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Feature Fri Dec 24 2010

Salvation -- Cooking Holiday Dinner for the Harbor Light Center

It's been my experience that good attracts good and evil, evil. Hanging with certain individuals ups or downs one's game accordingly. Captains Merrill and Nancy Powers, the husband and wife team that oversees Chicago's Salvation Army Harbor Light Center, are two of the former. Being around them it's as if goodness was contagious.

Running a huge residential recovery program on Chicago's near West Side, they've seen it all. Offering refuge and rehabilitation to those tortured by alcohol and addiction, their staff of 85 furnishes outreach for 200 residents and 1,300 offsite clients.

Helping with housing, drug treatment and job training, Harbor Light provides valuable services that the homeless community needs in order to reestablish their self-sufficiency.

In one of many life skills classes the mission offers, how to dress for work is elaborated upon in depth. Successful completion of the course garners you a voucher to help buy appropriate clothing (many in the class have never been employed beyond hustling or dealing dope). Some classes teach resume writing and conduct mock interviews. Others teach anger management and coping techniques -- like how to handle conflict minus a narcotic crutch, alcohol haze or a gun.

Those seeking a way out of the chaos of street life need look no further.

If that's not enough, know that when you donate to the Salvation Army, 83 cents out of each dollar goes to the intended. There are charities and nonprofits where that figure is one tenth that, with money eaten by mismanagement or middle management. Here your good money gets to those in need.

The Captain's Powers and I met about five years ago. Gary Wiviott, a founding member of and a gentle BBQ bear of a man was organizing a Christmas meal to be cooked at the mission for one of his BBQ buddies, i.e. Capt. Merrill. Tight crew those good old BBQ boys. Being "one with the wood" is a great equalizer -- the BBQ brotherhood transcending religion and class. Gary's call for help went out and his minions responded.

Gathering at the mission on the appointed day, it was apparent in about a nanosecond that no one on team Wiviott had a clue as to what to do in a professional kitchen. Taking stock, I commandeered the moment and began giving "suggestions." As a professional chef, it's sort of my specialty.

We had a ball, the residents loved it, and so began the tradition of doing a few things a year on their behalf. A luau in the summer and then again around the holidays. That simple.

I was raised to believe that it's our responsibility to care. We're not here to just consume, we must contribute as well. It can be done in various guises. Helping the less fortunate is but one way. Creating art, another.

Thrown into the fire, that first year all I could do was react and correct, using what was available to fix what was broken or save what was going wrong. It doesn't need to be that hard and is easily remedied. These days we coordinate the menu, resulting in smooth sailing all around. Weeks before the event I speak with Harbor Light's chef, Ada Burgos, giving her the specs on what to buy and how to prep the mis en place.

The day of, we assemble Ada's efforts and I cook them, with team Wiviott acting as my lovely assistants. Arriving mid morning, I prioritize and assign the tasks du jour. Five or six people will trim 30 prime rib roasts then slather them with Comrade Wiviott's signature spice rub. I tend to the sauces, vegetables and starches -- a gaggle of eager helpers ever at the ready to fetch ice, puree cranberries or whip cream. How we'll plate the dessert and where we'll get anything that isn't in house for whatever reason is dealt with by a few calls and dispatching a runner. As the hours pass we're joined by more minions who help in the kitchen and later serve the residents at tables set up on the basketball court in the gymnasium-cum-restaurant upstairs.

Salvation Army Harbor Light Center holiday meal

Besides feeding the residents of the drug treatment and correctional programs, Harbor Light also has a mobile food outreach that adds 1,300 meals a day onto the kitchen's workload. Fifty gallons of soup and hundreds of sandwiches a shift later, this outlet in turn fuels the center's Transitional Job Program, supplying a steady stream of bodies for training and eventual certification.

A food budget of $1 per meal per resident doesn't allow for much. Some of the food comes from the Greater Chicago Food Depository, bought for 7 cents per pound. Date sensitive and overstock items are often donated, with the remainder bought from broadline distributors like Sysco. Canned or frozen vegetables and not quite expired entrees served cafeteria style are the norm. It costs more to serve them than to cook for them.

Because of conditions on the grants they receive, a certified nutritionist must sign off on a pre-established menu. When you factor that into the equation, it adds significantly to the cost of labor and helps to bring it to upwards of $3 per meal.

On special occasions, the Capt. Powers that be forgo budgets, maybe knock off a bell ringer or three and call Gary who in turn calls me. We then purchase prime ribs to roast or whole pigs to "que" low and slow, making everything from scratch with fresh wholesome ingredients.

Salvation Army Harbor Light Center holiday meal

A nice chef driven meal for people down on their luck who really appreciate it. It feels good to do something nice, and we can't say who gets more out of it. Our sentiment is that it's us.

This year's menu was:
prime rib with creamy horseradish sauce
sautéed asparagus, roasted shallots and shiitake mushrooms
fresh cranberry-orange relish
corn pudding
rosemary roasted fingerling potatoes
chocolate peppermint mousse with black cherry coulis

The prettier Capt. Powers supplies the recipe for the corn pudding, a perennial favorite not to be missed. So good, I "borrowed" it for a comfort food menu I did in Florida a few years back, calling it exactly that "Capt. Powers' Salvation Army Corn Pudding." Customers loved it and the story behind it.

Capt. Merrill, a gregarious preachers' son/ex cop from the Boston area, holds an MBA plus a dual masters in non-profit administration. He's noticed the type of resident they see today differs from years past -- a fact he attributes to the current economic crisis.

"We're seeing a broader spectrum with more diverse backgrounds and higher levels of education," he says. "A lot more are from farther away. Heroin and crack aren't just inner city problems and people move around more. Besides which, it's just plain harder to get a job these days."

It should be noted that repeated failure in seeking employment puts you back where you were -- broke, beaten and vulnerable. Work provides structure and self esteem comes with the territory, distracting one from illicit thoughts and activities. Families often reconnect and the likelihood of relapse diminishes.

Powers says the mobile outreach is seeing a lot more families or mothers with kids besides substance abusers and people with mental health issues.

In addition to distributing food, the Harbor Light Center's mobile offices are staffed with mental health and drug abuse specialists. They're seen as the bridge to building relationships and trust, helping to get services to those in need. By Capt. Powers' own count, last year 687 people were taken off the streets and settled in some type of permanent placement. That's a mountain of good.

You never know who's going to get it or what's going to resonate and make an impact. One person who went through their program -- someone you'd walk on the other side of the street of back in the day -- is now a respected officer of the Salvation Army running his own chapter in another city. Another lived under Lower Wacker for over a decade and has a propensity for setting himself on fire. Even in failing to shift their toxic lifestyles, they at least have some of the tools to succeed if and when they're ready to try again.

Powers says this is so much more rewarding than his old job in law enforcement. He still helps others, but the focus is different. As a cop he had little control over the outcome. Now he holds people accountable and sees the results of his efforts.

Salvation Army Harbor Light Center holiday mealThanks to a City of Chicago Family and Support Services grant, the Transitional Job Program is set to double from 65 to 130 participants. Besides food service, maintenance and clerical programs are offered -- Harbor Light being the chief beneficiary of their learning efforts as residents work in the kitchen or offices and help maintain the facility. The grant also allocates for subsidized placement of individuals, offsetting the pay rate of the hiring company for taking a chance on them.

Long-term, non-coerced, faith-based rehabilitation efforts have the best success rates, boasting up to 70 percent in maintaining sobriety after three years, compared to 10-25 percent elsewhere in the rehab industry.

It's tough to survive your best efforts in self destruction and start living day by day for a future rarely considered. Ever try making a significant change in your life? Lose 20 pounds, stop smoking? Think about it. Many of the residents have been using most of their lives. This is a lot to deal with when you know no other way. You're at you weakest and now you need to be your strongest?

Only if you want to live.

At this year's meal, one of the residents mentioned he hadn't gotten a Christmas present in over 30 years. That sad streak ended as Capt. Nancy handed out gifts to all. Some have never had anything but fast food, have never been served by anyone, ever. Again, not this night.

Another timidly asked for more vegetables while everyone around him was doubling up on the meat, often smothering it with A1 sauce (what are you going to do?)

"I've never tasted anything like this" was said through a wide grin in a brief moment of respite. Chefs by nature are nurturers. Glad to be of service, brother.

So we gather once again to cook and laugh, appreciate and share the holiday spirit that's rocking the house. Suggest the same for you and yours.

Can I get an amen?

Salvation Army Harbor Light Center holiday meal

Capt. Nancy Powers Salvation Army Corn Pudding

For your benefit (and home use) dear reader, I've scaled this recipe back from 200 portions to 12. Normally, I never use a mix and rarely use a can. For this I make an exception.

1lb. muffin mix
30oz. canned cream corn
30oz. canned whole corn, undrained
1/2lb. unsalted butter
1lb. sour cream

Combine muffin mix and both corns in a large mixing bowl. Melt butter, cool slightly and whisk it into the sour cream. Add to corn-muffin mixture, stir and place in an oven-safe casserole dish. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour or until the top browns and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean and hot to the touch.


About the Author

Alan Lake has been a professional chef for nearly 30 years winning numerous awards, professional competitions and distinctions. He's mainly consulting now, setting up projects like kitchen design, menu development, hiring and training staff, research, etc. He's also been a professional musician most of his life and coined the term "Jazzfood" to describe his "solid technique based upon tasteful improvisational abilities" and views his food as he does his music.

Photos by Gary Wiviott.

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

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John Cabral / January 4, 2011 6:38 PM

I liked this article. I learned a little more about the phenomenon of poverty in Chicago, about "food insecurity", and I enjoyed the author's descriptions of the ingredients for his special dish. A professional chef, Lake seems delighted to be donating his time with this Salvation Army group a couple of times a year. Service, the key to happiness.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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