The Times West Virginian

August 8, 2012

Just home cooking

By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian

PLEASANT VALLEY — Food doesn’t have to be fancy to be tasty.

Judy Starn learned this growing up on Sugar Lane in Catawba. She was the only girl in nine children of Woodrow and Anna Starn. One brother passed away, so she grew up among seven brothers.

“I like to cook, but I wouldn’t say I’m a good cook,” she said. “I like to have family in. I had family in Sunday. We had meat loaf, green beans, baked beans with the littler weiners ... the kids like that ... and pie, mashed potatoes and gravy, and bruschetta.”

For her pies, she makes her own crust and will follow cookbook recipes “more or less and do what I want with them,” she said. But like all good cooks, she likes to put her stamp on her food, like a sprinkling of cinnamon in her blueberry and blackberry pies.

“I don’t add nutmeg to my apple pie. I’m not big on spices. I put cinnamon and butter, but after that more or less just follow cookbook recipes.

“But I like to add a little cinnamon and some butter. I like the flavor of the food more than spices.”

Their farm was separated from the north-flowing Monongahela River by a set of train tracks. While it was there, they went to the Sugar Lane school. After that, their mother got special permission for them to attend East Fairmont schools, rather than trek through the woods to catch the bus to Rivesville.

That meant crossing the Mon River in rowboats their uncle made. In the winter, they’d break the ice to navigate through it, or if the ice was too thick, have close-by relatives drive them in.

It was easier than walking “all the way up to the woods” to catch the bus to Rivesville schools, she said. “And we never missed because of the river.

“My mom was watching us out the window as we crossed the river, and when we came home, she was always back in that window,” she said.

Her mom was busy in the kitchen, cooking and canning and all that, so Starn took care of the house.

“We didn’t have much at home then, just four rooms.”

Her family grew or raised most of what they ate, from vegetables to chickens and more. When times were good, they’d sell produce to local stores.

“In the fall, we all got in the truck and took every container and basket we had, and went to the orchard and picked apples. We had hundreds of jars. You can imagine.”

“It was a real good childhood,” she said with a wink. “We didn’t have a lot, but we didn’t need. We were satisfied with what we had. That was our life. Still, some kids were more unfortunate than we were. We had the farm.”

Their father was busy working at No. 93 mine, so if they wanted to go some place, they’d hitchhike or grab a ride with friends.

“We accepted what we had. We didn’t know any more; that’s exactly right. It’s hard to comprehend. The more you have, the more you want. We’re all that way to a point.”

Treats like an ice cream cone were almost unheard of, she said.

“Unless the opportunity came along for one. Like at Bible school. They’d take us to a picnic and we’d get get a day at the park and an ice cream cone at the end.”

Born in 1948, she was born in one of the early waves of Baby Boomerdom.

Her parents came from large families. Her mom’s parents were from the country of Norway. Tommy Starn, her father’s grandfather — her great-grandfather — crossed the mountains from Virginia “with a table on his back” and settled in what came to be called Starn’s Hollow.

“My brother has the homeplace now,” she said. “Dad was born in a log cabin. They tore it down and used the wood when they built Pricketts Fort (State Park).”

She likes to cook. She likes to bake.

“To tell you the truth, I love to bake pies. I’m not much of a cookie baker, though. I don’t eat cookies that much. When the girls were home, they never knew what a store-bought cookie was. I baked all their cookies.”

She gets her ideas from the “piles of recipes” she’s been given by friends. And all the recipes have one thing in common.

“I like the basics,” she said. “I’m not one for buying exotic ingredients I’ll never use again,” she said. “I can’t afford that. You don’t go there if you can’t. I live within my means.”

She’s been a cook for the Marion County Board of Education since 1999 and is entering her third year at White Hall. This year, she is cafeteria manager.

Along the way, she’s taught her two daughters some things, and she’s learned from them, too.

“I don’t think you ever stop learning,” even if it’s just a new way to make chicken with Italian dressing or cream cheese.

She’s not much for TV chefs, she said.

“They can fix all that food and all that, but you know what? When I was growing up, I had the best eatin’ there was.”

“It was a good childhood, a good life. It wasn’t perfect, but what life is? I wouldn’t like a perfect life. It would make yourself miserable if everything was perfect.”

Every Wednesday through September, Take 5 wants you to take us on a picnic. Submit your summertime recipes to Debbie Wilson at 304-367-2549 or dwilson@

Email Debra Minor Wilson at