SimmerD: Serving up love (and PB&Js) at Corktown soup kitchen

The orders ring out:

"Two potato, three mac 'n' cheese."

"Four potato noodle."

"One of each."

In a basement kitchen on Trumbull and Michigan, I dole out scoops of noodle soup and macaroni and cheese with a pert blond eighth-grade volunteer named Kristy. This is a far cry from the well-loved and lauded mac 'n' cheese served just up the street -- it's made with industrial-sized cans of processed cheese sauce, in which I suspect there may not be any actual dairy. But this is what's being offered, and no one is complaining. Many come back for seconds and thirds; most take extra, in Styrofoam containers, either to put in the fridge at home or to take to friends or family. In addition to the soup and macaroni, there are peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, American cheese sandwiches, doughnuts, muffins and bagels.

Visiting so many swanky restaurants for Detroit Restaurant Week last month, while a fun trip, left me with a fine-dining hangover of sorts, and got me thinking about what a tiny percentage of Detroiters would ever be able to actually have a meal at any of the places we visited. By coincidence, a couple of weeks later I was introduced by a mutual friend to Jeff DeBruyn. For the last five years, DeBruyn has worked with Manna Meal, a soup kitchen run out of the basement of St. Peter's Episcopal Church, where he acts as a "peace-keeper" in case of any incidents. I asked him if they could ever use a hand, and he replied that I was welcome to come by any time and they would find something for me to do.

And so I find myself at 7 a.m. on a warm Friday slathering stiff peanut butter onto uncooperative slices of too-soft Wonder bread while chatting with a retiree named Marge. Somewhat surprisingly, she is quite "food-aware," asking me whether I use refined salt and whether I know about A1 and A2 milk (I did not, so I Google it when I get home). It feels more than ironic to be discussing the unhealthiness of the Western diet and then proceeding to serve a meal in which there were no fresh fruits or green vegetables and the only protein was in the peanut butter sandwiches, but there we are. It's a catch-22 because Marge intimates that in her experience, even if we were to serve a vegetable, most diners would pass it over in favor of the carbs.

I ask one of the other volunteers where the food comes from. She tells me that Marianne Arbogast, who co-manages the kitchen with Father Tom Lumpkin, gets the food from various sources such as Costco and day-old bread stores, shopping around to stretch their dollars. The bottom line, quite obviously, is that the cheaper the food, the more people they can feed. I ask if they ever run out of food and am told that if they run out of the "main dishes," they just make more sandwiches.

Sometimes there are food donations. The day I am there, a man shows up with several boxes of Dearborn brand hot dogs left over from a UAW picnic. These are cut up to be added to the next day's bean soup. One of the men in line, seeing the meat, cajoles us to give him a cup on the sly, but is refused. "If I give some to you, everyone will want them," the volunteer says apologetically.

After prepping the PB&Js, we get ready to open for business and I take my place in the serving line. The people who come through, the majority of whom are men, are mostly friendly and in good spirits. One sings commercial jingles to us; another gives us a few bars of harmonica. One man remarks cheerfully that "every day I wake up alive is a good day." Everyone seems to be courteous to each other and there is no unruliness. It's a slow day for DeBruyn, who sips coffee and reads the paper, glancing up occasionally to survey the room.

My station is right next to a telephone mounted to the wall, and during the course of service, several people come to use the phone. I overhear the conversation of one man who is having trouble with his Social Security checks and has been kicked out of a group home because they couldn't get his checks cashed. For many of the people it serves, the soup kitchen is more than a place to get a free meal: it's a "home base" where they can receive mail, make calls, and get assistance with finding medical care.

As the neighborhood develops and changes, Manna Meal's presence has been the object of some controversy with business owners and residents, some of whom would prefer to drive out (or at least discourage) the indigent element. But many the people it serves have been in Corktown since well before its revitalization, and the soup kitchen, open since 1976, isn't going anywhere.

Although I used to live just up the street, I had been unaware of Manna Meal prior to meeting DeBruyn. An online search turns it up on a listing of soup kitchens on the Archdiocese of Detroit's website, but that's about it. Curious as to how they are funded since they seem to have little or no publicity, I ask Marianne. Unlike the widely-known Capuchin Soup Kitchen on the East Side, which has a well-developed website where people can donate online, Manna Meal is funded entirely on personal donations and a once-a-year charity golf outing. Many of the volunteers have worked there for 20 or more. In an age where everyone is pushing their cause via a Facebook page, I marvel at the fact that this organization moves along quite nicely on good old-fashioned word-of-mouth community involvement.

Still, there are needs that are not always filled. As I serve up cups of soup, a man asks whether there is any "hygiene." I don't understand what he is referring to so I ask another volunteer, who explains that there are sometimes items on hand like toothpaste, soap, deodorant, and razors in a drawer for people to help themselves to. Today there are no toiletries to be had. The man thanks me for checking and wanders off with his soup.

For anyone interested in assisting Manna Meal in their mission, donations can be sent in care of Manna Meal at Most Holy Trinity, 1050 Porter St, Detroit, 48226. In-person donations can be made at the soup kitchen during the hours they are open (Monday-Wednesday, Friday-Saturday, 7-11 a.m.). Currently, they are most in need of toiletries, socks, and men's t-shirts; they do not, however, accept bags of clothing. Anyone interested in sponsorship or participation in their annual golf outing (held this year on Sept. 10) can contact Paula Belanger at 248-561-0468.

Food writer Noelle Lothamer pens a food blog that goes by the tasty name
Simmer Down! Look for her monthly Model D contributions in SimmerD.

All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography

Contact Marvin here.
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