By APRIL DIODATO
OBSERVER Lifestyles Editor
Shirley Erbsmehl is a woman of her word.
Shirley Erbsmehl in her kitchen, cooking up a storm.
When she decided that she wanted to cook every last recipe in the Fredonia First United Methodist Church's cookbook, there would be no stopping her. The cookbook, created for the church's bicentennial, contains 443 recipes from church and community members, as well as local restaurants. Erbsmehl even insists on remaking the recipes she submitted herself.
"It's a passion at this point," she said. "I've started and there's no going back."
The inspiration for Erbsmehl's mission came from the film "Julie & Julia," wherein blogger Julie Powell vows to cook her way through all the recipes in Julia Child's first book within a year. Erbsmehl decided that if Julie could, so could she; her deadline is Oct. 22.
"I challenged myself and anyone else in the congregation to join me in my year's pursuit," she explained. "To date, I don't know of anyone accepting my challenge, but I still keep turning out one recipe after another."
On Tuesday, Erbsmehl was asked about her progress.
Bright-eyed and spirited as always, swathed in separates of peach and pink, Erbsmehl replied, "Fancy you should ask. I'm at 267 as of last night (Monday). I can hardly stop to do anything else!"
On Wednesday, Erbsmehl arrived at the OBSERVER office with a devil's food cake and homemade frosting.
"From the cookbook," she said gleefully, now with 275 recipes successfully completed.
In her 70s, Erbsmehl has more vigor than many half her age. She has possessed this unstoppable energy for as long as her daughter can remember.
"Oh, my word," Barb Faxlanger said. "When I was little, she would sew complete wardrobes for me and her. And I remember she would get up before school because she taught school, too (Faxlanger teaches in Forestville) and she would get up at 4 and she would have a dress cut out and put it together that morning."
Faxlanger once witnessed her mother's energy kicked into overdrive an experience that proved unforgettable.
"There was one summer where she was really, really sick with poison ivy," she recalled. "The doctor put her on huge doses of prednisone. I don't know if you've ever experienced prednisone but it increases your energy to a hyperactive state."
Her daughter had to pause to chuckle before she could continue.
"I went over one morning in the summer, just relaxing I'm more laidback and said, 'What have you done today?'"
Her mother replied, "Well, I was up at 4, I finished a dress, and I stained a piece of furniture in the basement, and I've got something I'm making because we've got company coming tonight."
This liveliness will serve Erbsmehl well as she tries to accomplish her task in time (in addition to her many other pursuits, including quilting with the Westfield Quilt Guild, her work with the Fredonia College Foundation and WCA Home Board, and gardening). She now has to make three or four per day, kicking it "into high gear."
"Initially she thought (her deadline) was the end of November," her daughter said. "And then just recently, she went back looking through the cookbook, and she's always dated the recipes as she's made them. In a lot of her cookbooks, she'll write down who she's made them for, too, so if someone comes for dinner, they won't have the same thing again. As she was reading, she saw that her first recipe was dated Oct. 22."
Erbsmehl has now become a bonafide cooking machine, preparing dishes for anyone she finds willing to indulge (an effortless quest). The church organist and choir director were just gifted a bowl of Mother McDonald's Potato Soup. Her daughter's kitchen is littered with now-empty dishes that need to be returned. Faxlanger moved next door to her parents in order to help them out, but instead finds notes on her front door such as, "Dinner is in your refrigerator."
"I have always loved cooking and baking and I take great satisfaction in serving good food," Erbsmehl said proudly. "My husband delights in trying new foods and so he has wholeheartedly supported my efforts."
Preparing some of the recipes isn't as simple as a quick stop to the grocery store down the street. Of course, the unstoppable chef will not be daunted.
"I have enjoyed making dishes with ingredients that I have never worked with before but at times it has been a challenge to find them locally," Erbsmehl said. "I have made a number of trips to Wegmans in Hamburg to find the exact item called for in the recipe."
Ever diplomatic, Erbsmehl insists that she can't easily name which recipes she has found to be stand-outs among the rest - "Each dish is unique," she said - and gives her compliments to all of the good cooks within the church. The dishes have been a hit with the friends, family and neighbors she has served.
"Every time I make a recipe from the cookbook and all I can cook are recipes from the cookbook in order to finish them all in time my guests want a copy of it."
For those who would like a copy of the cookbook ("There may be a few left," according to Erbsmehl) call the church office at 679-1513.
Does her daughter think she will meet her goal in less than two months' time?
"I have no doubt," Faxlanger said. "I'm worried about what's going to happen when she's finished - I'm going to have to start cooking again."
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