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Kitchen Table | REAL COOKS

She Cooks, She Sews, She Shoots


Joni Schaper sounds like a cross between a tomboy and homebody. But she doesn't act or look like either.

She's got the layered mane of a movie star, the exuberance of a cheerleader and the compactness of a gymnast, yet she boasts that she knows every part of a B-1 bomber.

She's an engineering student from Lancaster who wins blue ribbons for domestic skills, which in her case include dry-walling, masonry and wiring. Of course those aren't the skills that win ribbons; it's her Easter eggs, embroidery, cookies, cheesecakes and breads that have earned her yards of satin. So has her photography. Skeet-shooting competitions are next.

In a letter nominating her for The Times Real Cooks column, her brother Greg Schaper, a commercial pilot based in Kentucky, included some newspaper clippings with his letter.

One was about Schaper winning top prize at an Antelope Valley baking contest with her date pinwheel cookies--at age 10. Two other stories tracked her adult contest record in the annual California Strawberry Festival in Oxnard. In 1992, when she competed against 400 others, her strawberry buckle won first prize and made her $200 richer. Three years later, her strawberry plum pancake placed first, although the prize was a more modest cookie jar.

Excelling in the kitchen is in the genes, says Schaper, 38. "I was raised by good cooks. My grandmother was the quintessential gardener and from-scratch homemaker; my mother, the original superwoman. She juggled a career in real estate and a home renovation business while raising two kids. She doesn't have the word 'no' in her vocabulary."

Her mother, Ruth, is the one who taught Schaper and her brother how to dry-wall and wire outlets when they were in grade school as a way for them to earn extra money after school.

Schaper used those skills again in the mid-'70s, when she moved to Wyoming for two years and helped her mother build the Royal Palace Restaurant in Cody. The slogan on the menu: "Cooking so good, you'll think we kidnapped your mother."

The first dish Schaper mastered, at 8, was fudge. She found the recipe in a Snoopy comic book.

"I've always known what I liked," she says over coffee and hunks of spice cake and brownies in the kitchen of her ranch house in Lancaster. "Usually, more spice, more herbs, stronger flavors."

She and four cats live in the house where she was raised. Shelves and nooks in the living and dining rooms and corners of the yard reflect her eclectic interests: the antique wheelchair with three wheels from a flea market, saddles and cattle skulls that look like props from Georgia O'Keeffe paintings.

Schaper spent 11 years as a parts supervisor with Rockwell and Rocketdyne, which is how she acquired her knowledge of B-1 bombers. Meanwhile, she was attending evening school at Edwards Air Force Base to earn a bachelor of science degree accredited by Southern Illinois University.

Cooking became her escape from work and school. And neighbors always volunteered as guinea pigs. Eventually, she picked up the hobby she'd dropped as a teenager and began to enter cooking contests again. Of the 20 contests she has entered as both child and adult, she's placed in all.

"I don't compete for publicity," she says, "because I'm pretty shy. It's for the fun of meeting contestants and finding out why they cook. It's one big party."

The key to winning, she says, is entering foods you love to eat because you'll fuss and care more. The appearance of a dish is critical in a contest; she's often stayed up all night perfecting up to 12 recipes for several categories in a contest.

"You can't cook ahead for the judging," she says. "Brownies suffer in appearance if they've been baked ahead of time. That's why I usually enter local fairs instead of state ones. I can get the food to the judges at the last minute so it's really fresh."

Being highly organized is a trait she inherited from her parents. She reads recipes carefully, absorbing their information, but rarely uses them. You could say she cooks the way she sews: She never uses patterns.

"Cooking is about understanding how things work and fit together," she says, "what method to use and why. You get it by repetition and experience.

"I usually alter the taste of a recipe, simplify the preparation and substitute ingredients. You just figure things out."

Inspiration for recipes comes from women's magazines, newspapers, the Food Channel, dishes she's tasted in restaurants. She says failures are opportunities. When a cake fell, she served it at a party in razor-thin slices, covered with strawberries.

She eats what she wants and squeezes several meals out of a batch of pasta or meatloaf. "Of course, sometimes it's easier just to buy a salad from McDonald's rather than cook. Eating's got to fit in with the lifestyle, and sometimes I just don't have time."

For her culinary skills she's won a VCR, gourmet gifts, serving trays, silk flowers, a microwave oven and membership in a health club.

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