After 35 years of serving Sea Cliff’s seniors, the head chefs of the Mutual Concerns Committee’s senior lunch program are handing in their aprons. Longtime residents Maryann Tuminello, 73, and Jen Woods, 79, have worked together in the kitchen of St. Luke’s Parish Hall, making mouthwatering meals to feed hungry guests at MCC’s biweekly luncheons and enjoyed every minute of doing so.
The senior lunch program was developed to give the community’s older adults a place to meet and socialize, according to Woods, who moved to the village in 1964. “I had four children magically in the next five years,” she recounted, “and I said, ‘I have got to do something with adults and not babies.’ That’s why I joined the committee.”
Tuminello joined the kitchen in 1982, after seeing an ad in the Pennysaver.
The three decades that followed were filled with more than just food. As the women talked about their time tinkering with recipes and feeding old friends, they also exchanged a few tidbits of gossip about past patrons, recalling who would sit with whom during lunchtime. They spoke with an easygoing tone, sometimes finishing each other’s sentences and chuckling at the memories.
They shared snippets of stories about “real interesting characters” who would come to lunch, and laughed heartily at the recollection of one senior who had his eyes on one of the chefs. “There was one point when I was the person who did the Bingo,” Woods said, “and this guy would always want to sit next to me so he could squeeze my knee.”
“He wouldn’t have gotten away with it nowadays,” Tuminello joked. “We had a lot of good times there. Lots of happy memories, laughs and a lot of good people.”
Though they oversaw the kitchen at St. Luke’s for 35 years, neither Tuminello nor Woods came from a culinary background. Before taking up the tongs for Mutual Concerns, Tuminello was a bookkeeper for a frozen-food company in Great Neck. Woods, who has a degree in biology, was an educator at the Cold Spring Harbor fish hatcheries.
A typical week consisted of nonstop meal planning and flipping through fliers to find the best sales at King Kullen and Waldbaum’s. They would bring the food hauls to their home kitchens and begin mise en place. When a Tuesday or Friday rolled around, they’d shuttle their wares to St. Luke’s to cook and prepare for lunch. In the early days they would even have to roll out the tables and chairs themselves.
A favorite dish among the generations of seniors they served was Woods’s meatloaf. “They’d always come by and say, ‘That was a good meal,’ or sometimes they wouldn’t,” she said. “At least they don’t say it’s bad!”
Tuminello said that while working in close proximity to the seniors for so long, she learned exactly what tickled their taste buds. “I just learned as I went along,” she said. “We found out their likes and dislikes, considered their age and their ailments.”
Their attention to detail was appreciated by lunch-goers. It’s something that has amazed Mutual Concerns Director Peggie Como ever since she started working with the chefs. “When they did their work, it was seamless,” she said. “They cook for over 60 people. That’s a lot of food, and they’ve just made it seem so simple.”
Nurturing North Shore’s older adults all these years has allowed the pair to create community through cuisine, and form a strong friendship. “It keeps their spirits up and gives them something to look forward to,” Tuminello said of their seniors. “When I brought my 80-year-old aunt to Sea Cliff, she didn’t know anyone, but then she sat at a table with the ladies here and she immediately got close to them.”
She described the atmosphere as familial and homey. “They appreciated what we did for them,” Tuminello said. “We cared for the people we cooked for.”
Woods said she was lucky to find a gracious co-chef in Tuminello. “I don’t know anybody nicer or more even-tempered than Maryann,” she said. “How could I have worked with her for all these years if she didn’t have a wonderful personality?”
Como said she would miss her “sweet- mannered” chefs, who will return to their other lives. Tuminello looks forward to devoting more time to being a grandmother, while Woods plans to do some painting and drawing.