Diane gets it done

Diane Reeder at graduation, with Janet Bellusci. (CIA/Phil Mansfield)

Diane Reeder has a number of accomplishments that fall into the once-in-a-lifetime category. She is the current owner of the delightful and eclectic Kingston Candy Bar on Wall Street, founder and executive director of the defunct-for-now Queen’s Galley Soup Kitchen. The “dining with dignity” concept she pioneered there — serving quality food in a decent setting to anyone who came in, no questions asked — earned her the Microsoft Start Something Big Award, which led to her meeting Bill Gates and then the chance to have dinner with Barack and Michelle Obama at the White House.

She set up the first-of-its-kind program allowing the Kingston Farmer’s Market to accept SNAP benefits. She has been featured in Bon Appetit magazine, featured on The Cooking Channel, and been the subject of more than a few news articles, including in this paper. One of her most cherished titles is Nation’s Favorite Champion Against Child Hunger, voted on by 80,000 of her peers, 32,000 of whom voted for her.

Earlier this month, Diane Reeder graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, and was chosen by her classmates to offer the welcome address at commencement. She opened it with her response to a classmate asking if she had written her speech yet: “Honey, I’ve been writing this speech since before you were born.”

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And indeed, she has been. The route to that degree has been fraught with false starts, ending at various points in the beautiful side of the circle of life — the births of her first two daughters, and the painful side — the loss of her mother. It has been her dream to finish that degree, to call herself a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, for as long as I have known her, going on 15 years now. She had all but given up when a real-life angel appeared, as they sometimes do, and her return was made a possibility.

Returning to school was possible, but was doing what was required to finish possible? She would have to manage a school schedule that is nothing like regular school — classes start sometimes at 7 a.m., days might be 14 hours long. Could she drive over the bridge from Kingston to Hyde Park every day for a year and a half, all while also running the Candy Bar and having some semblance of family life? It was a very tall order.

A great and trusted employee at the Candy Bar allowed Diane to feel her business would not suffer from her absence, and with that knowledge, my friend, somehow, did what she had to do, every day, for 18 months. It wasn’t without hiccups — this fall, after business slowed down more than anticipated, she almost had to stop going to school again because she could not afford an employee.

Diane stood in front of a packed house at this hallowed culinary institution, where it did not go unnoticed that her speech and the talk afterwards by Lidia Bastianich (Chef Lidia, as she is known), came on March 1, the first day of Women’s History Month.  

I was surprised to learn that the school was founded in 1946 by two women, Frances Roth and Katharine Angell. How did it happen that two women founded a cooking school at a time when professional cooking was solely a man’s world? Well, World War II had just ended, and Europeans were not able to enter the U.S. as they had before. The founders brainstormed to fill the gap — to teach Americans to cook like Europeans, essentially. Originally called The New Haven Restaurant Institute, the school held its first classes in May 1946. Their first class was 43 men, and one woman. The second class graduated four women. Mind you, this was even before Julia (does she need a last name?) became the first woman to attend the Cordon Bleu.

In a perfect symbiosis, Roth had the contacts and the ingenuity and the temerity to know she could pull this off. She needed a benefactor, and that is where Angell came in — she was great at raising money, stocking a working school library, and finding locations as their school grew. This last led to a misunderstanding among many that women were not accepted at the CIA until 1970. This stems from a brief period in the late Sixties, when a change in location led to a temporary hold on accepting women — there were no facilities for them from 1966 to 1970, a period of growing pains for the school. Today’s classes have tipped the scales and are about 50-50, or even majority women.

I have never attended a graduation before, having flunked out a couple or three times, and having friends when I was younger who were not the sort to participate, as we fancied ourselves rebels back in the day. What struck me about the event was the feeling in the air. Everyone was so obviously and utterly thrilled, and yet humble. It was the culmination of a dream for all of them, and they did not treat it lightly or carelessly or as if it were their due.

I like to think Diane’s story and tenacity had something to do with helping set that lovely, admirable tone.

Since then, Diane has been a little unsure of what to do with what feels like “free time,” so she invented some stuffed bagels, some outrageously adorable chocolates, threw a party, made the most delicious cupcakes I have ever had, and I don’t know what else! If you stop by the Candy Bar, be sure to say congratulations. If you yourself need some inspiration, well, you know who to ask.

Holly Christiana is a freelance writer living in Kingston.

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