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The minutemen of “Famous Friendly’s,” a Brooklyn soup kitchen

For the foreseeable future, the feeding the hungry will be one of the most common activities of local religious groups.

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"Lee the Cook" working alongside the church’s assistant pastor. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

 

The food arrives at 4 o’clock in the morning, dropped off by a glossy white delivery truck with bright green letters on the side spelling out “City Harvest.” Even in the heart of summer, the morning is cool, barely above 50 degrees. The rest of the day, predicted to be overcast into the afternoon, will not get much warmer.

Lee the Cook, as he likes to be known, clocks in at seven to begin food prep. He unpacks the delivery from City Harvest and pulls out packages leftover from previous deliveries. Then, reconnoitering the ingredients spread before him, he plans the day’s meal.

The fresh vegetables need to be washed and chopped. Vacuumed-sealed packages of meats and sauces need to be de-frosted. If he cooks chicken in the oven and potatoes on the stove top, he needs to schedule them so that they finish at the same time.

The soup kitchen of Friendly Christian Church on Hart Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn won’t open until 12:30 in the afternoon but even so, Lee and his helpers don’t dawdle. There’s no certainty what the day will bring, and he always plans on being prepared.

Lee compares the soup kitchen’s small volunteer staff of three— Pastor Irene J. Wallace, the assistant pastor Mary Jo, and himself—to minutemen, ready to show up and do the work in rain or shine. Even in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Lee made the commute to Bushwick from his apartment in Red Hook.

He expects 110 people to filter through the kitchen today, the equivalent of a lunch crowd at a busy restaurant with 15-20 tables. However, that is a more-than manageable number for the 60-year-old retired chef, who worked as a cafeteria cook in a Red Hook high school for twenty years. Between the donations that came in and his diligent preparation that morning, he is sure they will have enough to feed all their guests. They will get a meal like that offered at a nearby chicken restaurant for $8.50 person. So, Friendly’s contribution to the community welfare will amount to about $8.50 per person for a weekly total of $2550 for the three days that it serves meals.

 

“I’m the crazy guy. Good crazy! I have them in stitches all day long,” Lee dishes out jokes as he cooks. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

 

The cook also thanks his Higher Commander for help to face the onslaught of tasks. “If not for God, we could not afford to do what we do,” Lee explains as he spoons diced vegetables onto a thick white paper plate. Serving under such good leadership, Lee relaxes into his role, cracking jokes and teasing his co-volunteers in the kitchen as they work.

“I’m the crazy guy. Good crazy! I have them in stitches all day long,” Lee jokes as he turns to cooking more food.

The kitchen is dependent on deliveries from City Harvest and the Food Bank for New York City, and the contents of the boxes are a surprise each week. Lee figures out how to make whatever they send into a meal. Today’s menu consists of baked chicken, mashed potatoes, and a boiled vegetable medley of peas, corn, and diced carrots.

The head cook delivers a quick lesson in kitchen logistics. The soup kitchen is open Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday each week and so Lee plans the menus to use up whatever ingredients are going to expire first. The food services deliver a mix of frozen and fresh ingredients. Sometimes the kitchen is given more fresh ingredients than they can use before they go bad—for example, Lee cannot always go through the crates of carrots that arrive. On the other hand, if they receive too many frozen ingredients, the kitchen will not have room in their freezer to store them all.

Lee opens the freezer door to demonstrate; currently, it is crammed full of pouches of frozen tomato sauce, which are threatening to topple out.

Lee also rejoices when he sees certain ingredients. “Chicken is the best” to receive. “Everybody loves chicken!” he exclaims.

What is the worst thing that the kitchen has received as a donation?

“Couscous!” Lee chuckles. The chef and his eaters have little experience in handling the exotic ingredients of the upper middle class.

“A lot of stuff comes with no instructions, so you have to figure out what to do with it.”

He motions to the back of the kitchen, towards the storage closet. In the last delivery, they were given four cases of 50-pound bags of couscous. Lee grins ironically. “When they give it to you, they give it to you!” he laughs.

 

"Famous Friendly's" is a neighborhood institution.

 

At noon, the regulars show up in force, and Lee and his comrades are ready for them. The small kitchen, with barely as much space as a school bus inside, has grown hot and Mary Jo has turned on an industrial-size fan in the corner farthest from the door.

Outside, the visitors form a disciplined line against the red-brick facade of the church, leaving room for pedestrians to walk by on the sidewalk. Even if it was raining, Lee says, the line would stretch down the block. This restaurant is famous among the neighborhood poor for its good meals. “We know the whole block,” Lee boasts.

Lee fills up plates one at a time with a scoop of mashed potatoes, a spoonful of vegetables, and a piece of chicken. Mary Jo and Pastor Wallace stand near the door and hand the plates out to the queue along with a plastic fork and knife folded into a paper napkin.

A woman asks ask for a piece of aluminum foil to wrap a plate up for later. Mary Jo quickly rips off a piece from a box at her elbow and seals the plate in a tight aluminum package for the woman.

One man drives up on a Harley, smoking a cigar. Tattoos crawl out of the sleeves of his leather vest and down his arms. Many other regulars are homeless and make the trek from Maria Hernandez Park four blocks away. The volunteers “don’t cut [off] nobody” because they don’t know what a visitor’s day might have been like. Lee recalls one day when a woman came back seven times for a plate, finishing each one before returning to the line. Still, they did not stop serving her until she had eaten her fill. Though the sign above the door warns that the soup kitchen closes at 1:30, the volunteers are often there much later, and only leave when the line—or the food—runs out.

Some of the guests accept the food without glancing up at the people who hand it to them. Others smile and say thank you. What does Lee want them to think as they walk away? “That the food was good!”

The work is its own reward. The signboard above the gated church doorway seems to be Lee’s personal motto: “Enter to worship. Exit to serve.”

Within the walls of the small soup kitchen, Lee says he has learned to love others like he believes God loves him, serving them by meeting small, daily needs. That mission can be a challenge when faced with sour attitudes. Yet, Lee sees that as an opportunity to double down. “The harder it is”—the worse the person’s attitude is—“the better it gets” when Lee remains polite and kind to them.

After all, “that’s how God loves us,” he compares philosophically while stirring the drum-sized pot of mashed potatoes.

The soup kitchen minutemen serve their food with a side order of love, and nobody walks away hungry.

 

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