In the Kitchen with Her Honor, The Mayor
Sefatia Romeo Theken wasn’t elected mayor of Gloucester because of her cooking. But she could have been.
As you would imagine, these days her kitchen time can be quite limited.
“I cook for therapy,” Theken said. "I’m either not cooking at all, or cooking up a storm; both mean I’m working really hard at my job."
Theken (pronounced “TAY•ken”) replaced Caroline Kirk as mayor in 2015 (after Kirk bolted for the State House). She previously paid her dues on the city council for 13 years. She’s a lifelong Gloucester resident, and traces her ancestry back to Terrasini and Partinico, in Palermo, Sicily.
The granddaughter — and a widow — of Gloucester fishermen (the family boat was the Santa Lucia), Theken still serves as vice president of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association, a position she’s had for 20 years.
She’s the real deal.
And she’s the real deal in the kitchen, too. A click on Theken’s Facebook page shows as many photos of braised chicken thighs and fresh vegetable omelets as grip-and-grins with visiting dignitaries. She’s a working woman — and a mom and wife trying to prepare regular meals for her family and make healthy lunches for work.
And this woman is not just the mayor of the City of Gloucester, but also a mother to three daughters, a grandmother to four, and a godmother to 28. Twenty-eight.
Before her public service, Theken worked for 18 years as the community liaison to Addison Gilbert Hospital (where she still volunteers), guiding uninsured or under-supported patients through the endless maze of health care via its Serving the Health Insurance Needs of Everyone (SHINE) program.
In that office Theken was so beloved that her clients claimed if she ever ran for mayor they wouldn’t vote for her. They didn’t want to lose her. (They have since changed their minds, Theken said with a smile.)
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Theken’s Sicilian heritage is never far from her thoughts.
“As a child I loved waking up to the smell of garlic and onions frying in oil; that was Sunday morning in Gloucester, and I knew my mother was making the sugo.”
Sugo, a word singularly unique to Gloucester’s Sicilian community, is the basic tomato sauce upon which so many local dishes are built.
But sugo isn’t gravy.
“Don’t ever call it gravy,” Theken warns.
“Gravy” and “spaghetti and meatballs,” were born when Italian immigrants arrived in America, she explains, and needed to extend a meatloaf recipe to serve an extended family. The Italian immigrants would add breadcrumbs to their meatloaf, but it made the meat tough.
To solve that problem they simmered the meatballs in tomato sauce. The sauce became known as gravy, and spaghetti and meatballs — a completely American phenomenon — was born.
Sugo is the basic tomato sauce that graces Gloucester pasta. Its simplicity is so beloved it's almost sacred.
In the local Sicilian community, Sunday has always meant “pasta in Glosta,” Theken said. Today, Sundays in Theken’s home still means two pots of simmering sauces. The first is the traditional sugo, her personal favorite.
“Sauté the onions and garlic in olive oil, and add four cans of crushed Pastene tomatoes, processed in a blender,” Theken said. “And simmer away.”
For the second sauce, she adds meatballs and/or sausage to the zuggo, and, yes, one large potato cut into large chunks — Theken’s personal tweak to a Sicilian favorite. She said she loves the way the potato softens in the sauce, and marries the meat and tomato flavors. She gives this sauce away to her daughters, friends and family.
Theken still grocery shops as often as the rest of us. But said she tries to shop late in the evening because, well, too many constituents. She could never make it through the store during regular shopping hours.
Like any experienced cook, Theken has some wonderful kitchen tips: processing those slipping cloves of garlic into a paste before they are completely unusable, or preserving them in olive oil and extending their life by a week or so.
It’s a bonus to have a teaspoon of this garlic blend ready to toss into a pan for an easy start to a quick after-work meal. Add some lemon juice and pepperoncini to the oil and you’ve got an instant salad dressing.
The mayor loves her basil, but knows pesto can’t be used all the time. Instead, she preserves her basil by finely chopping it, mixing it into a paste with olive oil, salt and pepper, and then freezing the paste. Theken said she'll often take out the basil mixture in the morning, bring home some fresh fish in the evening, and toss them together. Then she’ll put the fish in a baking dish, cover it with breadcrumbs and bake it — and have an easy, wonderfully healthy weeknight dinner.
Yes, Theken has even passed her own fish regulation: “The uglier the fish, the better the broth,” Theken said.
She suggests making your stock from redfish, whiting, and monkfish. And when you make a chowder or a stew, use the attractive, but less flavorful, fish like hake and haddock for the visible chunks; the ugly fish broth will make all of it taste delicious.
“I love it when I give people fish soup, and they think there isn’t any fish in it,” Theken said. “That’s because the freshest fish has almost no taste at all.”
Theken said she fully embraces the idea of seasonality with cooking.
“I love the tradition of waiting for things. In Gloucester the only dish we still wait for is the St. Joseph’s Day pasta, and that’s just because it’s such a pain to make,” she said.
The mayor also observes some strict trade regulations: flip some fresh Gloucester fish for equally fresh ricotta from Detroit. In fact, the whole Gloucester Sicilian community is in on this deal. The “Ricotta Man,” a friend from Detroit, visits four times a year with his fresh curds, and returns to Detroit with Gloucester’s seasonal catch.
Whether it’s food or her fellow citizens, Theken said she loves “the satisfaction of serving others.”
That works for us.
Portions of this article originally appeared in the Gloucester Daily Times.
Jonathan Kozowyk is a commercial advertising and editorial photographer based in Boston.