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Chicagoan Mary Jane Taldisplays her oven which will finally start getting used. (Rich Hein~Sun-Times)

Chicagoan Mary Jane Tala displays her oven, which will finally start getting used. (Rich Hein~Sun-Times)

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Updated: June 26, 2011 12:21AM

Mary Jane Tala, 57, Near North Side

“About two years ago, a friend was coming to visit from New York, and he promised he would cook for me while he was in town. At that point, I realized that my oven had not been used even once in the 15 years I’d lived in my condo. Not once. I inquired of my friends as to how one cleans an electric oven. One of them asked, ‘Are you sure it still works?’ Good question!

“In order to find out, I first had to empty it of all the clay pots and other indoor gardening equipment that I still store in it to this day. That was when I realized that I didn’t need to clean it — it had never gotten dirty in the first place.

“On the rare occasion that I actually use a burner on my stove, I have to run the exhaust fan so the burning dust doesn’t set off the smoke detector. For the first minute or so, it smells like the place is on fire.

“A two-week hospital stay last fall helped me fulfill a long-thwarted, perennial New Year’s resolution to quit smoking, and I am finding that, indeed, food has more flavor now. If only there were some food in my kitchen worth testing that theory on.

“It seems to me that learning to cook would be far more practical than hiring a chef (cheaper, too). And, as unlikely as I find the idea of me cooking, it’s far more likely than the possibility that some man who can cook is going to propose marriage in the foreseeable future. Besides, this place is too small for either a chef or a spouse. So, it’s gotta be me!

“My parents can cook. My brothers can cook. My sisters-in-law can cook. Hell, their kids can cook! Just once, I’d like to be able to contribute something other than wine to a family gathering or a party. Something I didn’t buy at Jewel or Dominick’s, ready-cooked. I’ll bring wine, too, but I’ll leave the making of that to the pros.”

Maureen Galloway, 38, Albany Park

“Every year I resolve that this is the year. The year that I will truly get healthy — and bring my family along for the ride.

“The biggest challenge is that we’ve fallen into a food rut fueled by the need for convenience, as well as picky appetites. My 8- and 5-year-old kids are interested in nothing less than a diet of “kid food”: chicken nuggets, pizza, grilled cheese, hot dogs, burgers. My husband and I work in full-time marketing jobs that don’t bring us all together at home until 6 p.m. at the earliest, most often quite later. The result is a family that orders in too much, and has stooped to making two to three dinners so that everyone is happy. This madness must stop!

“My goal this year is to learn to cook healthy, kid-friendly recipes that will work for the whole family. No more multiple meals, fewer fast food feasts for the kids and a lot less reliance on dialing for dinner.”

Matt Kainer, 26, Gladstone Park

“I’m a 26-year-old man whose parents taught him the value of spending dinner as a family with a home-cooked meal. Both of my parents worked during my childhood but still found the time to cook for us, and cook well. I learned very little about cooking, instead being responsible for handling the clean up after the meal (I’m great at washing dishes).

“My parents taught me a great value in spending meal times together as a family. This is something that I would like to instill in my family in the future.

“As a firefighter, I try to be a team player, and every once in a while I might be asked to cook. It’s bad enough that I can’t cook one thing right at a time, but trying to handle the pressure of cooking for a large group of guys is a little overwhelming when I’m worrying about timing the meat with the potatoes and the vegetables so they’re all ready around the same time, making it all taste good, and wondering how to make it all work while running calls in between. Basically, when people joke that because of my job I must be a good cook, I want it to be ‘funny because it’s true.’

“The sad truth is that the only thing I know how to do is reheat leftovers using a microwave. When I’m at home, I order out a lot since I don’t want to spend the money on food that I will inevitably end up throwing out/destroying. I’m tired of eating mushy rice, undercooked meat, pizza, re-heated mushy rice, re-heated undercooked meat or re-heated pizza.

“I want to have a close-knit family, help preserve my family’s culture, wow my friends and eat healthier.

“Tonight I’m probably having hot dogs and macaroni and cheese.”

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