Written by Stephen Henderson for New York Makers
Photographs courtesy of Stephen Henderson
Editor’s Note: Surprising still too many Americans, millions of households and children in our nation suffer hunger and food insecurity each day, a problem exacerbated by these pandemic times. “From April through June 2020, approximately 1 in 10 New Yorkers reported household food scarcity in the prior week,” according to the NYS Health Foundation. And local food banks and other hunger relief organizations, not government programs, provide relief for many. We celebrate those among us who care for those without. One such hero is New Yorker and noted public relations guru/journalist Stephen Henderson, who not only prepares amazing meals each week at his local Hudson, New York, soup kitchen, but also has discovered how traditions of feeding the hungry exist around the world and has written a beautiful book about, and coined a term for, generosity devoted to nourishing the needy: “gastrophilanthropy”. New York Makers is honored to share Henderson’s story.
Someone, somewhere, is always hungry. This obvious fact, but one that’s all too easy to ignore, confronted journalist Stephen Henderson with full force when he was on a travel-writing assignment to India. At this time, he was invited to see a Sikh temple, Gurdwara Bangla Sahib in central Delhi, where there was a soup kitchen which feeds 20,000 people each day.
Astonished by the scale of this operation, Henderson arranged a return visit to Delhi, and volunteered to cook for a week at this kitchen. He then became curious about the very different ways hungry people are served free meals around the world. His research into global generosity devoted to nourishing the needy — resulted in The 24-Hour Soup Kitchen: Soul-Stirring Lessons in Gastrophilanthropy (Radius Book Group), a fascinating series of field reports which brings a reader into the clamor, chaos, and compassion of charitable kitchens in locales such as Iran, Israel, and South Korea, as well as Austin, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles.
“Like too many people in America perhaps, I tended to forget soup kitchens exist until Thanksgiving Day, which is really the only time charitable volunteers are not needed,” Henderson said. “Seeing how spontaneously people arrived to help cook, or donate food, all day, every day, at this charitable kitchen in India was a shock.”
A Baptist preacher’s son who grew up on Long Island in Levittown and often helped his mother prepare meals for his family of seven, Henderson attended Wheaton College in Illinois (whose most famous alumnus is the late Billy Graham), and Yale Divinity School, before becoming a public relations executive and journalist in New York. He has represented clients ranging from Arrow men’s dress shirts, and Maxwell House coffee, to the Radio City Rockettes, and The John Templeton Foundation. His stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Town & Country, Food & Wine, Gourmet, Men’s Health, and New York Magazine.
“Too often, we’ll excuse ourselves from compassionate actions by thinking you must be a deeply religious, or selflessly noble person like Gandhi or Dorothy Day, to help feed the hungry,” says Henderson. “Learning to be gastrophilanthropic is just like anything else, though. You just jump in somewhere, and start. Pretty quickly, you get better at it.”
In The 24-Hour Soup Kitchen, Henderson writes of imagining he was accompanied on his journeys by Alexis Soyer, a real person whose life story offered an important role model. Soyer was probably the most famous chef in the world in the mid-19th century, an acclaim he earned after building a high-tech marvel of a kitchen at The Reform Club in London. Soyer pioneered the concept of cooking with gas, and invented such useful devices as kitchen timers and steam tables. He also devised a mechanism for feeding tens of thousands of starving Irishmen during that country’s potato famine of 1845-49.
“Alexis Soyer was no saint. On the contrary, he was a bon vivant, who loved champagne, fine clothes, and a bawdy joke, yet he filled many a hungry stomach, often buying the food at his own expense,” says Henderson. “His less-than-perfect example of being what I call a ‘gastrophilanthropist’ was an important discovery for me. I have often said to myself, ‘What would Alexis Do?’”
Since mid-March, Henderson has volunteered to cook lunch every Tuesday for crowds of up to 100 at the Salvation Army soup kitchen in Hudson, New York. Due to the coronavirus, food insecurity is even more of a problem for many New Yorkers, and the numbers of guests has doubled from what was typical before the pandemic.
New York Makers Co-founder, CEO, and Publisher, Silda Wall Spitzer helping at the Salvation Army in Hudson, NY
In these fretful times of social distancing, people are cooking more meals at home, and sometimes feeling ill-equipped for the amounts of food that need to be prepared and served each day with families living in full-time togetherness. Here a few pointers Henderson has learned while feeding hungry crowds.
1) Leftovers are the new plat du jour. Many things like curries, stews, or braised meats, taste better on the “second” or even “third” day. So, prepare bigger quantities now, when you have time; serve it later, when you’re too busy to cook. However, when doubling or tripling recipes, be wary of exactly multiplying the required amount of salt, fluid, or particularly pungent spices like chile peppers. You can always add more if need be, but you can’t remove what you’ve already put in.
2) A bruise won’t kill you. Resist the temptation to discard a whole potato, tomato, cucumber or — fill in produce of your choice — just because it has a hint of mold, or brown spot. Cut this bad area off, and use the rest.
3) Hunger is the best recipe. Most of us are very spoiled by a ready supply of food, and have learned to indulge our finicky appetites, or those of our family. Yes, there are food allergies to beware of — nuts, dairy, etc. — but a refusal to eat peas is simply… peevish.
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