Thursday, July 16, 2009

Cooks Serving Others - And Themselves

Volunteers who feed the hungry put their best recipes to the test in a cook-off, and pass out checks to continue the good work.

By Dianna Marder

Inquirer Staff Writer

There's a sophisticated air at the annual chowder cook-off in Newport, R.I., and a down-home feel at the West Texas barbecue cook-off in Lubbock.

But here in the City of Brotherly Love, you'd better stand back when local church ladies compete in the annual Soup Kitchen Cook-Off.

Last week's contest, sponsored by the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, challenged volunteers from the nearly 100 member soup kitchens and food pantries to compete for bragging rights.

Year-round, these church ladies (and a few gentlemen) prepare large quantities of meat-and-potatoes meals using donated ingredients, or they distribute bags of groceries to families in their communities.

But last week they took time out to put their personal best to the test at Resurrection Baptist in Parkside. From North, South and West Philadelphia they came; from Mount Airy and from Germantown, bearing main dishes, salads and desserts.

Pat Davis of the Open Door Sanctuary Kitchen brought a vegetarian taco salad made with seitan; and Curtis Robinson Sr. of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in West Philadelphia brought the shrimp scampi that has made him especially welcome at all sorts of gatherings.

Marlene Harley of Living Water United Church of Christ in North Philadelphia set a new record: In the salads category, her signature chicken salad won first place and her potato salad took second.

Renai Ellison, of the MyPHL17 television program Better Philly, judged the first two categories while chef and cookbook author Delilah Winder, of Delilah's Southern Cuisine, judged the desserts.

After that, the contest entries were served for lunch.

There was sweet potato pie, beef tenderloin, honey-barbecue chicken, raspberry pasta, mango salad, fruit pie, double chocolate cake and Doris Shepard's prize-winning Six Layer Coconut Cake.

No broccoli, no spinach, not even any collards.

As they ate, the volunteers chatted about the way eating together and rejoicing in traditional recipes bound their families together - as the lack of food splits today's families apart.

As a girl, Rose Stephens, 87, cooked while her parents and older siblings worked their North Carolina farm. That's where she perfected her rum cake, her chopped barbecue and her sweet potato jacks.

"Not flapjacks. These were jacks," she says, describing a sort of pancake that was folded over like a stromboli and then deep fried. Not a low-cal/low-carb dish, but . . .

"I didn't feel burdened," Stephens said. "It was an honor to cook for the family."

Marlene Felton's corn pudding took first place in the main dish category and her cream cheese pound cake won second place in desserts.

Felton, 56, and her husband Derek, 58, left their day jobs a few years ago to make serving the hungry the family's full-time occupation. Fresh Start, the nonprofit the Feltons founded in Overbrook, gives groceries to 400 families a month.

But Fresh Start is also a resource center, says Derek Felton, who grew up in poverty and remembers going to school without breakfast. He went on to become a chef for Sheraton Inns.

Each of Fresh Start's monthly hot breakfasts features a self-help workshop directed at matching individual needs with existing resources. That way, Felton says, Fresh Start helps get people off drugs, into safe housing, and prepared for new careers.

Pat Davis of the Open Door Sanctuary said she sees more and more families in need of clothing too. It's sobering, she says.

After lunch, coalition officials distributed $140,000 in checks to 98 member food pantries and soup kitchens - a portion of the $250,000 raised at the Coalition's Walk Against Hunger in April. The $140,000 will be used for food, equipment or supplies at each program. The remainder of the money will expand the capacity of the feeding programs and perhaps bring more of the estimated 500 similar Philadelphia-based programs into the coalition.

Read the rest of the story (along with some tasty recipes) here.

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