Penne pasta with roasted peppers and chicken, sweet onion bread pudding, corn with paprika and chili over rice pilaf. Sounds like a fancy restaurant. Instead, it’s typical fare at St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen in the North End of Middletown.
The person responsible for this imaginative menu is a Manchester Community College Culinary Arts-trained chef, Amanda Carrier, who oversees preparation of as many as 250 meals a day. Despite such demand, Carrier bears it all with a cheerful spirit and a quiet command that is truly impressive.
I spent last Friday in the kitchen and got a behind-the-scenes look at how swiftly, eagerly and genially volunteers and staff doled out meals to some 100 souls who came hungry and left happy.
Volunteerism is the essence of St. Vincent de Paul. Here are community members offering their time, businesses like Liberty Bank, which sends helpers on Fridays to man the serving line; and others, who as a result of recent troubles must perform community service. Thus by helping others, this latter group can avoid jail time or a hefty fine.
That morning, I was recruited for the peanut butter and jelly sandwich brigade. I can do that, I thought, looking around for the industrial-size vats of grape jelly and peanut butter. Pallets stocked six feet high with dozens of breads — white, whole wheat, rye, rolls and sweet raisin — flanked the stainless steel serving table.
The soup kitchen employs an expedited technique for preparing the classic PB&J, which purists might scoff at, but which, nevertheless, gets the job done. Vast quantities of creamy peanut butter and jelly are combined in tub-sized mixing bowl, and blended together until all is a sort of mauve spread, the concoction slathered on bread and slapped together.
As I said, it gets the job done.
Today's lunch, preparation for which begins at 8 a.m., is a sweet onion bread pudding, Carrier explains, as she directs the volunteer on egg duty. He cracks and beats three dozen to a creamy yellow, then dutifully pours in an entire gallon of whole milk. Another, who had earlier chopped up a dozen Vidalia onions, browns them on the stovetop, as Carrier liberally sprinkles salt, pepper and paprika over three large foil trays full of chopped bread.
Lunch begins at 11:30 a.m. with a group prayer. Then, the serving begins, with folks queued up cafeteria-style. Anyone who wants or needs a warm, nutritious meal is welcome and there are plenty today.
I had a Dickensian image of a soup kitchen, with huddled masses waiting for their meager allotment, but it’s not like that at all. Seconds are offered once all have been served and a few even come up for thirds on this day — the Sicilian-style pasta is a big hit, as is the fruit salad.
Clean-up is promptly at 1:30 p.m., at which point tablecloths, chairs and tables are wiped clean, leftovers are either dated and stored or disposed of, floors are swept and mopped as the whole place is readied for the same routine the next day.
“Everyone says what a great time they have here,” says assistant director for community services Lydia Brewster with a smile. “And they promise they’ll come back once their community service is over.”
Brewster paused, then added, “They never do.”
To volunteer, email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com or call (860) 344-0097, Ext. 18 or 15.