant Hospital and then at the Lobster Shanty restaurant, also in Point Pleasant. He also worked as a caterer. He's now employed as Food Service Director for the Ocean County Jail.

"He likes to work in quantity, but he has always been able to adapt his meals down for the family," she said.

Van Ness worked for 12 years as administrator for Eagleswood Township. She left that job ("That was seven days a week, 24 hours a day") for a job with the Department of Labor. For the last 11 years she has been working as Senior Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor for the New Jersey State Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, helping the blind and visually impaired get back in the job market.

The job also requires a lot of hours, so Van Ness relies on her husband to help with meals during the week. Weekends for her are a time for cooking and baking - often with the help of 3-year-old granddaughter, Lizabeth Marie. She's the daughter of Max, 23, who owns Southern End Landscaping. Van Ness' daughter, Rebecca, 20, is a junior in college. Both children help in the kitchen, too.

"It's more fun being a grandmother. It's different - you're calmer," she said. "Some people chase kids out of the kitchen. They are afraid they are going to get burned, or cut with a knife. But when I'm in the kitchen, she runs in saying, 'Me do too.' I don't chase her out. She's right there, she's really acclimated to working with me."

And, watching a new generation find enjoyment in the kitchen, sometimes makes Van Ness reflect on her life and how it has turned out.

"I kind of take it for granted that I have this good relationship, this good life," she said. "But we work at it. A lot of people get married quickly, but we stayed together. We made it work."

Contact Steven V. Cronin:


Art's Chinese

Engagement Chicken

Chicken Marinate ingredients:

•1 large egg white

•1 tablespoon soy sauce (preferably the dark, thick type)

•2 tablespoons rice wine

•2 tablespoons potato starch

•1 tablespoon of sesame oil


Put 1 pound of chicken breast cut into bite-size pieces in a bowl or plastic ziplock bag and pour marinate over chicken for 2 hours. Place in refrigerator.

Vegetables ingredients:

•2 tablespoons minced garlic

•2 tablespoons minced scallions

•1 tablespoon fresh ginger root

•* 2 green peppers seeded - cut into small bite-size pieces ( you can use 1 red and 1 green for color)

•2 carrots peeled and cut into small circles - blanched for 5 minutes and placed in a bowl of ice water to stop cooking

•1 cup of water chestnuts cut in half slices and blanched for 1 minute, also put into the ice water

•1 14 ounce-can of baby corn, blanched for 1 minute, and ice bathed also

•1 cup of snow peas, blanched for 20 seconds and into the ice water

•1/2 pound of white mushrooms - not blanched

(* the peppers are not blanched and the other blanched vegetables should be in separate small bowls to be added one at a time in wok)

Sauce ingredients:

•1/2 cup of chicken stock

•2 tablespoons soy sauce, regular (not thick)

•2 tablespoons rice wine

•1 tablespoon potato starch

•3 teaspoons of granulated sugar

•2 teaspoons sesame oil

•1 1/2 teaspoons salt, optional


Mix sauce ingredients together with a whisk and set aside to be added to coked chicken and vegetables.

Pour 1/2 cup of peanut oil in a wok, heat until oil is warm to 115 to 120 degrees but not smoking. Drain the chicken of the marinate and discard the liquid. Working in small batches so as not to cool down the oil, cook the chicken until no longer pink and raw. Approximately 10 minutes.

Remove all oil but 2 tablespoons, add garlic, scallions, and ginger root and stir fry for 15 seconds and add the remaining vegetables starting with the green peppers and then each as blanched, ending with the mushrooms. This takes only a minute to mix and blend the vegetables to warm them up over medium heat.

Pour the sauce over the heated vegetables and stir as it thickens in the wok. Serve over rice or thin Chinese noodles.

Okie's Poppy Seed Bread

(My Mom's Holiday Recipe renamed for our dear friend Robert Whitcraft who loves it as much as she did.)

Yeast Dough

•1/2 cup of unsalted butter

•3/4 cup of water

•9 tablespoons granulated sugar

•1/4 ounce of rapid-rise yeast

•2 large eggs

•1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tablespoon of water

•5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

•1/2 teaspoon of salt


In a saucepan over moderate heat melt the butter, water and 2 tablespoons of sugar until the temp is 110 to 115 degrees. Pour the butter mix into a large bowl, metal or ceramic and pour the yeast particles over the liquid. Stir gently and within 5 minutes the yeast will start to bubble up in the bowl.

Add to the bowl 2 large eggs whisked with 7 tablespoons of sugar, salt, 1 1/2 cups of flour. Stir into the bowl another 3 1/2- cups of flour. With a gentle touch knead the dough mix with of the remaining 1/2 cup of flour on your counter top or dough board. Knead for 5 minutes or less as soon as the dough becomes smooth stop and let it rest. Using the bowl you started with, wipe it out and spray it or pour oil into it. Place dough ball to rise, covered for 2 to 2 1/2 hours until nearly double in size. I place mine on the stove where the pilot light keeps the top of the stove warm, but not too hot.

When doubled, punch down the dough ball. Divide it into 3 equal portions and start to roll it out on waxed paper with a little flour to keep it from sticking. Each yeast bread will be 13 by 15 inches, approximately rectangular shape. Spread the poppy seed filling within 1/2 inch of the edges and start to roll in jelly roll fashion. The filling doesn't have to be too thick - a little poppy seed goes a long way. Carefully place 2 loaves on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper with the seams on the bottom and the ends rolled under to make a nice round finished edge. Brush the 1 egg and 1 tablespoon of water beaten over the tops of the bread. The bread should rest and rise for another hour, and re-brush the eggs over the tops. Bake 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes until golden brown. Cool before cutting. Can be frozen and thawed to be eaten later.

Filling ingredients:

•2 cups of poppy seeds

•1 cup of whole milk

•1/2 cup of golden blossom honey

•1/4 cup granulated sugar

•2 medium eggs


Combine the poppy seeds milk, honey and sugar in a large sauce pan over medium heat and cook, stirring often so as not to scorch the poppy seeds. Filling will thicken and poppy seeds will be a little tender. Cool the mixture and then slowly beat in the medium eggs (large eggs may make the mix too soupy). If it thins out, cook a little longer, until it thickens again.

Of course, you can buy Solo Poppy seed filling and add 3 tablespoons of honey to flavor and thin out the store-bought filling. For this recipe you can use two cans of filling or 24 ounces.

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