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Practice makes perfect
Thomas Spencer has a long career as Army cook
Thomas Spencer's training and experience as an Army cook have him in high demand as a cook when events call for food, such as at a recent birthday party in Rocky Mount. This weekend, he will be cooking for the American Legion Homer Dillard Post 78's quarterly fish fry. (Bulletin photo by Vicky Morrison)
Thanks to Army training, Thomas Spencer of Collinsville knows how to dish out delicious every time.
Spencer was drafted at age 19. He had no idea what he was getting into when he was shipped off to Vietnam for six months during the country’s monsoon season. “It was rough,” Spencer recalled with a sigh.
When he returned, Spencer was eager to have a different role in the Army. “I tried to pick something that would help me when I got out” of the service, he explained. That’s when he began “on the job training” as a cook, he said. This was his first time being taught how to cook full meals on a range of equipment.
Spencer was enrolled in Cook School at Fort Knox, Ky., for four weeks. He was named first cook after finishing school. While still at Fort Knox, Spencer cooked food for 250 trainees as the first cook. After his assignment finished there, Spencer was able to return home, but not for long.
Spencer was trained in pressure cookers, steam equipment and field cooking. He went through the Army’s Food Sanitation Certification program and the Food and Drug Administration’s food sanitation program.
Spencer said all of that training made him and his team of cooks an asset for unexpected assignments. As a member of the 2174th Army Garrison Unit, Spencer was called out many times, cooking for groups as small as 30 to as large as 1,000. It got to the point that he “never unpacked my bags,” he said. “One night they called us out that night. We left at 12 in the morning.”
By that time, Spencer had been named Food Service Supervisor, which added the responsibility of coordinating the first, second and third cooks. Spencer was responsible for running the entire mess hall, ordering the required food and picking it up. He also handled delivering the cash vouchers used by servicemen to buy food.
The orderly routine of the Army made Spencer an organized cook in civilian life. “I hate a sloppy cook,” he said. “I want all my cooks to be neat because you never know when an inspection will come.” Spencer never failed a kitchen inspection.
The Army’s 14-Day Menu was Spencer’s guidebook to everything while with the reserve unit. The book outlined every detail of meal preparation for two weeks. While on active duty, a 30-day menu is used. Spencer knows most of the recipes by heart and only consults the recipes as a reminder.
Through learning these skills, Spencer became fond of cooking. “I like cooking,” he said. He cooks mostly on weekends, typically making chicken or roast beef. He enjoys experimenting with seasoning, such as bayou or Italian.
He hasn’t forgotten his Army lessons: Spencer still uses the 14-day menu and is highly cautious about sanitation. “If I’m cooking, I want to be clean, neat and everything,” he said. And if you’re cooking with Spencer, “(you) better have gloves on.”
His chef talents have a reputation: His cooking is requested for birthdays and other events. He recently cooked ribs and hot dogs at a birthday party in Rocky Mount. He regularly volunteers to cook for the American Legion Homer Dillard Post 78, which he joined shortly after retiring from service in 1995.
When the post needed a fundraiser, the members decided to hold a fish fry. Now the post holds four a year. Spencer became the main cook for the fish fries.
“We have a good turn out everytime. It’s gotten big,” he said. At first, only three cases of fish would be sold at a fish fry. Now the post sells eight to nine cases. This doesn’t bother Spencer since he is so accustomed to cooking for large groups, he said.
The post sells meals by the plate that include two slices of fried fish, baked beans, cole slaw, a slice of cake and a drink. The homemade cakes made by Spencer and others have come in coconut, strawberry, banana and chocolate varieties in the past, he said.
Spencer will cook at the next fish fry which will be from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the post. Each plate costs $6. Orders may be called ahead for take out by calling 673-7663. Delivery is also available.
Spencer has two adult daughters, Denise Stockton and Sheree Spencer.