Denise DeFelice didn't cook for much of her life, but once she started, she knew exactly what she had to do.
After buying a house in Egg Harbor Township, DeFelice, 62, turned to old family recipes for help preparing meals for her son and her husband.
"I really started to get more cooking done, knowing that (we) really should be eating at home - I did quite a lot of cooking. I dredged up my mother's recipes book."
The book was filled with recipes handed down from DeFelice's grandmother on her father's side. The grandmother, Mary DeFelice, had been born in the United States in 1878. Her family came from the Abbruzzi region of central Italy. The grandmother took these recipes and gave them her own touch, DeFelice said.
"She had more of an American-Italian, as opposed to Italian-American twist to her cooking," DeFelice said. "Abruzzi isn't a seaport, so a lot of the cooking was meat and chicken. Almost like American meat and potatoes meals."
DeFelice, who works as a library assistant at the Atlantic County Library branch in Pleasantville, enjoyed those meals when growing up in Fort Lee, Bergen County. She also enjoyed the Italian seafood dishes her mother had learned from her mother, Rose Lomangino, who was from the seaport of Bari, Italy.
"That grandmother had a lot of seafood recipes - eels, shrimp and flounder. Everything is prepared very light. I do a lot of the fish recipes from that grandmother," DeFelice said.
The young DeFelice didn't have time to learn how to cook. When she was 23, she was working as a researcher on "The Mike Douglas Show" in Philadelphia - reading books written by guests, watching their TV programs and movies and preparing questions Douglas could ask.
One day, the show's bandleader fell ill. A musician named Howard Reynolds was brought in to temporarily take his place.
"He was 61. I was 23, but I felt a real connection for him - we hit it off," she said. "He was 38 years my senior, but we were like joined at the hip. We were very close."
Reynolds had his own orchestra, and had worked with performers such as Bobby Darrin, Bobby Vinton, the Mills Brothers, Frankie Lane and Connie Francis. DeFelice soon found herself caught up in the lifestyle of music and live gigs.
It was an exciting life, but one that didn't really lend itself to making sure a hot meal hit the dining room table every evening.
"I didn't do a whole lot of cooking. The lifestyle is so draining. Musicians never have a solid schedule," she said.
The relationship eventually foundered. She met Bud Black and married.The couple had a son, Wes, and eventually divorced.
She and Reynolds reconnected and married.
DeFelice moved to Atlantic County in 1977, but for the next 27 years she split her time between working here and in northern New Jersey.
During this time, she also worked to improve her cooking skills. Learning recipes and preparing meals for her husband and son.
"From 1977 to about 2004, I worked Thursdays through Sundays doing music in Atlantic City with Howard Reynolds and then three days per week in Fort Lee - it was kind of a hectic lifestyle, but I managed it," she said.
"Now that everyone was waiting for me, I started to hone in on those old recipes I had and they were phenomenal. I started to cook more since I had people to cook for," she said.
It's a lifestyle she's still pursuing. When her husband died, he passed on his baton - and music arrangements - to her. She's now the leader of the Black Magic Swing Band which plays events and fundraisers throughout New Jersey
She fits this in with her work at the library. That doesn't leave a lot of time for cooking, but now she has a system in place to assure she eats as many home-cooked meals as possible.
"Sunday is my cooking day. I'll try to cook for five or six days, but sometimes it will only last three days because these recipes taste so good," she said.
DeFelice also is always willing to cook for events and parties. That's because she has her grandmother's recipe for a soup she calls strings, but other people know as Italian Wedding Soup or Straggiatelle.
"When you needed to feed many, many people - this is the soup to prepare," she said. DeFelice said she likes to make her soup as hearty as possible, adding pastini and lots of chopped carrots to the mix.
"Homemade soups are filling, whatever you put in it - it is a filling mentality. It is an antidote to being hungry afterwards," she said.
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
Library seeking community cookbooks
The Atlantic County Library System is seeking donations of locally produced cookbooks. People with church, school, family, community group or civic association books are asked to drop a copy off at any Atlantic County library location or bookmobile. Library branches are located in Brigantine, Egg Harbor City, Egg Harbor Township, Galloway Township, Hammonton, Longport, Mays Landing, Pleasantville, Somers Point and Ventnor. For a schedule of bookmobile stops, call the library's Outreach Services Section at 609-625-2776, ext. 6338.
• 3 15-ounce cans Chicken broth
•1 pound fresh spinach
•1 pound chicken breasts cut up in salad size pieces
•Pepper, to taste
•Oregano, to taste
•1 cup Pastina, pre-cooked
•4 eggs, scrambled
Put chicken broth in a pot and bring to a boil. Add spinach, chicken, pepper, oregano and pastina. Boil until chicken is cooked. Use a spoon to drop egg into soup a little at a time, until all the eggs are used. Serve.