Columnist Francie Lin: Good food, flair and fellowship at Manna Community Kitchen

  • Nora Finnerty, development director at Manna Community Kitchen in Northampton, fills containers with salad as part of a meal. Manna provides free meals for community members in need throughout the week. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sonny Ferrari, 9, writes notes on lids of the containers that the free meals are packaged in as part of the Manna meal program, which provides food to community members in need throughout the week. Photographed Tuesday, June 9, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lee Anderson, the cook at Manna Community Kitchen in Northampton, prepares a meal on Tuesday, June 9, 2020. Manna provides free meals for community members in need throughout the week. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Brian Corwin receives a meal from Jeannine Clark, a volunteer with Manna Community Kitchen. Manna provides free meals for community members and shelters throughout the week. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left, Chloe Caradoso, 9, Liana Cardoso, 8, Ruby Ferrari, 12, and Sonny Ferrari, 9, write notes on lids of the containers that the free meals are packaged in as part of the Manna meal program, which provides food to community members in need throughout the week. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lee Anderson, the cook at Manna Community Kitchen in Northampton, prepares a meal on Tuesday, June 9, 2020. Manna provides free meals for community members and shelters throughout the week. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left, Chloe Caradoso, 9, and Liana Cardoso, 8, write notes on lids of the containers that the free meals are packaged in as part of the Manna meal program, which provides food to community members and shelters throughout the week. Photographed Tuesday, June 9, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Back left, Kaitlyn Ferrari with Sonny Ferrari, 9, volunteers with Manna; they are filling containers with chicken and potato salad on Tuesday, June 9, 2020. Manna provides free meals for community members and shelters throughout the week. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kate Cardoso, a volunteer with Manna Communty Kitchen in Northampton, fills containers with potato salad as part of a meal on Tuesday, June 9, 2020. Manna provides free meals for community members and shelters throughout the week. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Francie Lin.

For the Gazette
Published: 6/10/2020 1:21:13 PM

On Saturdays, I go to church — most Saturdays, anyway, though sometimes it’s a Tuesday and sometimes Wednesday. I don’t go every week, although I try. The church is open and has been open throughout the pandemic. For now, it’s housed at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Northampton, but the service is in St. John’s back annex, not the sanctuary, and the sermon involves chopping carrots and making salsa rather than reading Scripture. Instead of giving an offering, I portion out blueberry cobbler or fresh salad with mixed greens and organic sprouts. Instead of candles or incense, there’s the fragrance of simmering tomato sauce or Moroccan stew.

Volunteering with Manna Community Kitchen has become my church during these last few months, although Manna itself has had a steady presence in Northampton since 1986. Those who volunteer around the holidays may have helped out at one of their Thanksgiving meals, when Manna provides a festive dinner for 500, including home deliveries and meals they provide for the police and fire departments. But Manna also operates quietly year round, serving over 800 meals a week to those who are food insecure in our community — guests who range from the homeless to veterans to families and the underemployed. It’s the kind of solid community organization that flies a bit below the radar, providing both food and fellowship for folks going through a rough patch, and doing it with a kind of imagination and flair that you don’t normally expect at a stereotypical “soup kitchen.”

That flair is why I volunteer with Manna. Don’t mistake me — I care very much about the food insecure in our community, and I am aware, always and especially now, that there but for the grace of God go I. But I also really love food, and the cook at Manna, Lee Anderson, makes meals that rival the best at any local restaurant. I am constantly trying not to plague him with questions about how he makes this or that dish. One Saturday I came in to find him blow-torching the sugared top of a pan of crème brulee; on another, the prep sink was filled with organic mushrooms from Mycoterra Farm in Westhampton.

Manna is usually a sit-down community meal affair, but because of the coronavirus, they’ve turned themselves into a takeout joint. Even so, presentation matters. None of the volunteers start filling the to-go containers until Lee has determined the order, amount and appearance of the components: rice, roast pork with thyme and rosemary and roasted veg; or taco pie dolloped with sour cream and freshly made salsa. The dough for the stromboli was made from scratch. On Moroccan stew day, a little bin of sliced lemons and fresh mint leaves stood by as garnish. I was a bit obsessive about the lemon slices. If they got covered up by a ladle of stew, as can happen in the rush to assemble to-go plates before the guests arrive, I would pull them out and try to rearrange them in a way that looked aesthetically pleasing along with the scattering of mint.

It sounds frivolous to care that much about the garnish, and selfish to say that I volunteer with Manna for the cooking tips and good smells, but a long and somewhat checkered volunteer history over the course of my adult life has taught me that it’s the attention to and execution of the small things that reveals your actual honesty in matters of public service. It’s easy to want to do Good in the abstract, and it’s easy to feel passionate about Saving the World in the abstract as well. In my teens and 20s, I wanted to do both. I had read so many books and seen so many movies about poverty and injustice, but as my parents were not people who cared particularly about the public good, I had a kind of romanticized notion about what service really meant. And the problem with idealism wedded to inexperience is that it has great potential to spiral into … I don’t know what the word would be, exactly. Pity, maybe? Or more accurately, a kind of patronizing attitude — a weird convoluted relationship in which despite (or maybe because of) your noble intentions, you fail to devote clear eyes and full dignity to the people you are supposedly helping and treat them instead as Causes. (In my case, Poor Refugee Children — I taught ESL in Dorchester — and the Blind.)

Those early failures embarrass me now, but I try to keep them close anyway, as a reminder of how, without vigilance, you can very easily convince yourself that you are some kind of savior, above any twist of fate or passage of time — that you are somehow fundamentally different from people who happen to be less fortunate. Sometimes, when I’m sorting through the veg donated by River Valley and Stop & Shop and other groceries, I get a little overwhelmed by the sheer scale of cooking for 50 to 100 people before noon. There’s a tendency when working with food donations to lower your standards and hedge — to say, for instance, well, I wouldn’t eat that, but it’s not rotten, and I don’t want it to go to waste, and it’s lucky there are any greens at all, so let’s just serve them.

Manna doesn’t do that. “If you wouldn’t eat it, don’t serve it” is practically Lee’s mantra. The simplicity of that mantra belies the bedrock of respect and dignity it rests upon. Are you gluten-free? Manna can accommodate that. Vegetarian? Also yes. I’ve seen Lee cook something on the spot for a single vegetarian guest even after all the meals have already been made and taken away. In a time when cruelty and disregard for others seem so prevalent, being around (and a very small part of) that kind of respect and personal attention makes my time at Manna the best three hours I spend all week. I am confident that I benefit more from that time than anyone benefits from my sloppy chopping skills.

I would feel guilty about this, except that, at the age of 44, I know better. Community is an overused word, so much so that I tend to glaze over a little when people use it, but in Manna’s case, there’s no more appropriate term. In non-COVID times, the community aspect might be more apparent — the communal dining room, the chance to get to know others while sharing a great meal — but right now it still exists, just less visibly. It’s in the lemon garnish and the mint leaves, and in the sense that this isn’t a charity mission but something that gives everyone involved a little more humanity.

Nora Finnerty, Manna’s development director, told me that anyone who wants to come and have a meal at Manna is welcome, and she genuinely means anyone — not just the homeless or the food insecure but anyone, whether they have more or less. I had to ask her several times to confirm that I was quoting her correctly, because this invitation is so counterintuitive to everything I think about a “soup kitchen.” And yet, it’s also the only thing that makes sense from the point of view of progress. Revolution is meant to sweep away the stereotypes and power positions that keep us from seeing each other clearly, and these days we are living — I hope — in the midst of revolution.

So, in the name of enlightenment and a future reimagined with more kindness and possibilities for everyone, I want to issue you an invitation: Come to St. John’s any time from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, or to Edwards Church from 6 to 7 p.m. on Wednesdays, and get one of Lee’s thoughtful, delicious to-go meals. It might be roast chicken with thyme and rosemary, it might be burgers with house-made fries. The last time I was there, there was a lot of gochujang waiting in the wings, so maybe it will be bibimbap or something similar. There’s always a dessert, my personal weakness.

Maybe it’ll be hard for you to accept a meal. Maybe you’ll think you aren’t the kind of person who needs good food and a little kindness? Think again. Manna is for everyone. It’s for you.

Francie Lin is an editor and writer who has a complicated relationship with domestic life. She lives in Florence. To volunteer with Manna, please contact the volunteer coordinator, Kate Cardoso, at katecardoso@comcast.net.


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