Around the Pot, part 1: Soup for (more than) sustenance

Five p.m. on a raw Tuesday night and the line outside All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Ravenswood already stretches down Wilson Avenue from the parish hall door to the corner. Tuesday is food distribution day at Ravenswood Community Services, the nonprofit social service agency that runs – on the spindliest of shoestrings – a food pantry and community kitchen at the church.

Outside, the line grows longer – on an average night RCS serves a nourishing hot supper to 125 people and provides bags of milk, bread, and shelf-stable staples to at least 300. Inside, associate rector Rev. Fran Holliday anxiously watches over the five hulking pots of veggies and stock she’s got going at a rolling boil on the stove in the pristine but tiny basement kitchen. Holliday’s not usually the Tuesday cook. RCS relies on regular rotating teams of volunteers to plan and prepare the weekly meal. And, though you’d be tempted to call the RCS operation a “soup kitchen” (and though it is classified as such by the Greater Chicago Food Depository) soup is rarely on the menu. But the regular first Tuesday team, led by a local caterer, is on vacation, so Holliday’s stepped into the breach. She’s never cooked for this many before, but with stacks of canned, donated chicken on hand, she’s going out on a bit of a menu-planning limb with a hearty chicken noodle soup.

Soup’s a challenge for RCS, she explains.  Unlike a cafeteria-style operation, the Tuesday night meals are served family-style at large round tables – and it’s a logistical puzzle to deliver bowls of hot soup through the crowded parish hall efficiently. And, also,  those who come to RCS to cook and eat food – who are referred to, and refer to each other, as “neighbors,” in a deliberate avoidance of traditional social-service categories of “clients” and “providers” — often have specific nutritional needs that soup doesn’t always meet. “We try to give people a lot of calories and protein,” she says. “Something that will stick to the ribs.”

Hence, the 20 pounds of pasta shells Holliday parcooked on Monday. Now, bowls heaped with chunks of chicken and pans loaded with pasta stand at the ready.  “It’s an experiment,” she says, eyeing the bubbling pots. “We’re just going to see how it goes.”

“I really want to make sure we get a lot of gunk in there,” says Jori, a medical researcher at the U. of C. and experienced volunteer whose regular cooking team is making beef stew the following week, but has been wrangled by the Rev. into pitching in tonight. She moves from pot to pot, ladling broth from each into a sixth pot to make room for the addition of plenty of protein and carbs.

Like most such efforts, the community kitchen and food pantry run on the backs of volunteers – some All Saints’ parishioners, others neighborhood residents. Every Tuesday, 30 to 50 of them cook and serve food, wash dishes, bag and distribute groceries, set up and break down chairs and tables, answer questions, and simply sit and talk with their neighbors during the meal.

“People come in and often they’ll sit at the same table every week,” says  RCS executive director Wendy Vasquez. “They sit with their friends and get here early so that they have time to get a cup of coffee and hang out. And we have a few volunteers who, that’s what their volunteer presence is – they come, they sit at tables, and they just sort of get to know people and talk to people, and listen.”

The community kitchen program started out as a ministry of All Saints’ back in 1993. Then, the parish ran a rudimentary food pantry – distributing maybe 20 bags of groceries a week literally, according to Vasquez, “out the front doors of the church.”

As the number of grocery bags grew, All Saints’ started to let people congregate inside and, one day, as the crowd was hanging out, someone decided to order pizza. After that, says Vasquez, “they did it maybe once a month, and then it became this weekly thing where you could come, have a hot meal, and take a bag of groceries when you leave.”

RCS spun off from All Saints’ in 2001, and now has its own small staff and rotating teams of weekly volunteers. The food pantry has grown from distributing 20 bags a week to 300, and RCS runs an additional outdoor pantry in the parking lot of Ravenswood School, distributing up to 12,000 pounds of food each month.

In the fall and winter of 2008, when the recession was hitting full force, says Vasquez, “our line doubled in the course of a few months. People would be walking home from the train and they’d come in and be like, ‘What’s going on? Do you need some help?’ They would just literally jump off the street and volunteer.”

That doesn’t happen so much any more, she says, but tonight Mike, an investment banker, has landed in the kitchen for the first time after following just that trajectory: He was driving home from work, got curious about the line, and decided to get involved.  Now there’s an apron over his work clothes and he’s tasked with slicing and apportioning pieces of pineapple-cherry-coconut “dump cake” into bowls for dessert while Fran and Jori distribute fistfuls of chicken and pasta among the pots, eyeballing the levels to make sure they don’t overflow, stirring gently with a long wooden spoon.

“This almost looks like a pozole,” says Jori, peering into a pot of what’s now a dense, golden stew of shells, chicken, and veggies.

“Really, what we want is a ‘stewp,’ ” says Fran. “Somewhere between a soup and a stew.”

It’s 6 p.m. and upstairs the neighbors are in out of the cold, filling up the parish hall, pulling up seats at their regular tables. Downstairs, Fran corrals some muscle, nabbing a few men who’d been pondering a leaky pipe in the ceiling to begin hauling the pots of chicken soup upstairs to a makeshift serving station. “OK, I’m off to the races,” says one, slipping on potholders and swinging the first pot off the stove.

“Can I get all my volunteers in a line?” Jori calls out to the group, which by now includes a half-dozen more adults and several little kids, one of whom earnestly holds up his plastic-gloved paws for inspection.

“OK,” says Jori. “ We want to make sure we get the salad and the bread on every table first. Then, we have a soup station up there where we’re dishing the soup out into bowls on trays.  You want to make sure every neighbor gets a big, hearty bowl of soup.”

They grab their bowls and head up the stairs to the parish hall, where Fran is wrapping up a blessing.

“Gracious God, we give you thanks for this community we have gathered here, and for this food we are about to share. Let us pray.”

And then, they’re off – in a whirlwind of service and slurping. Wendy Vasquez joked later that she’s always wanted to do a stop-motion film of a Tuesday night meal. Once the doors open, she says, it’s like a ball rolling down a hill – all you can do is stay out of the way. Aproned servers — even the smallest ones — deliver bowls of salad, bread, soup, and dessert to tables in a flurry of surprising efficiency, leaning down to answer questions about the food and field requests for seconds.

“You did good, chef,” says a server to Fran, as she slips past.

The crowd is diverse: some older, some younger; some black, some white, some Asian. Some women, more men. The vast majority of neighbors in attendance are just that — neighbors living within the 12 blocks surrounding the church at the corner of Hermitage and Wilson. Eighty percent are elderly, living on a fixed income, members of the “working poor,” or families living in the neighborhood. Twenty percent are homeless and living on the street.

In the northwest corner of the room, John and Jim sit with 7 others at table 14 – their regular spot. Jim’s older, with a craggy face, gray hair and burly hands. He’s been coming to Tuesday dinners for 6 months or so, he says. He found out about them through the American Indian Center down the street. I ask him what he thinks of the soup.

It’s good, he says – it’s “Jewish penicillin,” and then adds, “Me gusta la sopa!” He’s studying Spanish, he says.

John, on his right, is a lot younger. He’s wearing a South Park T-shirt and has his hair combed back straight from his forehead. He used to work as a security guard for the CTA, he says, but he got fired in March and has been out of work ever since.  His unemployment claim was denied, but his family’s helping out so he can keep his apartment down the street while he looks for another security job, or something in retail. Or food service. Or, really, anything.

He found out about the Tuesday meals the same way the investment banker did: He saw the line.

“This is a great service to have for people who are low and out, and need some assistance,” he says, carefully. “It really does help them out. I have a place to live but some people here they’re living in the road, or at a shelter. So every single Tuesday this is somewhere for them to go, something stable.”

[Ed. note: I’m in the process of researching *other people’s soup projects* as possible material for a new cookbook, and am hoping to post occasional long pieces like this as I get the chance. RCS is the Soup & Bread beneficiary this coming week.]

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5 Responses to “Around the Pot, part 1: Soup for (more than) sustenance”

  1. Rippie Says:

    What an awesome read. What a [quietly] important story. Bless yer heart, MB. – j

  2. Martha Says:

    Hey, thanks Rip.

  3. Michele Beaulieux Says:

    Beautiful story beautifully written. Reminded me of the beautiful story about Borscht in the New Yorker by Aleksandar Hemon
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/11/22/101122fa_fact_hemon

  4. Martha Says:

    Thank you Michele! I don’t know how I missed this Hemon piece; I thought I read that iss. cover 2 cover? It is lovely.

  5. Soup & Bread: Extreme edition « Soup and Bread Says:

    […] up carrot-ginger soup left over from their Re-Thinking Soup lunch Tuesday, and a volunteer from Ravenswood Community Services, with a hearty chicken chili. On their left is Bonnie Tawse, with fantastic fennel soup with a […]

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