Julia Thomas enjoys offering hospitality at lake home

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Photo by Ann Cipperly

By Ann Cipperly

With sweeping views of Lake Martin from a sunroom, deck, patio and other rooms of their home, Julia and Steve Thomas are enjoying a relaxing lifestyle in retirement with sunset boat rides, fishing and offering hospitality to family and friends. Julia relies on easy, make-ahead recipes to serve guests and will be preparing several of her favorites during Labor Day weekend.

“I think what I like best about having guests is that I love feeding people,” says Julia. “I love having family and friends around sharing what is happening in their lives. I prepare my food with the thought that I want to spend most of my time with them and enjoy their company.”

A sign saying “Dunmowin” hangs by the front door. When the Thomases moved to the lake, they left behind a spacious lawn that took Steve 12 hours to mow every week. While Julia grew up in Opelika, Steve spent his childhood summers at his grandfather’s lake house in New York named “Dunroamin.” Considering that they still enjoyed “roaming,” Julia and Steve settled on Dunmowin.

Julia was born in Ft. Belvoir, Va., while her father was working at the Pentagon. The family moved to Waverly where her grandparents lived when she was a few months old. After her parents, Ellen and William Irby, who were both attorneys, built a house on India Road, they moved to Opelika when Julia was 3 or 4 years old.

Since her mother worked, the family had a full time maid who also cooked. Julia adorned her, and she was like part of the family.

Growing up, Julia enjoyed visiting her grandmother in Waverly and going fishing. Her grandmother was an excellent cook and could fry their catch and make hushpuppies.
After graduating from Opelika High School, Julia attended the University of Alabama where she first tried cooking. Her first effort was macaroni and cheese.

While at Alabama, Julia met Steve at a cousin’s wedding in Nashville. Steve, who had lived in New York City, Louisville, Ky. and Cleveland, Oh., was attending Centre College in Kentucky. When her cousin invited her back to visit, Julia and Steve began dating.

After graduating from Centre, Steve attended Auburn University to receive a master’s degree in horticulture, while Julia attended Auburn to receive a second degree in horticulture.

They married after the first year at Auburn and lived in a log cabin in Waverly that Julia’s mother had restored for them.

“My saving grace,” says Julia, “was my mother-in-law’s recipes. She gave me several recipes that I made often. Once I found a recipe everyone liked, I continued making it.

“I am not going to risk the failure of a new recipe with lots of people to feed.”

Julia also received recipes from a friend, and she still makes the Chew Bars recipe, which are blonde brownies.

After Julia and Steve graduated from Auburn, they moved to Tampa, Fl. where they lived for ten years. They enjoyed living there, but it was not where they wanted to raise their children.

She began playing tennis and won a tournament when she was eight months pregnant. They had three children in Tampa, and the fourth child was born after they moved back to Opelika.

The Thomases opened the Green Hill Nursery north of Opelika on Highway 431. Julia’s mother assisted with the opening of the nursery. Her mother was then married to Jeff Beard, the retired athletic director at Auburn University.

Over the years, Julia and Steve have been active in the community and Trinity United Methodist Church. Julia taught one year olds for many years and began teaching a ladies Bible study class 12 years ago. Steve teaches the Believers Sunday School class for adults, and they both sing in the choir.

After retiring from the nursery business, they moved to Lake Martin two years ago. They restored a house built in the 1970s to have enough space for their four children and six grandchildren, who enjoy visiting and spending time together.

“We wanted a place our children would want to gather,” says Julia. “When one comes, they all come. We want our family to be here, and when they are not, we invite friends. When people come they need good food to eat, and that is what I try to do.”

When the family visits, they often serve Southern Grill Barbecue Ribs and Baked Beans or Dunmowin Barbecue Chicken, which is baked rather than grilled. These dishes would be good to serve on Labor Day. Lavoy’s Watermelon Delight makes a refreshing and attractive dessert.

Julia’s recipes are ones she collected over the years from family and friends.

The Thomases’ hospitality include inviting everyone in their church to their home for a picnic every year. “We feel like God has given us this place to share the beauty of his creation with others,” says Julia. “I love nature, plants, trees and animals. When I am in nature I am communing with God. We want to share this beauty with others.”

Ann Cipperly can be contacted at recipes@cipperly.com.

Recipes:

Southern Grilled Barbecue Ribs
4 lb. baby back pork ribs
Rub:
4 Tbsp. brown sugar
1/2 Tbsp. paprika
1 1/2 Tbsp. salt
3/4 Tbsp. ground black pepper
1 tsp. garlic powder
For Baking:
2/3 cup water
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
To make rub, mix together brown sugar, paprika, salt, black pepper and garlic powder. Rub into pork ribs. For best results, allow ribs to marinate overnight.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place ribs in two 10 x 15-inch roasting pans. Pour water and red wine vinegar into a bowl and stir. Pour diluted vinegar over ribs and cover with foil. Bake in the preheated oven for 45 minutes. Baste ribs with their juices halfway through cooking.
Preheat grill for medium heat.
Lightly oil preheated grill. Transfer ribs from the oven to the grill, discarding cooking liquid. Grill over medium heat for 15 minutes, turning ribs once. Baste ribs generously with barbecue sauce, and grill 8 minutes.
Turn ribs, baste again with barbecue sauce, and grill 8 minutes.

Dunmowin Oven Barbecue Chicken 
3 cups of your favorite barbecue sauce
1/2 cup peach preserves
1 clove garlic
Hot sauce, optional
12 whole chicken thighs, bone-in, skin-on
Olive oil for brushing
Combine barbecue sauce, peach preserves, garlic and hot sauce in a medium saucepan. Heat over medium heat for 5-10 minutes or until hot. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Drizzle olive oil on 2 rimmed baking sheets and place chicken thighs skin side down in the pans. Roast for 25 minutes. Remove from oven briefly, brush sauce all over the thighs, and then use a spatula to flip them over to the other side, being careful not to tear the skin. Brush the tops with more sauce and return to the oven for 7 minutes. Remove from oven, brush on more sauce, and return to the oven for another 7 minutes. Remove from oven, brush on sauce, and turn up the temperature to 425 degrees.
Continue roasting for another 5 to 7 minutes, or until the sauce is starting to brown around the edges and the thighs are totally cooked through. Remove from the oven and let sit for at least 10 minutes before serving.

Oven-Baked Beans
4 strips bacon, diced
1 medium onion, diced
4 Tbsp. brown sugar
4 Tbsp. ketchup
2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. prepared mustard
2 (15 oz.) cans pork and beans
In a large iron skillet, cook bacon over medium heat until crisp. Using a slotted spoon, remove to paper towel to drain.
Sauté onions in drippings. Stir in brown sugar, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and mustard until blended. Stir in pork and beans. Heat through.
Bake, uncovered, in iron skillet at 350 degrees for 40-45 minutes or until bubbly mixture reaches desired thickness.

Cheesy Bread
1 loaf fresh Italian bread, sliced in half
½ cup softened butter
½ cup mayonnaise
½ tsp. garlic powder
3-4 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
Combine softened butter, mayonnaise and garlic powder. Spread over sliced bread and sprinkle cheese over top. Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown.

Lavoy’s Watermelon Delight
1 small carton pineapple sherbet
1 small carton lime sherbet
1 small carton orange sherbet
1 large watermelon
1 cantaloupe
1 honey dew melon
Fresh seasonal strawberries, blueberries, or peaches
Cut the watermelon in half lengthwise. Scoop out one half and serrate the edge with a knife. Refrigerate.
Prepare all of the fruit in bite-size servings.
When ready to serve, remove watermelon from refrigerator and scoop the sherbets randomly into the watermelon. Top with the fresh fruit and serve immediately.

Chew Bars
1 box dark brown sugar
1 stick butter, softened
3 eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 cup chopped pecans
Cream together sugar and butter; add eggs and beat well. Combine flour, baking powder and salt. Stir into mixture. Fold in pecans.
Bake in a greased and floured baking pan at 300 degrees for 30 minutes.

Grandmama’s Mac-n-Cheese
1 1/2 cups macaroni noodles
2 cups milk
2 cups (8 oz.) sharp cheddar cheese
3 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. plain flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper
Boil 2 quarts water with 1 tsp. of salt in it.
Add noodles to boiling water and cook 8 1/2 minutes. Drain when cooked. 
Melt butter in same pot. Add flour, salt and pepper and whisk until smooth (do not brown).
Add 2 cups milk and whisk until bubbling, stirring constantly.
Let thicken about 30 seconds. Remove from heat.
Add cheese and stir until melted.
Put noodles in a small casserole pan. Pour cheese sauce over and stir in.
Bake at 350 for 20 minutes until bubbling. Serves 6.
Peanut Butter Oreo Pie
1 Oreo crust
½ gallon vanilla ice cream
½ cup Jif Peanut Butter
Blend ice cream and peanut butter well with mixer. Pour in Oreo crust and freeze. Serve frozen.

Fiesta Dip
I packet Fiesta Ranch Dip
1 (16 oz) container sour cream
1 can regular Rotel tomatoes
Frito Scoops
Mix dip packet, sour cream and Rotel. Serve with Frito Scoops.

Poe’s White Cheese Dip
1 lb. white American cheese
1 cup milk
1-2 Tbsp. chopped jalapeño peppers
Tostitos Scoops
Melt cheese in double boiler or microwave. Stir in milk and peppers. Serve with Tostitos Scoops.

Joes to Go
1 lb. ground beef
½ cup finely chopped onion
1½ tsp. garlic salt
1/8 tsp. pepper
½ cup chili sauce
¼ cup brown sugar
1 Tbsp. white vinegar
1 Tbsp. prepared mustard
8-oz can tomato sauce
6 hamburger buns
In a large skillet, cook and stir ground beef and onion until beef is brown; drain. Add next 7 ingredients and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve on warm hamburger buns.

Best Ever Pasta Sauce
1 lb. bulk Italian sausage
1 cup finely chopped onion
12-oz can tomato paste
Three 28-oz cans Italian or plain tomato puree
2 cups water
4 tsp. minced garlic
4 bay leaves
2 Tbsp. sugar
4 tsp. dried basil
2 tsp. dried oregano
4 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
2 tsp. salt
In a large pot, cook and stir sausage with onions until the meat is brown. Drain fat. Add remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cover pot, allowing to simmer for 2 hours, stirring occasionally.
Remove bay leaf before serving. Makes 12 cups of sauce. Can freeze.

Pizza Roll-ups
1 frozen loaf of bread dough
1 lb. ground beef
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. pepper
2 cups grated mozzarella cheese
1 tsp. Italian seasoning
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
4 cups Best Ever Pasta Sauce
Thaw dough. Roll into a 14 x 24-inch rectangle about ¼-inch thick. Brown ground beef and stir in remaining ingredients. Spoon filling onto dough, slightly pressing filling into dough.
Roll dough length-wise like a jelly roll, and cut into 24 1-inch think slices. Spray Pam on two cookie sheets and lay slices on pan about an inch apart.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees and allow rolls to sit for 10 minutes. Bake for 20-25 minutes until golden brown. Serve with warm pasta sauce for dipping.
Can be frozen and served later.

Chicken Packets
2 cups cooked chicken, chopped
3-oz cream cheese, softened
1 Tbsp. chopped chives
2 Tbsp. milk
½ cup crushed seasoned crouton crumbs
2 pkg. refrigerated crescent rolls
¼ cup melted butter
Mix chicken, creamed cheese, chives, milk and salt in a medium bowl. (Mixing with hands works best.)
Unroll crescent rolls. Each tube will contain 4 rectangles of dough with a diagonal perforation. Press perforations together, so they will not separate.
Place about ¼ cup chicken mixture in center of each rectangle. Gather up the dough around the mixture and press firmly together making a small pouch and place on greased cookie sheet. Cover each pouch with melted butter and sprinkle crouton crumbs over the top.
Bake in preheated 350 degree oven for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Packets are good hot or cold and can be frozen without the butter and crouton topping. Makes 8 packets.

Cinnamon French Toast
I loaf Artisan Bread
1 cup sugar
½ tsp. cinnamon
4 eggs
Mix cinnamon, sugar and eggs together. Dip bread and cook on griddle. Serve with butter, jelly or syrup.

Mexican Sunday Ice Cream Cake
26 Oreo cookies, divided
1/2 stick margarine
1 can Hershey’s chocolate syrup, divided
1/2 gallon vanilla ice cream
1 cup Spanish peanuts
12 oz. Cool Whip
Crush 24 Oreos in a plastic bag. Melt margarine; mix with crushed Oreos. Press in greased 9 by 13-inch pan. Cover with 1/2 can Hershey’s chocolate syrup.
Slice ice cream into 1½-inch slices. Arrange slices over crust. Sprinkle peanuts over top.
Cover with remaining syrup. Spread Cool Whip on syrup and sprinkle 2 crushed Oreos over top. Freeze. Serve in 2-inch squares.

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