Comedian Phyllis Diller used to joke that her cooking was so bad, her kids thought Thanksgiving was to commemorate Pearl Harbor.
Too bad Diller never knew Annie Penn. The longtime Chattanooga resident has been the secret weapon for dozens of inexperienced cooks who need a little help in the kitchen. And by "a little help," we mean "major reinforcements" — as in, "Could you just cook this for me?"
Penn says she doesn't have a signature dish, though some of her former customers might say otherwise. Just don't ask her for their names. She doesn't cook and tell.
Just as some authors hire ghostwriters, some kitchen klutzes have learned they can shield themselves from embarrassment at the family potluck by hiring a professional to prepare a dish — or maybe even the whole shebang.
"I've done Thanksgiving meals for people and Christmas meals," says Penn, 77, who has worked in various capacities of food service, including as a food-line supervisor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, a sous chef at Chattanooga Golf and Country Club and as a private chef.
But it was her side business of helping the hapless cooks in her midst that kept her busiest over the years. She has scaled way back since she retired, but in her cooking heyday, it wasn't unusual to roast 16 turkeys for folks who needed holiday help. "At the time, I had double ovens," she says.
"One little guy, his family couldn't make giblet gravy, so every Christmas he'd bring a jug and want a gallon of giblet gravy.
"I also make rolls and cookies ... pies and cakes — whatever they want."
Penn doesn't know whether her name ever came up when those turkey platters, gravy boats and bread baskets were passed around the table. Some novice cooks might confess that they'd had a kitchen intervention. Others might keep up the pretense.
The beauty of buying from Penn is that her dishes are prepared in her home kitchen. That sort of technicality could help a pretend cook trade an outright falsehood for a tiny little fib — "I cooked it myself" versus "Yes, it's homemade."
Likewise, Timothy Mulderink, the chef of local food-service business The Chef and His Wife, knows that not everything that leaves his shops will be served in the company's logoed to-go dishes. Some customers want advice on the best way to transfer the food to their own serving dishes.
"We get that a lot," he says. "We prepare [the food] in foil, and they might want to serve it a little bit more fancy. I've even offered [the exchange] a couple of times. I can sense what they want from what they're describing, and I'll say, 'If you have your own dishes, bring them in.'"
The holiday season brings the typical requests for mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, broccoli rice casserole, cornbread dressing and macaroni and cheese for The Chef and His Wife, which has locations in Hixson and East Brainerd. The business also prepares turkey and gravy, ham, pies, cakes and several other side dishes, in addition to its regular rotation of customer favorites.
The caution for the pretend cook, Mulderink says, is trying not to appear suddenly proficient in the culinary arts.
"That question could arise," he says regarding a professionally prepared dish set out by a perpetually klutzy cook. "[The guests] know you're not that experienced. It gives it away right away."
For most cooks seeking help with a dish (or six), hiring a professional is simply a matter of managing their own time during the holidays, he says.
"The No. 1 reason we get is to reduce stress," Mulderink says. "They'll say, 'I can't cook all this, and my family is coming and they're expecting all this food, and I just don't have the time and it's stressing me out.'
"Honestly, our whole business is based around providing an alternative to fast food for your hectic life," he adds.
Taking on holiday jobs can keep it hectic for those doing the cooking, though.
Penn, who calls herself "just a plain old Southern cook," says these days she only has to prepare daily meals for her and her husband, Eugene — and a son who lives nearby who disappears the leftovers.
"Right now [for the holidays] I'm down to about two or three turkeys I cook for people," she says. "People realize that since I've gotten older, I don't do as much."
But back in the day, especially when the mother of seven was involved with the Highland Park Neighborhood Association, she sometimes worked around the clock to feed a couple hundred people at community gatherings.
"I have cooked all night when I was doing all those turkeys," Penn says. "I would cook all night and party the next day."
Whether or not she got the credit doesn't concern Penn much, she says. "I don't guess they cared who knew it," she says of the customers who came for her Southern-style specialties.
Professional cooks are usually just happy for the business. They can't control what happens when someone leaves with a signature dish, so it's up to the customer to confess or stay quiet on who did the cooking.
That business principle still applies to retired local restaurateur Jeff Messinger, whose beloved Mt. Vernon Restaurant closed a year ago this month.
Yes, he had customers who served the Broad Street restaurant's food as their own, he says, but even now, that's as much as he'll confide about any covert cooking operations. "We don't talk about that," he says.
This story originally appeared in the December issue of Chatter magazine.
Contact Lisa Denton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6281.