First, you knew her for her pies, those decadent strawberry and rhubarb slices she served for 24 years at LaVerne’s Coffee Shop in Downtown Lodi.
Then, you started to appreciate her for her cheese buttons, that stuffed German side dish still served and raved about at Lodi’s Oktoberfest every year.
Now, comfort food master LaVerne Walth has compiled a lifetime of her favorite recipes in “Home Cookin’,” a self-published, spiral-bound cookbook that starts with her beer cheese log appetizer and ends with desserts like sweet baked rice and lady finger cheesecake.
People always ask her about her cooking and her recipes. She jokes that she’s not one to hoard the secrets for herself.
“I’d like to share with others what I’ve accomplished,” said Walth, who was chosen at Lodi’s Citizen of the Year last year.
Walth will turn 80 in a few months, but she has yet to slow down in the kitchen or in life. When she is not at her Lodi home cooking in one of her two kitchens with her children and grandchildren, she is calling Bingo at the senior center or volunteering at the hospital.
“I’m a people person,” she said. “I have a very active body.”
Though her recipes are anything but light and healthy, the grandmother with dark red hair and matching lipstick is thin and appears taller than her height of 5-foot-3 as she moves around her house with amazing energy.
Even her son Timothy Walth says he and his sisters have a hard time keeping tabs on their on-the-go mother.
“Nobody keeps up with that woman,” he said.
The youngster on the dairy
Walth was born in 1934 to a dairy-farming family in North Dakota. She was the middle of 17 children, and the siblings were literally their own baseball team.
When she was a “youngster,” she says each of the siblings would have to choose a week to do the cooking for the family. That’s where her mother taught her how to cook and bake at a young age. It didn’t take long before she could eye a tablespoon of salt in the palm of her hand. Or before she had memorized her German grandmother’s recipes.
“I did a lot of experimenting,” Walth said. “Once I make a recipe once or twice, I don’t need a recipe anymore.”
Life changed for Walth, the 19-year-old farm girl cooking away in her mother’s kitchen in the Dakotas, when she fell for the 24-year-old man eyeing her at a town dance.
“He was the love of my life,” she said.
“Home Cookin’” is dedicated to her husband Adam Walth, who died of cancer in 2000.
“(He) supported and encouraged me to follow my dreams,” Walth wrote in the opening of her cookbook.
LaVerne and Adam had four daughters and a son. On 800 acres of dairy land, she taught her children a foundation of hard work.
Timothy Walth remembers that the girls and boys were treated equally when it came to work, whether it was laundry, cleaning the pig barn or learning to drive trucks before they were 10 years old.
“Nobody was treated differently,” he said. “Back on the farm, boys and girls were considered equal.”
But LaVerne Walth had dreams for her children that included more than what she thought rural North Dakota could offer. When she was 34, the Walth family traded in dairy life for Lodi, where Walth hoped her children would have opportunities to study a variety of subjects and use their years of hard work to forge their own careers.
“My goal in life was to put my kids through college, to give them an education so they can be self-sufficient,” she said, adding that she is now proud of each of her children, the careers they have made and their entrepreneurial spirits.
‘I feel God has blessed me in many, many ways’
Walth didn’t waste any time sharing her family recipes with her new neighbors in Lodi. First she went into business selling pies, then it became the ever-popular LaVerne’s Coffee Shop on School Street.
Opening a restaurant was more challenging than cooking for the family.
“It was scary,” she said. “The first three weeks I couldn’t even think.”
Still, she had customers who came the day she opened and were regulars until the day she sold, keeping her in business with their orders of rhubarb and apple pies and bowls of one of the homemade soups she’d make every day.
“It was like one big happy family,” she said.
At home, she continued to raise the kids and even kept cooking up their favorite family dinners, like macaroni and cheese, bratwurst and fried potatoes and dumplings.
“Everything she made was that good comfort food,” Timothy Walth said. “When you eat it, it reminds you of simpler times.”
Over the years, she became known for her skills in the kitchen. Sunset magazine once hired her to prepare a turkey for the cover of their Thanksgiving issue, and Lodi High School asked her to give a demonstration on cheese buttons.
Her cooking career offered endless fun in her life. But in 1998, she sold the business to spend time with Adam during his last months. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away two years later.
Life is different without Adam, but Walth continues to thrive with her family and community involvement. She has fun cooking, especially when her children and grandchildren spend the day with her in the kitchen, rolling dough for pies or hearty dinners.
“I feel God has blessed me in many, many ways,” she said.
Many Lodians may feel blessed, too, knowing LaVerne’s favorite recipes are compiled into one 137-page book. Her daughter Jackie Davis says they are already having to do a second printing of “Home Cookin’” because an incredible number of locals wanted her recipes.
“There are so many generations who know her (cooking),” Davis said, adding that her customers now tell stories of visits to the coffee shop. “‘We’d go on cheese button day!’” they tell her.