On a cold, damp Wednesday, Happy Hollow Recreation Center in Germantown is quiet, and looks closed. Inside, Brenda Conway is bustling around in the warm kitchen. Every Wednesday Conway runs the rec center’s soup kitchen, serving anyone who comes in a hot, home cooked meal.
“When I do my soup kitchen, I do my soup kitchen like I would eat. What I like to eat, that’s what I feed them. Everything is from scratch. Everything that I cook is real food.”
The menu for this Wednesday is chicken with rice, mixed vegetables and gravy. Conway lifts the lid of a tall pot and fluffs mounds of rice with a critical eye. It looks perfect, but she gives it a couple more stirs before she replaces the lid. She lifts foil from a pan, gently pokes a chicken leg with a fork to make sure it’s cooked through.
Conway stays away from canned food because of the salt and preservatives. She buys frozen vegetables when she can’t get fresh, removes the skin from the chicken and bakes it to reduce fat.
Even the rich brown gravy is home made. When I ask about the recipe Conway begins listing ingredients. She gets to garlic, then stops, laughing. “I’m not gonna tell you all of it!
Every good cook has her secrets.
The first diner, Eddie Brisbane arrives around noon. He’s a regular. Conway grabs a white styrofoam plate and spoons on food until the the plate nearly buckles under the weight. She hands the plate off to a volunteer who carries it, carefully, to Brisbane.
“I try to give them something that will stick with them, especially when it’s cold, and now it’s wet. I give them something that will stick with them.”
Conway has been volunteering at Happy Hollow since 1986. She knows the men, women and children who come to her soup kitchen. She tells me how she lost a couple of her guys a while back when they died of hypothermia from sleeping in an abandoned building. When the weather starts to turn, she worries.
As one of the men is about to leave, Conway yells out for him to take a message to someone she hasn’t seen for a couple of weeks. “You see Popeye, you tell him to come on down here. Tell him to come on down here and get some hot lunch.”
The soup kitchen starts at 11:30 and is supposed to run until 12:30, but Conway stays until 2:30, when she’s pretty sure that no one else is coming. Then she cleans up and goes home.
The money for the food she serves comes out of her pocket. She doesn’t mind and says that the opportunity to volunteer is “a godsend”.
“A lot of times what gets me through the day is that I’m helping somebody else get through their problems.”