BRENTWOOD — Former Exeter resident June Valentine tapped one toe as she waited for her turn to don plastic gloves in the Rockingham County Nursing and Rehabilitation Center's monthly Baking Club.
The sound system in a Driscoll Building lounge blared the oldies that were "newbies" when Valentine was young. "Food and music go together," she said with a smile.
To a backdrop of classic rock, a half-dozen or more residents gather monthly to prepare cookies, cupcakes or cakes under the direction of Activities Associates Cathy DeButts and Sarah Downing. As they crack eggs, pour oil and stir, the simple motions put them in mind of earlier times with their families, while providing fresh goodies for their new friends at the center.
As she wheeled in a cart full of supplies, DeButts said while the Baking Club meets monthly, she also does baking whenever she can on the different floors. "I like giving a variety of people a chance to bake," she said. Depending on the day, she has 5 to 10 people, and they make everything from brownies to pizza. "On Pizza Day we get a lot of people who want to help," she said.
DeButts and Downing sometimes cook from scratch with their people, but also make use of mixes and other conveniences. The residents don't use knives, and the activities associates take care of putting the product in the oven.
But other than that, it's the residents' project.
"We coordinate with the seasons," DeButts said, with Christmas cookies and Thanksgiving pies. She picks blueberries at a patch near her home and brings them in.
She's pureed pumpkins for everything from the traditional pies to pumpkin whoopie pies, she said.
And she brought in some of her home-canned applesauce. "Tomorrow," she said, "one of my groups is making an applesauce spice cake."
At the end of the growing season, Downing said, volunteers bring in zucchini and yellow squash, and the residents bake up some breads. Some they eat, some they sell to raise funds for the Social Club, a group that supports charities.
"It is so good," Valentine said of the squash bread.
"Nobody has the variety we do," Valentine added. "I'm impressed with what we put out."
Valentine, James Guyette, 76, of Raymond and Vivian Aiola, 92, of Hampton Falls, pulled their wheelchairs up to the work table, and DeButts and Downing went about fitting them with plastic gloves.
"I might have trouble with this hand," Valentine said as an associate struggled with the glove. But they got it on.
When she was in her home, Aloia did a lot of baking, she said. "We made everything - cakes, apple pies with apples from Applecrest, blueberry pies with fresh blueberries. My friend and I used to go pick peaches, and make peach pies like crazy." The smell in the house, Aloia noted, was "incredible."
"I miss the smell of the food," she said.
"Next time we make pizza, you can come help me," DeButts said. "You'll love the smell."
And even mixes can produce some pleasant odors, as Downing said to Valentine, "Here's the lemon cake mix. Can you smell that lemon?"
Aloia took the responsibility for a carrot cake, and when she couldn't comfortably reach the table, DeButts moved her out and balanced the bowl on her lap. Squinting but accurate, Aloia read the ingredients and DeButts supplied them. "It says 2/3 cup of oil," Aloia reported.
But Aloia still remembers those fresh apples, fresh pumpkins and fresh blueberries, and she teased the facilitators about the carrot cake mix. "Hey, where are the carrots?" she called out.
The carrot cake mix went into a cupcake pan, with Aloia carefully lining each well with a paper cupcake liner. The cupcakes were for the monthly residents' birthday party, and Aloia asked, "Are we gonna put candles on all of them?"
"That," Downing said, "would set the smoke alarms off."
Valentine's hand was acting up, and she winced as she tried to open a box of chocolate fudge cake mix. Downing was at her side in a minute, saying, "How about I open and you shake it into the bowl? Teamwork."
But Valentine made up for it when she cracked the eggs for the chocolate concoction. "How about that? Not one shell," she told her fellow bakers.
They measured and poured and stirred and poured again. Guyette sang along to the Beatles' "Hello Hello." The associates whisked the pans into the oven of the tiny adjacent kitchen. They took out the first cake, a lemon cake, and showed the residents their handiwork.
While Downing disappeared to wash the pots and pans, DeButts took out a variety of icing, some homemade, some canned. While they waited for the cakes to cool, she led her bakers in a discussion of what they liked to bake when they had their own homes.
And Downing scrubbed pans with a smile on her face. The baking is one of her favorite projects with residents, she said. "I love it that even if they can't physically do one part of it, we find something else for them to do." The baking brings back the joy of creativity, according to her. "And it's fun to see the finished product, and know that they helped," Downing said.
"There is," she said, "a piece for everybody."