Cooking for a cause

Joyful Eatings brings chefs, volunteers, and the Island’s homeless shelter together in one program.

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Happy volunteers in action. —Barbara Reynolds

Every year after the beach umbrellas are put away and we switch from watermelon margaritas to mistletoe mules, Island places of worship start warming up their kitchens, ready to feed the hungry (and cold) masses. 

Years ago, most of the churches on the Island and the Hebrew Center began hosting Community Suppers, where volunteers prepared and served a home-cooked meal once a week during the winter months. It meant that you could essentially eat out (and socialize) for free every day of the week over the winter months. It was a bonus for those who were in need, and also for those who may live alone or who have a tough time in the off-season when the population dips from 100,000 to around 17,000. 

Grace Church gives us hot soup and more on Fridays, the First Congregational Church takes care of Wednesdays, and in Edgartown the Federated Church has always handled Sundays. For a long time, they prepared a delicious lasagna spread on Sunday afternoons. Then COVID hit. The places of worship pivoted though, and they still managed to run the Community Suppers by plating up to-go containers, with folks pulling their cars up curbside to pick them up. It was a good thing too, as cars lined up week after week for food pantry staples since many folks weren’t working during the first several months of the pandemic. 

Last year, the Federated Church started feeding the community and keeping that off-season loneliness at bay by organizing something they call “Joyful Eatings.” Each week during the off-season, the church invites an Island chef who is joined in the kitchen by seven or eight volunteers. They create a meal together and then more volunteers deliver the meals to the winter homeless shelter at Community Services. It couldn’t be more of a win-win — volunteers get a free cooking lesson from a chef and the Island’s homeless reap the benefits.

Before the current shelter was organized, places of worship were the original homeless shelters on the Island. Those that had the space and could manage it, took turns opening up their doors to the homeless. The program was called Houses of Grace and it brought with it a new sense of community and commitment to helping those who had no place to call home. For the Federated Church to evolve into Joyful Eatings wasn’t such a stretch.

Volunteers Jean Llewellyn, left, and Daryl Royster Alexander prepare a recipe. —Lisa Anne Brown

Edible Vineyard recently sat down with some of the folks behind the program, including Lisa Belcastro, who is now the winter shelter director. With the shelter open from Nov. 1 to April 20, the need for meals is greater than ever. 

“Most of the Community Suppers, and traditionally Houses of Grace, ran from January to the end of March. Now that we’re outside of the seasons, I have to contract with restaurants for the meals and Harbor Homes pays for it,” Belcastro explained. Having the Federated Church supplying its contribution free of charge on Sundays is a definite bonus. The rest of the schedule is filled by Island restaurants that Belcastro has contracted with. 

“I’m on a budget, so when I’m contracting with these chefs they’re preparing meals according to the shelter’s budget — and they’re being very, very generous,” Belcastro says. 

“They donate above and beyond,” Gretchen Regan added. Regan is a chef herself and one of the church’s many volunteers. 

The pastor of the Federated Church, the Rev. Mark Winters, said that the generosity of the Island chefs speaks to some of the basic principles of faith communities. “That speaks to something from a Christian standpoint: love our neighbors as we love ourselves,” Winters says. “If we enjoy a good meal, we don’t send our neighbors a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”

With Island restaurants supplying everything from vegan options to four-course meals that include things like butternut squash soup, salads filled with Island-grown veggies, salmon Wellington or chicken pot pie, you can understand how grateful Belcastro feels for the relationships built with the chefs. 

Regan explained that seven or eight people sign up to volunteer with the chef at the Federated Church and then they spend Sunday afternoon preparing the food. 

Federated Church pastor Rev. Mark Winters, center, works in the kitchen. —Paul Doherty

“The kitchen can only hold so many,” Regan said of the church’s facilities. “Chefs think it through, introduce themselves and figure out how to assign the work and share the learning experience.”

Regan said that the chefs make sure the dishes and recipes are user-friendly and that the meals are nutritious. And the volunteer cooks are happy to sign up, in fact the slots fill pretty quickly. 

Jeanne Staples heads up the Joyful Eatings committee at the church, and said the program really resonates with people. “It’s fun. You learn something, and you’re all coming together to do this nice thing that benefits vulnerable members of our community,” she says. Volunteers can sign up online through the Federated Church’s website and then show up at around 2:30 pm to get started.

“The chefs get here earlier and get things set up,” Staples explained. “Gretchen did a lot to outfit the kitchen as well as possible. And Cronig’s [Market] is incredibly supportive, donating a $100 gift card every week, so someone picks that up and uses it with an Island discount and gets all the ingredients they need.” 

And then there’s Mary-Jean Miner, a member of the church and brownie baker extraordinaire. She’s been bringing brownies to the homeless shelter for years, and she’s also a volunteer there. The connection between the Federated Church and the shelter goes back a long time and it’s nurtured more and more every year. They’ve even published a cookbook called “Joyful Eatings,” full of the recipes and photos taken during the cooking gatherings. (Be sure to check out Miner’s two brownie recipes in the book.) The photos in the cookbook were taken by professional and amateur photographers, one of them a high school student. 

Staples is also the editor of the “Joyful Eatings” cookbook based on the kitchen gatherings this past year. She said they plan to do a cookbook each year, with sales benefitting the Harbor Homes Homeless Prevention Programs. The book includes recipes from the chefs who participated, as well as some from “the home chefs.” The first edition came out last August, but the plan is to publish the next one in June, just before the summer crowds begin to gather. They’re trying to raise awareness about homelessness on the Island, especially when there are visitors who might not have any idea about how part of the year-round community struggles. Belcastro said visitors and summer residents are often surprised to learn that food insecurity exists on an Island known for attracting so much wealth. 

Regan said that the homeless on the Island are “well-hidden in the community.” They are adults who are working and have kids in school, she said. “Joyful Eatings,” both the book and the program, raises awareness and decreases the stigma around the most vulnerable in the community. “Most people want to help if they get the opportunity,” Belcastro said. 

For the chefs who participate, Joyful Eatings is a great way to give back by putting your skills to work for the community, Regan said. “Summer on the Vineyard you’re cooking for people here on vacation who are spending a lot of money, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Regan said. “But this is cooking for another part of society … we’re all needy in some way, even if we have housing. This is a way to address that and it brings people together. You’re actually doing something, not just checking off a box.”

Regan said that one of the reasons people become chefs is because they love to feed other people and to see the joy that comes from that. 

“Food is one way we show love,” Winters said. 

Purchase “Joyful Eatings” at Cronig’s Market or at the Federated Church office. Call 508-627-4421 for more information.

Cathy Lewis’ Light Delight Super Bowl Chili

Serves 15

3 Tbsp. olive oil
2 cups butternut squash, peeled and cut into ¼-inch chunks
3 pounds ground turkey
½ cup smoky barbecue sauce
3 Tbsp. chili powder
1 Tbsp. ground cumin
2 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 onion, minced
2 red peppers, chopped
2 cups dark beer (or N/A beer)
1 cup tomato sauce
2 cups canned pinto beans, drained
Hot sauce to taste
2 cups frozen corn, thawed

Warm 1 Tbsp. olive oil in a skillet on high heat. Add squash, sauté. Transfer to a large pot. Return the skillet to heat, add remaining oil and ground turkey. Brown and add to squash. 

Put ground turkey and squash into a large pot. Add the next 10 ingredients. Stir. Place the pot over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and lower heat. Cook for 30 minutes, stirring frequently. Add water if necessary to get the consistency you want. Add corn, stir, remove from heat.