Live cooking demonstrations now are a staple at department and specialty stores and especially cable television where they now are aired to enthusiastic home cooks almost 24/7.
However, back in 1968 when longtime Reston resident Rita Bolle did her first such demonstration, they were a real rarity.
That demonstration at a large department store in Miami (the now defunct Burdines) — though more than 40 years ago — remains vividly etched in her memory.
In fact, when she thinks of it, Bolle, CEO and president of Reston Lloyd Ltd. — a manufacturer and distributor of top brands of kitchen and dinnerware headquartered in Sterling — cannot help but laugh and even shudder a little.
Not only were cooking demonstrations then uncommon, Bolle — who thinks it might have been the first at any department store in the United States — was not, at the time, a particularly experienced cook.
“I called a friend to help, and she couldn’t cook either,” recalled Bolle with a laugh.
Bolle’s ex-husband, her then partner in Reston Lloyd’s predecessor company, had scheduled the demonstration without consulting her first. Their company (Trans-Ocean-Bridge) was exclusively marketing a product that Bolle, who is a native of Germany, had discovered when it introduced in 1967 at a fair in Hanover, Germany — a distinctive clay pot for healthy and easy one-pot cooking, manufactured by the now well-known German company Romertopf.
In an effort to educate Americans about this modern and much easier adaptation of an ancient cooking method — in which wet clay was molded around food and cooked over a campfire — an uneasy Bolle and her equally uneasy friend showed up at Burdines, pretending to be experts.
“You said this [pot] cooks so great and is so easy, so you do it,” Bolle recalled her ex-husband unsympathetically saying.
Only having time to read the instruction book on the flight to Miami, Bolle and her girlfriend found a long line of eager people awaiting the demonstration. Burdines apparently had advertised this “new” cookware profusely in the local media.
“It wasn’t a very good demonstration, not by today’s standards, but luckily the chicken and vegetables we cooked came out great. … We made a little bit of history,” said Bolle, whose cooking demonstrations — this time with professional cooks — throughout the U.S. and other marketing efforts made Romertopf a household name in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Reston Lloyd, which she incorporated in 1972 after her divorce, switched from selling Romertopf clay cookers to its rival Schlemmertopf in 1974. An unfortunately classic story, Bolle, despite a track record of success, lost the Romertopf distribution contract to a man because, she was told, she was a risk as a single, divorced woman with two small children — her identical twin sons, Kevin and Kirk, who now run Reston Lloyd with her.
“I was now competing with my own hard work,” said Bolle, a Reston resident since 1967.
Bolle, however, went on not only to successfully market Romertopf’s rival, Schlemmertopf, but also to perfect it. She developed a transparent glaze for inside the Schlemmertopf clay pot, leaving the lid unglazed to keep the advantages of porous clay cooking. During cooking, moisture is released out of the lid, which is soaked in cold water for about 10 minutes before it is put in the oven or microwave.
A major marketing boost occurred when legendary chef, the late James Beard, and journalist and food writer Burton Wolf, also host of the PBS series “Travels and Traditions,” included Schlemmertopf’s clay pot in their definitive 1975 “The Cooks’ Catalog.”
In the catalog, they explained: “The advantage seems to be that you can produce tenderly braised meat or poultry or whatever without using any fats, with little additional liquid and without letting any of the nutrients in the food escape — in this, the pot is not totally unlike a pressure cooker or the waterless cookers of the 1930s.”
Although Romertopf eventually glazed the interior of its clay pots, too, until recently, those German-made clay pots were not sold in the U.S. Only the cheaper totally unglazed, Mexican-made versions of Romertopf were sold in the U.S. That is until now.
This year, the new owners of German-made Romertopf clay pots, renamed Romertopf Keramic, appointed Reston Lloyd — which is phasing out its Schlemmertopf line — as its exclusive importer and distributor for the U.S. and Canada, starting in January. She expects to distribute these Romertopf Keramic clay pots — whose clay comes exclusively from Westerland, an area north of Frankfurt, Germany — to better cooking stores like William Sonoma and Sur La Table.
A true expert after more than four decades, Bolle, coming full circle, is looking forward to continuing the education of the public about clay pot cooking. This time, however, her clay pot cooking skills also are expert.
She honed these skills, preparing meals in clay pots for her own family, including special occasions like Thanksgiving and Christmas, and for the huge Oktoberfest parties, with hundreds of guests, that she once hosted at Reston Lloyd’s Sterling offices and warehouse.
With the help of some good Reston friends, she said, the one-pot, one-step cooking for those Oktoberfests was exceptionally easy. Plus, the clay pots, in both decorative traditional and contemporary designs, look great for serving, she pointed out.
In addition, Bolle excitedly reported, Romertopf Keramic is coming out in 2013 with an additional clay pot that is big enough to accommodate a large holiday turkey.
Although those Oktoberfest parties are no more, victim of the economic downturn, Bolle said Reston Lloyd has managed nicely to weather the economic ups and downs of recent years, and business is looking good again.
“One sign,” she emphasized with a knowing smile, “is our Romertopf reunion.”
Bolle said she welcomes inquiries about where and how to obtain these clay pots, and she has lots of recipes to share on how to use them.