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Lifelong learners, lifelong leaders

Nutrition Leaders come together one last time as they wind up decades of service to N.C. State University’s seafood extension education program.

Call it a command performance: When food science professor Dr. David Green was asked to plan a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences scholarship endowment signing ceremony, he turned to the Nutrition Leaders – the group he trusted most when it came to preparing food befitting a coastal celebration.

It was no matter that the volunteer group technically no longer existed. They’d disbanded in January 2011, but five of the former members showed up eagerly – indeed, joyfully – one December morning to prepare a shrimp dip and smoked fish spread for Green’s reception as well as their own annual holiday get-together held the same day.

With their leader, retired Cooperative Extension seafood education specialist Joyce Taylor, they spent several hours together in the kitchen of N.C. State University’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology in Morehead City preparing food.

Working shoulder-to-shoulder with an easy familiarity acquired over decades, these women – now in their 70s and 80s — boiled and baked, chopped and stirred, measured and mixed.

They shared stories and laughs, all the while peppering Taylor with questions – everything from “Where’s the shrimp deveiner?”  to “Are these onions minced finely enough?”

The group – considered the only one of its kind anywhere – had begun in the 1970s by supporting Extension efforts that food science specialist Ted Miller had started at N.C. State University’s Seafood Lab.

A newsletter from that era noted that “the food scientist has a vast storehouse of information about seafoods, the changes which occur as a result of storage, aging and application of heat,” while “homemakers, on the other hand, have a great deal of kitchen expertise of their own gained from experience. By working together they hope to come up with some findings that will be mutually beneficial.”

And that, over the many years to come, they did.

Most of the volunteers who came together to prepare food for the Livio Ferruzzi Scholarship in Agriculture endowment ceremony got their start in the Nutrition Leaders program in the 1980s. Their local Extension Homemakers clubs (now collectively referred to as the Extension and Community Association) in Carteret County had elected them Nutrition Leaders.

The Nutrition Leaders program was a popular one, and so elections were competitive, Taylor said. Winning meant you had to attend Taylor’s monthly seafood education sessions at N.C. State’s Seafood Lab, then bring back what you’d learned to your club.

Martha Giles and Joyce Taylor
Martha Giles, left, consults with retired seafood education specialist Joyce Taylor, who educated people throughout the state on safe ways to handle, prepare and store nutritious seafood.

Meanwhile, Taylor, too, helped spread the word about what was learned in the lab’s kitchen, using the response that she got from the Nutrition Leader testers and tasters as she educated people throughout the state on safe ways to handle, prepare and store nutritious seafood. She carried out those efforts from 1975 until her retirement in 1996.

One of Taylor’s goals was to expand the use of seafood and thus support the seafood industry. When she first started working for the university, Taylor recalled, the most familiar way to prepare seafood was to fry it.

But the former school teacher and seafood aficionado challenged the Nutrition Leaders and her statewide workshop participants to get more creative. She taught them new ways to bake, broil, grill, steam and poach different types of seafood using the freshest, most nutritious ingredients possible, and she encouraged them to go beyond flounder, trout and other familiar fish.

Election to the Nutrition Leader ranks brought with it a one-year obligation, Taylor explained, but most participants stretched out their service for years, and then the years turned into decades.

Indeed, one of the Nutrition Leaders, Betty Ward Motes, figures that group members – some 40 to 50 regulars — racked up more than 10,000 years of experience with the program.

Nutrition Leaders group
(From left) Hrywny, Motes, Giles, Vera Gaskins and Overton came together to prepare food for a scholarship endowment signing ceremony and the Nutrition Leaders' annual holiday lunch.

Through their most ambitious project, the book Mariner’s Menu, the Nutrition Leaders shared that rich experience with thousands of readers from all across the country. The book contains the best of the best of Taylor’s recipes — 160 total – that the group had tested over the 30 years leading up to its 2003 publication.

Though most of its pages are devoted to recipes, Mariner’s Menu is much more than a cookbook, Motes says.

“It’s an introduction to seafood from alpha to omega,” she notes, “from the catch to the table.” The book gives guidance on handling and preparing fresh seafood safely, and it highlights the history and significance of North Carolina’s seafood industry.

Mariner’s Menu also tells the story of each of the Nutrition Leaders, some of whom grew up fishing and crabbing “before they could tell time,” the book notes, while “others knew just canned salmon or codfish on Fridays.”

While most of the Nutrition Leaders’ efforts were devoted to evaluating the recipes that Taylor came up with, they also played a role in helping local seafood companies develop new products. They found new ways to use what had formerly been considered waste from filleting fish, for example, and they considered new ways to prepare marine species that weren’t often used as seafood.

Some of the products that they had a hand in remain on the market, Green said. The group members also can be proud of the “home-grown and home-prepared” impact they’ve made on a seafood education program with a strong track record in helping advance the state’s seafood industry, he said.

Green also praised the Nutrition Leaders for their dedication as Cooperative Extension volunteers and their commitment to promoting good nutrition and a better local economy.

“I even came up with a title for your article,” he said, “’Lifelong Learners.’ They’ve been doing this for a long time, and their legacy is still being felt.”

As for the five Leaders who came back together in December, all were modest when it came to their contributions but had nothing but praises for the program.

As Emily Hrywny put it, “It’s just a joy to be here.”

And, suggested Dean Johnny C. Wynne — who stopped by to thank the Nutrition Leaders on his way to the scholarship endowment ceremony – it’s been a joy and privilege to have had the group’s help for so many years.

-Dee Shore

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