The setting was a rainy Tuesday afternoon, the smells were fresh brewed coffee and tasty treats baking in the oven, in this case fresh ginger snaps. We were greeted with a smile and hug from an old friend, someone we had known for a long time--Janice Sherman Brien of Magee.
We were visiting because we were fortunate enough to get some of her homemade goodies, the production of which is yet another path she has ventured down in the last few years.
Partly as a hobby and partly as a mission to restore the lost art of natural cooking, she is now preparing some of the foods that once were common in Southern kitchens but are now becoming lost, preparing and preserving or canning fresh fruits and baked specialty items.
Cooking fits the life she has lived since 1994, when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. At the time she was a dentist, and her background in science enabled her to study what caused her disease and how to treat her own symptoms. Part of the treatment includes eating a good diet with a lot of natural ingredients and without a lot of preservatives other than the natural kind.
Her hobby allows her to work as she can and not have to work on a rigid schedule. When she feels well she can do the more active things she enjoys rather than sitting and “absorbing the tube.” And with new technology available, she can stream her TV favorites through her cell phone while she is working. “It’s the best of all worlds,” she said with a grin.
Janice has always had a talent for doing things right.
The idea of cooking food the right way started when her eldest son was having his birthday and Janice was tired of “getting him a shirt or something he already had.” She asked what he wanted and he said that there was nothing he needed. Janice was not going to let that go, and she pushed him for some specific gift.
He thought for a second and said, “Mom make me some of that bar-b-q sauce that you do.” His request was the inspiration Janice needed to propel her into preparing homemade goodies.
Janice is originally from Mendenhall. However, she says that home was really closer to Bogan Ridge near Pinola, close to the country store on the hill called Sherman’s.
Upon graduation from Pinola High School she went on to Co-Lin at age 16 and then to Millsaps College, where she completed her studies and received her undergraduate degree at the age of 20. She then enrolled in the LSU School of Dentistry at age 20 and completed her studies by age 23.
In her former life, then, she became Dr. Janice Brien. She started her dental practice in Mendenhall, where she would work for the next 19 and a half years. She was progressive for a small town practitioner, offering braces as well as dental surgery in addition to the normal dental services.
Then unexpectedly, right in the middle of a procedure with one of her patients, she suffered from a bout of double vision.
After a series of tests she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, commonly known as MS. The disease impacts the brain, the spinal column and the nervous system as well as the immune system. In Janice’s case it came with vision issues that would not allow her to continue practicing dentistry.
In 1994 when she received the diagnosis, she had three children in high school and one in college. She said she knew she couldn’t just give up.
Janice was a strong Christian and said this is what helped her in making the changes to the new life she would face. She lost a good friend, Faye Easterwood of Magee, who died of cancer in 1993, and got her own bad diagnosis herself all within a couple of months, but negative circumstances did not stop her.
Refusing to give up, she launched a new career in massage therapy, which didn’t require such close visual acuity and small muscle coordination. The field was not unknown to her because she had worked with patients who experienced TMJ, a mouth disorder sometimes referred to as “lock jaw.”
For the next three years Janice offered massage therapy sessions and was good at that also. She worked in a space adjacent to Gene Polk’s Drugstore in Magee and credits Edith and Brinson Polk for being so nice as to allow her to set up her business there for the next three years.
During this time she and another Magee friend, Jean Allen, who had taught art, took up the arts together. They got into the water color medium and what Janice termed “other artsy stuff.”
When Janice could no longer perform massage therapy because she lacked the necessary physical strength, it was on to the next endeavor, healthy food products.
Her business is called Oh Mommy, which in itself works really well--”Oh Mommy, this is wonderful!” The name is also a play on the word umami, a Japanese word that refers to a savory taste combination of sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness. Many of her food products, for example her bread pudding, are not loaded with the traditional sweet sauces that most Americans have become accustomed to but rather that of a savory taste which is more spicy than sweet and loaded with sugar.
Part of the treatment for MS is a healthier diet, and that is what Janice tries to provide for herself and others through her products that offer some traditional foods prepared in older, more traditional ways instead of a lot of unhealthy preservatives.
Another caution she tries to observe is that many of the treatments for MS have potential coronary side effects, so she tries to minimize those in her food preparation.
She tries to take the healthy route herself in eating but said, “If you want fried chicken have it, but consider it a treat and not a staple. She said that when she asked her own children what kinds of treats they would like, they wanted real food, “not all this unhealthy stuff like fast food and potato chips. They wanted food!”
The thing that launched her into the canning business was the fact that she had a bumper crop of cranberries in her yard. One thing led to another, she recalled, and before she realized it she was in business.
She said looking back on her careers the thing that she misses most is the interaction with people she enjoyed as a family dentist and the children she watched grow up.
But her business expanded into more public venues when someone talked her into setting up a sales booth at the farmer’s market in Magee in its second year. Armed with a borrowed card table and a borrowed tent off she went. It turned into a pretty big production.
Now, thanks to the people like Jimmy and Judy Lott, who sell their honey products at the Magee market and other venues, she can go to some of the shows out of town and sell her goods. She said it is a chore to set up, but with the Lotts’ help this is something she can still do. She likes to travel with the Lotts, and they have become friends. She also enjoys having repeat customers because they like her products and come back for more.
From her experience in the tricky process of canning, Janice’s advice is to start with good products like fresh sweet Chilton Peaches from Alabama. She sources her oranges from Louisiana for her marmalade and gets her figs locally. The recipes she uses are natural and similar to those that most southerners are used to, but she takes them to the next level with her perfect spices and flavors.
She calls her business “a small cottage industry,” which prepares products in small batches. She includes homemade chowchow, pickles, jams, jellies and her famous BBQ sauce.
Those who want to buy her fresh products may call 601-849-2292, or her cell number, 601-382-2097.