The Other First Ladies: Teaching the Next Generation About Food Choices

In honor of International Women's Day, some words of wisdom from four D.C. area cooks


Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Maylette Winley was taught to cook by her mother. In a city where fried chicken is especially prized, no one has a reputation for making it better than Maylette. But unlike in years past, it's no longer a regular feature on her dinner table.

A friend's stroke and becoming a grandmother pushed Maylette into eating healthier at home. It didn't hurt that was exposed to good food at work. Every day she's responsible for preparing fresh salads at the Georgetown Law School café. She proudly told me they are the top sellers at the deli station.

Her two daughters and four grandchildren share her enthusiasm for eating healthy food. "If you start your kids off right, they won't ask for bad stuff. Their bodies will get used to the good stuff," she says. She believes in serving vegetables for dinner and for snacks—"carrots, celery, and a little dip for fun, to take your mind off candy."

But she still eats some fried chicken. "You need a treat every once in awhile."

Maylette is one of the veteran cooks behind the scenes who deftly, invisibly take great ingredients and use them wisely. Without the women in the middle, sourcing fresh, local produce is a hollow exercise. In honor of International Women's Day, as part of a new series called Ladies Who (Prepare) Lunch, I'm sharing their hard-won wisdom about food.

I call them "The Other First Ladies." They all work in the shadow of the White House but none has ever visited the executive mansion. As cooks, though, they are quietly powerful advocates of Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign, teaching the next generations—whether the students they serve or their young relations—that eating healthy is joyful and tasty.

Washington native Beverly Telfaire has been working at Gallaudet University for 30 years as a utility person and a line server. "Utility person" is food-services shorthand for the person who does anything that needs doing: making ice cubes, filling milk and juice machines, sweeping and mopping, cleaning.

She's learned sign language so she can interact with everyone at this famous school for the deaf. "I love kids and the kids love me," she says, obviously the source of daily joy.

Her food philosophy is simply to eat healthy, and she gets the connection between junk food and obesity. She's so proud of her niece with two young girls. "She doesn't give them sweets.

They like vegetables because she feeds vegetables to them, and their school helps teach them right."

Muriel Patterson, or Miss Muriel to most everyone, was also raised in D.C. but now lives in Maryland. She doesn't like to smile for the camera, but you wouldn't know it by the warm welcome she gives everyone. She's worked in kitchens for 24 years—all of them on her feet, close to seven hours at a time. "I don't like to sit down, because then getting up becomes an adventure," she says. But she's not complaining. "The best part is that I'm still standing."

When I asked her to describe what she cooks, her list went on for five minutes. The butternut squash sage turnover really caught my attention. "Everything's fresh. That's all we do here," she says, explaining there's "No base in our soups. All gravies are made completely from scratch. No hidden ingredients. When a customer asks, I can tell them what's in the food. It's healthier that way."

At home she cooks soup and fresh vegetables from scratch too. Her young daughter and grand nieces and nephews are too young to teach to cook, but they've learned to eat—collards, kale, cabbage, and string beans. Why? "I steam them off and add fresh spices and garlic." Recently she took them to a fast-casual restaurant. They all ordered greens and then wanted more. "They forgot what the main dish was."

Muriel's philosophy about food centers on "what parents do in their homes," she says. It's about "sitting down and eating a balanced meal together. What's for dinner is not open for discussion. Keep your kids active. Every so often I buy cookies, but most snacks are fruit."

Like Maylette Winley, North Carolina-born Miss Bettie Rhones works at Georgetown Law; she's a trained barista, and clearly loves her work. "I meet a lot of interesting people [here at Georgetown Law]. I treat them like my kids. Some say 'You remind me of my mom.' I try to keep them in line because their parents aren't here." Students introduce her to their parents at graduation. Her pride in those ties is evident.

Bettie followed her mother into food services. Her mom, 73, still bakes professionally. Fifteen years ago Bettie stopped eating beef and pork for health reasons. She loves turkey and seafood, which she's learned to bake instead of fry.

Her three grandkids "all eat really good food. They love vegetables. Broccoli. They even eat beets. I hate beets."

Her philosophy: "They should take snack machines out of schools. Fast food doesn't stay with you. All parents should eat vegetables together with their children. We are children's first teachers. What we teach them they take out to the real world."

Bettie's commitment to eating right and walking every day is for her grandkids: "I want to be around for them longer." She's planning to leave lots of things to them, and good eating habits is clearly one of them.

Image: Courtesy of Helene York