Valerie Althoff used to go to dinner parties, cooking and sharing new recipes on a regular basis. Now life is different.
She's married with a full-time job and 16-month-old son. Cooking seems like a luxury now. But it's still part of her life, something that brings her family together during busy times.
Valerie and her husband, Jeff, and son, Blake, live on Lady's Island. Mom is the head chef. During the week, she comes home at 5 p.m. from working in development and marketing at Doctors Express urgent care clinic in Beaufort. She has an hour to prepare the night's meal before Jeff comes home with Blake from day care. If she's in the mood for something fancy, it might be a pork tenderloin stuffed with a sun-dried tomato pesto. If not, bow-tie pasta in a sausage cream sauce is a possibility.
"It can be hard, but I'd much rather cook," she said. "That way I feel like I have better control of how healthy the meal is."
Valerie grew up in West Virginia, eating her mother's good country cooking. She'd join her mother and grandmother to bake bread and can vegetables, the garlic-y smell of ramps (wild leeks) still memorable to her.
Familiar with the area from childhood vacations, she lived on and off Hilton Head Island for several years after graduating college, working mostly in restaurants. She moved to Richmond, Va., where she eventually formed a supper club with several co-workers. They'd gather with homemade recipes they'd tried from friends, family or the latest issue of Southern Living.
"It became fun to get together and share new recipes," she said. "We'd try just about anything."
She eventually opened a cafe near the Virginia Commonwealth University campus, a dream of hers and Jeff's. They brewed coffee and made sandwiches and wraps. But after three years, the lease was up and the stress of owning a place was too much. She moved on. She'd later use some of that expertise to help compile a cookbook for a church fundraiser.
After having Blake, Valerie moved back to Beaufort to be closer to her parents (Dad is Port Royal town councilman Joe Lee). Her parents and in-laws sometimes help out with meals. Her father-in-law makes a spaghetti sauce so good they bag it and store it for days. Her recipes for meatloaf and banana cake came from Jeff's mother. Jeff's favorite? Valerie's brownies, which he works off with a good jog.
No matter the night's menu, the most important thing about the meal is that they eat together. The three sit around the dinner table, Jeff and Valerie with their home-cooked meal and Blake with his banana and other baby-appropriate foods.
Life has changed, but like canning with her mother or trying out recipes for friends, her thoughts behind food have remained the same.
"It's a reason to get people together," she said.
1 box Lemon Supreme cake mix
1 8-ounce container whipped topping
1/2 cup powdered sugar
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Beat the first three ingredients with an electric mixer. Drop teaspoons of the dough in powdered sugar and roll in a ball. The dough will be slightly sticky.
Line cookie sheets with parchment paper and drop dough onto parchment. Bake for 9 minutes.
Easy German Chocolate Cake
1 cup chopped pecans
1 cup shredded coconut
1 (18.5-ounce) package German Chocolate Cake mix
1 stick butter or margarine
1 (8-ounce) block cream cheese, cut into cubes
1 (16-ounce) package confectioner's sugar
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix pecans and coconut and place on bottom of a 9-by-13-inch pan. Prepare cake mix and spoon over the pecan mixture. In a saucepan, heat butter and cream cheese together and mix well. Add sugar and remove from heat. Stir until smooth. Spoon over top of cake mix. Bake for 35 minutes. Cut when cold and serve.