by Lou Mancinelli
As a young girl visiting her grandparents farm each weekend in York, central Pennsylvania, Denise Chapline, 62, learned her homestyle cooking at a place where eggs were fresh each morning, and corn was torn from the ears as the water boiled.
Chapline will bring her family’s history of farm cooking to the 4th Annual “Cookin’ with Who?” where community “chefs” will compete for the “Mt. Airy Platinum Spatula.” This year’s event is Thursday, Nov. 6, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., at The Brossman Center at the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia (LTSP), 7301 Germantown Ave.
Different chefs will represent East Mt. Airy Neighbors, LTSP and Awbury Arboretum. Attendees will enjoy the fruit of the competition. Proceeds go to benefit those three groups, whose chefs will compete against last year’s defending People’s Choice winner Karyn Wiseman, a minister and professor at LTSP.
“I think that was partly the generation,” said Chapline, who for the past 12 years has worked at Elfant Wissahickon Realtors in Chestnut Hill. “They didn’t just take something out of the box frozen … My mother was an excellent cook. While she acquired hundreds of recipes over her lifetime, she had that innate quality in every good cook, which is to just know what ingredients go together and how much of each to use.”
It was partly pride, partly economics, she said. Women took a great deal of pride in what they put on the table. Her parents were raised in the Great Depression era. Taught to save everything, they froze and canned extra food for the offseason. Used every part of the slaughtered animal. At her home it was always home cooking. Her grandparents’ farm was a gentleman’s farm. A little over 30 acres, they hired some help, farmed some of it themselves and rented out other parts.
For Cookin’ with Who, Chapline will prepare her family’s lemon chicken basil soup. It’s a recipe with old roots in her Pennsylvania German family and one Chapline remembers her mother experimenting with until she found what she wanted. As a little girl, Chapline was the official taster of her mother’s culinary creations.
When her mother died, Chapline found a bundle of old recipes on index cards filed away. The one for the soup is dog-eared and tawny. Soup was a big part of Pennsylvania German homes, Chapline remembered. It was inexpensive, you could use whatever was in season, add more if you wanted, and it warmed the stomach on a cold day.
Literally, in 1973 on the day of her graduation from Penn State University, where she studied community development, Denise traveled with her friend, who later became her husband, to Mt. Airy. She stayed throughout the summer in his family’s nine-bedroom house. There were already two of his other college buddies living there, so why not?
She married Phil Chapline in 1976. Right away, Chapline became immersed in the Mt. Airy community. Her mother-in-law was a musician and realtor at Twin Realty and had been instrumental in organizing Allens Lane Art Center. Her father-in-law was the organist and choirmaster at the Unitarian Church of Germantown and built pipe organs in the basement of their Upsal Street home.
Meanwhile, Chapline went on to help communities across the city lay their own roots, where she worked for various civic organizations for 19 years. Her first job was around Graduate Hospital, handing out flyers, engaging the community.
In college, she’d chosen her major because it promised an internship. Hers was with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers picketing wineries in California who would not hire union workers. In Philadelphia she was involved in neighborhoods in the midst of transformation. Former industrial neighborhoods were going residential, like Fishtown and Northern Liberties today. When she started, there were still slaughterhouses in Pennsport in South Philly. It was the beginning of a wave of change in Queen Village and Bella Vista. “I just like the dynamics of the organization,” Chapline said.
She eventually served as director of the Pennsport Civic Association, worked for the City’s Office of Housing and Community Development, became director of the Allegheny West Foundation and helped to start the Manayunk Development Corporation. In 1992 she moved to fundraising and worked as development director for United Cerebral Palsy.
“I don’t see Philadelphia as six degrees of separation,” she said. “I see it as about two degrees … Philadelphia is a small town.”
It’s this sort of background Chapline, a mother of two and grandmother of two who now lives in Lafayette Hill, likes to integrate into her work as a real estate agent helping families find the neighborhood that fits them best. Perhaps they are looking for an active civic life, or they want a Main Street nearby.
As for cooking, “I am one of those cooks that almost never buys anything prepared … That’s really my mother still in my head.”