As we wrap up National Volunteer Month, we had heard about Stephen serving weekly in our soup kitchen in Hudson, NY. Stephen's father used to say to him, "I hope you never know hunger." And while Stephen may not know the physical pangs of hunger, that hasn't stopped him from knowing and befriending those that do - and for many of our volunteers, it doesn't stop them either.
Keep your heart open and a small act of kindness can grow unexpectedly fast. I learned this simple truth once again when I recently stopped by a Salvation Army Soup Kitchen in Hudson, New York.
My husband, James, and I live in Manhattan, but have a weekend house about ten miles south of Hudson. When the coronavirus pandemic closed down New York City, we decided to shelter in place upstate. Here we quickly found ourselves in an altogether different reality, the Covid-19 state of mind, which is equal parts fear and boredom. With our jobs, and our lives, seemingly on “hold,” what were we to do? Or, less selfishly, couldn’t we figure out a way to help others during this time of national trauma?
So, we went to a grocery store, filled a couple carts full of non-perishable goods — things like pasta, tuna fish, and canned tomatoes — then dropped off this food at the Salvation Army. That might have been the end of it, had we not lingered a few minutes to chat with Darcy Connor, the irrepressibly cheerful manager of this Salvation Army center. During our brief conversation, I mentioned in passing that I knew a little something about cooking for crowds, and had recently published a book, The 24-Hour Soup Kitchen: Soul-Stirring Lessons in Gastrophilanthropy, which described my experiences of making food for the needy in charitable settings around the world.
Well, I barely had this sentence out of my mouth before Darcy was grinning with one of her 100-watt smiles. “Do you think you’d be willing to make lunch here next Tuesday?” she asked. Gulp! I was surprised, but pleased. Yes, I immediately replied.
On that first day, I made chicken curry, a green salad, and chocolate chip cookies. Of course I wore gloves, a face mask, compulsively wiped all surfaces with Lysol, and was relieved to learn meals would be individually wrapped in bags, and put outside for guests to pick up. Even so, when I later told a few of my friends about this new cooking gig, they claimed I was a fool to put my body at “risk” this way. Perhaps so, but I left that kitchen feeling happier and healthier than I had for quite some time. What’s more, Darcy was pleased enough with my culinary skills to wonder if I’d be willing to return the following Tuesday.
This was a month and a half ago, and these weekly experiences of feeding Hudson’s hungry have been, to use my own word, soul-stirring. Our numbers are increasingly each Tuesday: 40, then 60, and last week, close to 100. This is distressing to see, and yet I now find myself too busy to wring my hands with worry. Instead, I’m putting them to work making meatballs, lasagna, or lentils and rice. Some of these recipes I’ve cooked before, sometimes I’m flying — or frying — blind. I’m not a trained chef, you see, just someone who has spent a lot of time in kitchens. Some power bigger than me seems to be acting as my sous chef, assisting me with things I’ve never prepared before (Cheese grits? Hello!), so that they taste good and are nourishing.
Is charity just a form of magical thinking? Meaning, when we try to help others, are we actually hoping to be kissed by karma — our goodness inoculating us from anything bad? It’s only human to think such thoughts, I suppose, but now is not the moment to wait for answers to these questions. Instead, it’s a time to act. That’s because in the new normal caused by the coronavirus, volunteering to help others is not only terribly necessary, it is appallingly easy. For me, all it took was a single visit to The Salvation Army.
I am no saint, as anyone who knows me will be quick to point out. On the contrary, I feel a little guilty. I’m pretty sure I’m getting more joy out of these Tuesday lunches, than I’m managing to give.
Want More Inspiration from Stephen?
The 24-Hour Soup Kitchen is available at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. 100% of its sales proceeds are being donated to Food Bank for New York City, a non-profit that’s busier than ever, feeding those affected by the coronavirus.
This intriguing series of field reports brings the reader inside the clamor, chaos, and compassion of kitchens in places such as Iran, Israel, and South Korea, as well as those in Austin, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh. Written with a huge heart, and an even bigger appetite, these chapters — sad and funny, sometimes both — may inspire you to embark on your own acts of gastrophilanthropy.