- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2000

WESTMINSTER, Md. College students almost invariably are drawn to home-cooked meals, and among Western Maryland College's 1,600 students, an invitation to dean Barbara Horneff's table is particularly coveted.

The attraction goes beyond ravioli made from scratch or the "Prince's Pot Roast" first cooked for the dean's sons when they were children.

It's about Mrs. Horneff finding a way to cook several courses in a power outage for a student's surprise birthday party or promising a chocolate-chip pie to a football player if he scored a touchdown, then delivering enough pie for the team when he scored three. It's also about her driving to a dark alley behind the dormitories at night to hand off bags of leftovers to students.

It's memories like those that have Mrs. Horneff's guests buying her self-published cookbook, filled with recipes and tales about her students, to re-create the time they spent in her kitchen.

"I invite students to my home who provide a special meaning to my life during the year," Mrs. Horneff says. "It's because I like the sense of community and sense of family."

Mrs. Horneff says that since she was a child, meals have been about more than just food. They're about the experience of sharing food, she says.

"I think I was sort of naive in thinking that everyone was brought up that way," she says. "But I've learned in conversations with college students that very few of them sit down to dinner. I think it's a family tradition that needs to be maintained."

Recent graduate and frequent dinner guest Dave Meckley became hooked on the dean's cooking in his freshman year, when he had his first plate of gnocchi and glass of "A Hint of Mint Iced Tea."

"Just the feeling you get when you walk in the kitchen and see Barb there cooking I guess you feel a warmth you don't get many other places," Mr. Meckley says.

As graduation neared, he lamented the fact that he was headed to graduate school hundreds of miles from Mrs. Horneff's kitchen.

"I originally was the one who said I didn't know what I was going to do when I couldn't go home for dinner," he says.

So Mrs. Horneff pulled her recipes, reminiscences and photographs including two of Mr. Meckley into a 113-page cookbook titled "Dinner Winners … and real meals." The book is sold at the campus bookstore, although Mrs. Horneff hasn't decided whether to try to make it available elsewhere.

Cookbook in hand, Mr. Meckley left this fall for Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Now he's the one cooking Mrs. Horneff's gnocchi for guests, even as he waits for the chance to drive the four hours to Westminster for the real thing.

"It's a little long to drive for dinner," he says. "But if the invitation came up, I'd definitely go."

Despite Mr. Meckley's absence, Mrs. Horneff has not found herself short of dinner guests. She and her husband, Don, a music professor at the college, cooked for 160 people last year. Many of them were repeat customers.

A handful of this year's freshman class already have been introduced to Mrs. Horneff's cooking. Six students came over for Italian food last week, and several more were expected at a dinner this week.

Brandon Brown, a recent arrival from Middletown, Del., managed to land invitations for three consecutive weeks in September and already knew the drill.

"What's the rule here, Brandon?" Mrs. Horneff asked.

"You gotta take some home," recited Mr. Brown, who needed no prodding later that night when he staked his claim to a surprising number of meatballs.

Mrs. Horneff says sending food home with the students is a matter of self-preservation for her and her husband.

"If Don and I ate the leftovers from every dinner we served, we would be 50 pounds heavier," Mrs. Horneff says.

The couple stepped into a parental role at the meal, serving up advice on the best way to deal with a sinus infection and etiquette tips.

"The idea is pretty much to take what's in front of you and pass it to your left," Mr. Horneff advised as students went to fill their plates.

Just in case the freshmen didn't realize the value of what they were getting, one veteran dinner-goer was there to enlighten them.

"We always knew where the good food was," says Carrie Newman, the cookbook's cover girl, who met her boyfriend at a tree-trimming party thrown by the Horneffs last December.

But Miss Newman's favorite story about the dean's house was the time Mrs. Horneff pulled together a surprise birthday dinner for her without any electricity.

"Of all the days for the electricity to go out," moans Mrs. Horneff, remembering her carefully planned menu of pot roast, mashed potatoes, peas, salad and red velvet cake.

So Mrs. Horneff used a ricer to mash the potatoes, cooked the roast on top of the gas stove and hand-whipped the frosting for the cake, which she had fortuitously prepared the prior night.

"I couldn't cancel it was Carrie's birthday for Pete's sake," she says.

And that, Miss Newman says, is half the experience.

"You get to know them, and that's what makes it really special," she says.

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