This story idea grabbed my attention: A husband claimed his wife hadn't cooked the same meal twice in nine years.
Goodness knows, I needed this cooking dynamo's advice. In the past month, I've "cooked" smoked sausage, Kraft mac-and-cheese and whatever vegetable was in the freezer at least three times. (In my defense, when I'm starving and dealing with a demanding toddler, the time it takes to cook macaroni is all the time I have.)
So I finagled an invitation for dinner at the Raleigh, N.C., home of Ned and Robin Mangum. Ned, now a Wake District Court judge, is an acquaintance from my years covering the Wake County, N.C., courthouse. He sent a note after a Facebook post about his wife's culinary record generated two dozen comments, such as: "How is that even possible?"
On the night I went for dinner, Robin said she wasn't aware of her tendency to avoid repetition until her husband pointed it out.
Robin, 38, has a degree in art education from Meredith College. She worked for two years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Now she works full time developing programs at Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh. The couple has three boys.
Robin doesn't claim to be a mother extraordinaire who makes every meal from scratch.
At most, she cooks four nights a week. The family eats leftovers or dines out on the other evenings. When she does get to cook, it's relaxing. Ned takes the boys outside to play so she can get dinner ready. Or Gus, who is known as her "sous chef," will help in the kitchen.
She doesn't keep a food diary. And she does repeat the hits if requested or for a rare dinner party, but it's hard to resist reinvention. On this recent Monday night meal, she has already made a vegetable stir-fry, which is being kept warm in the oven.
Robin keeps a list on her smartphone of dishes she wants to tackle: things she's eaten at restaurants or seen online. That's a starting point to look for recipes in cookbooks or on websites such as epicurious.com. She also looks for inspiration from her favorite Food Network stars Ina Garten and Ree Drummond, aka The Pioneer Woman.
In the summer, the family receives a box of vegetables each week from The Produce Box, a local company that offers delivery of produce from local farms. Those ingredients will lead Robin to search for something new to fix for the family.
Then there are the culinary tours that dinner occasionally becomes at the Mangum household. Robin has had the family eating their way through the British Isles, from shepherd's pie to bangers and mash. With seafood, she turns to the Greeks for inspiration.
There are sandwich nights, a run of slow-cooker recipes, or a series of chowders and soups. "The soup kick was good," Ned said.
On this night, Gus and Hugh add ketchup and Worcestershire sauce to the dumpling filling. Bear sets the table and then helps fill and seal the pot stickers, folding them into squares before his mom cooks them in a skillet.
As the family sits down to eat, Gus is asked to say grace, choosing the Pledge of Allegiance. The older boys have a special platter of the pot stickers they made set before them. Bear tastes the ones he made and the ones his mother made, declaring, "Mine are better than those."
Robin quips, "You have to have a thick skin in this family."
When I get up to leave, I have a full stomach, some dinner inspiration from a fellow working mom and a lesson in children as food critics.