Frankford resident Dawn West-Atkins is always on the run. Whether she’s working one of her two nursing jobs, volunteering at a chicken dinner fundraiser or spending time with her son, she’s a woman who seems to have little spare time. And what spare time she does have goes to good use. So much so, in fact, that she created her own business, In My Spare Time.
“Because anytime I have spare time, that’s what I’m doing — I’m in my kitchen, making something,” explained West-Atkins. “People don’t know how I do it… I don’t have an answer. It’s just something I like doing.”
She makes various items, including preserved watermelon rind, dill pickles, pepper relish and five kinds of jellies, which are sold locally at McCabe’s Gourmet Market, Ruthie’s Bakery and Atlantic Coastal Market.
“I have been selling my products in stores for two years. I sold it out of my trunk, like Paula Deen did, before I started selling it in stores.”
West-Atkins said that, in this year alone, she’s picked 140 pounds of beach plums for her beach plum jam.
“Most people don’t even know that plums grown on the beach. They grow wild, and you have to go out there and roll up your pant legs and pick,” she said.
West-Atkins credits her mother, who would make her help cook for the family, for all her culinary skills.
“The inspiration was my mom. She would make me watch her do stuff and, of course, I hated it at the time. Now that she’s no longer with us, it’s pretty much an honor,” she said. “My mom taught me …and my grandpop. The pickle recipe was my grandfather’s. My son, he won’t eat any store-bought pickles. He only likes my pickles.”
West-Atkins said she hopes to continue the tradition, by passing down the recipes to her son.
“He watches me and given just a little bit of guidance, I think he can do just as well.”
West-Atkins’ pickles are so good, in fact, that she received a third-place ribbon for her sweet pickles at the Delaware State Fair this past month.
“It’s very exciting,” she said. “Some people might think it’s no big deal. but it’s a very big deal for me.”
Last year, West-Atkins took home a second-place ribbon at the state fair for her homemade salsa. This year, she entered various items into the culinary competition at the fair, though she said knowing what to enter and what the judges will like is a bit of a gamble. She said there’s little communication between entrants and the judges.
“There were close to 250 things you could enter,” West-Atkins explained. “They’re very closed-mouthed about it. You don’t hear a lot about it, and they’re very strict about their rules. I do know that it’s a process. They look at the products first and decide which ones they like, and then they open the product. So if your jar has been opened, you know that they like it. Then they pick from there.”
She added that entrants aren’t informed as to whether or not they’ve placed in the competitions. Rather, they must go to the fair in person and find out.
“You have to go through every shelf to find yours,” she said. “It’s like an emotional rollercoaster. We were riding all the way from the beach to the fair, and my son was saying, ‘You’re gonna win! You’re gonna win!’ Then going through shelf after shelf looking… It’s just very exciting when you see a great big ribbon on your product.”
Those two ribbons weren’t won for pickles and salsa produced in some fancy restaurant kitchen or with loads of sophisticated equipment, but rather in West-Atkins’ own home kitchen.
“It’s done right in my kitchen, on a four-burner stove. It’s nothing elaborate. I don’t use any machines… It’s all done by hand. I use what I have, and I make it work.”
She added that all of her products are made with locally grown produce and with the help of good friends.
“If I didn’t have my good friend Ellen Magee at Magee Farms, none of this would be possible, because I could never do without her. She’s just been wonderful to me.”
West-Atkins said that life is always crazy and busy but something as simple as a couple of ribbons can make the hard work that much more rewarding.
“I am very, very pleased, and I’m very proud of myself that I’ve won two years in a row, which is really hard to do at a state fair,” she said. “I have two ribbons hanging that I can look at anytime I’m having a problem or feeling down they can always make me smile.”