“I can cook to survive, but not to entertain.”
That was the first thing Eleanor shared when we meet recently at a local coffee shop to talk about why we love to cook for other people.
While Eleanor may not be what she describes as a “natural domestic”, she does have a huge heart for bringing people together through shared meals. You can find her in her church’s kitchen several times each week, organizing and serving community meals to help people of all ages connect over food.
Eleanor is a Hispanic woman who grew up watching her mom cook for a large extended family, who most often gathered around the table. At an early age she recognized that valuable moments happen when people linger and talk over a shared meal. Eleanor’s mom also taught her that when you cook for people it is important to prepare an abundant meal so that the person at the end of the line always knows that there is plenty of food.
But Eleanor didn’t began gravitating towards cooking for her community until she started volunteering in her son’s schools. At that time she was drawn to cooking because of the numerous ways she had witnessed and experienced genuine fellowship at her church through shared meals.
After her son graduated from high school and her volunteer responsibilities at her local schools lessened, she and a friend decided to start providing a meal at her church’s weekly youth gathering. At first her intention was merely to lessen the workload for the leaders. But as she befriended new people, she became more invested in that community, and eventually Eleanor began leading a church kitchen team to prepare a weekly community dinner.
“I didn’t used think community cooking was in me,” says Eleanor, “but it was all along.”
Recently her church launched a Sunday evening service for 17 – 22 year olds, called “1722”. When Eleanor learned that the church leaders planned to order a pizza dinner to serve the participants before the service, she quickly elicited the help of the same friend who cooked with her for the youth group leaders (her “partner in crime”) and together they volunteered to provide a family style meal to this new community. Instead of delivered pizza, the group of college-age young adults arrived at the service to be greeted by warm, homemade enchiladas, fresh salad, dessert. And enough food for the person at the end of the line to receive as much as the first.
Thinking about that initial dinner, Eleanor said, “It’s hard to describe the feeling I had at that first meal of 30 kids talking and sharing over a meal I had prepared. It was so heart-warming for me.”
Eleanor does not provide every meal for this Sunday evening service. Instead she uses all the knowledge and experience gleaned from years of school volunteering to recruit and organize additional cooks, as well as donors to help cover the food costs. Eleanor explains, “It’s like loaves fishes. I give from my set of gifts and God multiplies it to meet others needs.”
She is no longer worried or intimidated to cook for 30-40 people. In regards to her evolution from an “unnatural domestic” to a competent community cook, Eleanor reflects, “My confidence has grown not because I’m a better cook. My confidence as a cook has grown because I see purpose, meaning, and calling in what I do.”
Some of the challenges Eleanor has faced in regards to community cooking are filling the cooking and serving calendar with enough volunteers, always having the meal ready on time (if the meal is late, it delays everything else programmed for the service), and planning menus that use up food in the church kitchen that are left over from other events. But she has found motivation and help by asking friends to help. As well as regularly watching “The Pioneer Woman”, and asking herself “What would Ree do?” when she’s in a cooking jam!
When asked what her advice is to someone wanting to build community through cooking, Eleanor suggests that people identify a group they want to support that’s already meeting. Offer to cook a meal for them to aid their work and help them build connections. Because sharing food helps us share our lives, and often in those conversations we find direction in who we are supposed to be.
In addition to being the proud mom of a 21-year-old son and a community cook, Eleanor is also married and works as a staff liaison placing care-givers in homes with seniors.
What about you? Is there a group you can support by cooking for them?