As a young adult, and at a time when others her age were more likely swooning over stars of the silver screen, Nancy Tregnan idolized a small-screen star who paved the way for those who came to be called celebrity chefs.
“My mother, grandmother and aunts were all very good cooks, so I hung around them and learned a lot from them,” Tregnan said. “And I remember even as a kid watching Julia Child on television.”
Child's show “The French Chef” was the pioneer of all TV cooking shows, and she was the trailblazer for folks such as Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Rachel Ray, Paula Deen and others who would later become world-renowned for their culinary skills.
Having attended many cooking shows and conventions over the years, often with her partner and fellow retired teacher Gail DeRitis, Tregnan was in her hometown of Philadelphia when she got to meet the TV mentor she admired the most.
“Gail and I used to go to cooking shows, wine conventions and those kinds of things, and one time they had an event in Philadelphia and Julia Child was there,” Tregnan said. “I was on cloud nine.”
Tregnan also gleaned cooking tips from students, their parents and fellow faculty members from the 40 years she spent as a teacher and later athletic director at Philadelphia High School for Girls.
Recently — and largely through frequent encouragement from Doris DeRitis, Gail's mother — Tregnan gathered together dozens of recipes spanning more than 50 years and several sources, and published a book called “Recipe Collection of a Wanna Be Chef.”
“I started collecting them when I was in my early 20s,” said Tregnan, a fulltime Brigantine resident since retiring in 2002. “Sometimes students would bring in a cake that their mother had baked, and I'd say something like 'Wow, that was really good. Would you share the recipe?' So some of them came from the kids, some of them my fellow teachers and my family.
“Even now, there might be stuff in the fridge where I'll wonder 'What can I do with this?'” she adds. “Then I'll put something together and Gail will say 'You ought to write that down and save it.' And it was Gail's mom who really pushed the idea of creating a cookbook.”
The project came together over more than a year's preparation, including guidance from the online source UBuildABook.com and Gail DeRitis' computer savvy. In the book's introduction, Tregnan states, in part:
“I have a vast collection of autographed cookbooks, menus, and pictures with well-known chefs, all of which are very special to me. However, my most prized possession is my collection of recipes from old newspaper clippings and those from friends, written on paper napkins, old notecards, or on the back of hall passes from my days of teaching … . This book project has been so much fun, but would never have been possible without Gail. I owe her a true debt of gratitude for her time, computer skills, patience and perseverance.”
Doris DeRitis died recently at the age of 94, but lived to see the book in publication. Edythe Tregnan, Nancy's mother, passed away before its publication, but some of the recipes in the book are hers — such as E.T.'s German potato salad — and the book will serve as a tribute of sorts to her.
Nancy Tregnan had 150 copies of the book first published, and gave away all of those to family and friends. She has since had 125 more copies published, many of which are available at Casale al Mare in Brigantine, a specialty store that hosts regular Mediterranean-inspired cooking demonstrations — for which Tregnan is a frequent contributor — and featuring an espresso bar and imported goods from Italy.
The second-publication books will be sold at Casale al Mare for a nominal fee, and all proceeds will be donated to Pals For Life, a nonprofit company based in suburban Philadelphia that provides therapy-pet visits to nursing homes, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, senior centers and mental health facilities (see PalsForLife.org).
“My mother was in a nursing home a couple of months before she died,” Tregnan said. “They used to bring in animals like bunny rabbits, dogs and cats, and she loved it. So when she died, I asked that in tribute, donations be made to Pals For Life. A lot of people did that, and every time I have a friend who loses a pet, I make a donation to Pals For Life.
“This might be a good way to help keep that going.”