Food

What’s Cooking During the Pandemic Like at a Catholic Worker House in South Bend, Indiana?

Being largely closed to the public means less cooking overall, but staff and live-in guests still need healthy meals, despite decreasing resources.

Collage of a stock pot, a soup ladle, a church window, a chicken, and microgreens, with a "Pandemic Kitchen" label in the corner.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Anjes/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Stepanyda/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Prostock-Studio/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and Елена Рубан/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Due to the “stay-at-home” and quarantine orders necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic, many of us are finding ourselves cooking more than ever before. In Pandemic Kitchen, we’ll hear from home cooks—experts and newbies, those with plenty of access to food and those with less, the avid and the reluctant—about the culinary struggles, and unexpected joys, of this time of social distancing. If you would like to be interviewed for this column, please email humaninterest@slate.com with “Pandemic Kitchen” in the subject line and a brief description of your cooking background and current situation.

This interview, conducted by Rebecca Onion over email, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Family size and situation: A twentysomething grad student who lives at the South Bend Catholic Worker House in South Bend, Indiana.

The Catholic Worker Movement, founded by Dorothy Day, advocates for a decentralized system of “houses of hospitality,” where workers devoting themselves to service would offer long-term hospitality to anyone needing shelter. There are two of these houses in South Bend, one for men and one for women; the community runs a drop-in center as well.

They use the terms “staff” and “guests”—she’s staff, but she’s not paid. “This is just my family life,” she says.

Pandemic impact, so far: The houses have been closed to the public. Though one guest living in the men’s house had an exposure scare after coming in contact with an infected guest at the drop-in center, so far everyone living in the houses has stayed healthy.

From the Many, to the Few

Normally, the people in the men’s house and the women’s house, plus a couple people who are kind of like permanent members of the community and live in other houses on our street, would have dinner together every night. And then we’d have guests, friends, or classmates, a lot of undergrads coming to help out and visit us, or folks we know from the drop-in center. On Thursday we would have a huge open-house potluck dinner. We host holidays. Normally for Easter we would have about 60 people all sit on the front lawn, and it’s really nice.

Of course we couldn’t do that this year. We closed our live-in houses to the general public sometime in the middle of March. We still offer hospitality at the drop-in center—breakfast, laundry, showers—and we’re now open seven days a week. So our community has a lot of exposure because of that, since our staff is traveling back and forth between the two spaces every day. Even though most of us are in our 20s and 30s, we’re young and in good health, a lot of people we live with are not, so keeping the houses open seemed like inviting extra risk.

Right as the pandemic was starting, we had a couple of guests move out, since they found alternative housing. So in the women’s house, it’s very small in terms of who’s here. Two staff members—myself and another, who’s in her early 30s—then two older ladies, guests in their 50s and early 60s. … Then we had a guy from the men’s house move in here, because we have empty bedrooms [and he was sharing a room].

The Only Home in America That’s Cooking Less

The volume of cooking at our house has gone down! Quite a bit. The first Friday of every month, we used to do dinner at the drop-in center, this huge open house where we would regularly have a hundred guests. At the house, I was cooking dinner two or three days a week, and I would start cooking at 3 p.m. and serve at 6:30. We had other volunteers who would come in to cover dinner twice a week, and we’re not having them come in now, so I’m taking over those shifts. But since we have fewer people present now, I’m starting to cook at 3 and serving at 5.

Before this, we had a lot of people in and out of the house throughout the day, and when it came to dinner, you just had to be prepared for the fact that somebody might come in drunk or high. You had absolutely no idea if it’s going to happen or not, but the probability that it will happen at some point in the next week is high, and you have to be ready to deal with that. Also through the week we would host groups of students and young people who come through, to help and to learn about our life. I really value that, but it is work to host a volunteer group, and for some of our guests, having groups of students in the house can be really disorienting, since you have no idea who they are.

So, in the pandemic, we’ve lost a lot of our help, but since we’re not serving as many people in the home, the cleaning and housework has decreased, and there’s been more time for us who live here to spend together. I really, really value that time.

Who’s Cooking? Who’s Cleaning?

Most of the time, when people are homeless, especially people who have been dealing with long-term chronic homelessness, there’s often a mental health issue going on. So our experience has been that people’s capabilities for working in the house vary widely. There’s no way to generalize what the experience of somebody who’s homeless is going to be like. We’ve had people on our staff who were homeless at one point, including myself—I had a year where I was just kind of house to house and didn’t really live anywhere.

I hope I can say this without sounding snotty, but I’m a really good cook and have liked doing it for a while. It was the only thing I had done professionally—I bounced around at a lot of jobs before I started grad school. So I’m comfortable doing the cooking, as is another woman in our community who’s a very talented cook, who came as a guest—she’s cooking breakfast at the drop-in center now. But we’ve had a lot of men, in their 60s, who may or may not have ever really learned to cook, particularly, and might not be comfortable in the kitchen. So typically what we’ve done in the past is to assign cooking as a staff job, and guests are responsible for cleaning up the eating dishes afterwards.

Food From the Margins

Getting groceries has changed less than you might expect. We get a lot of our food from the food bank. It’s just very important to us to just use whatever we are given, and to rescue things that would otherwise be thrown away. We use what they have at the food bank, any given week. Last week there was all of this amazing Amish cheese there, and I snapped it up and threw it in the freezer.

We used to get day-old bread from this fantastic bakery, and they were really generous about it, but that bakery shut down—I can’t remember what month, but before the pandemic. We haven’t really figured out a new bread routine yet. Maybe we’ll start baking! The rest of the world seems to be baking.

We have one person who goes out and does sort of a normal run to Kroger, where we usually get onions, tofu, eggs, and dairy. They buy all the milk for the drop-in center, and a few gallons for the house. We have some people here who like cereal. We go through a lot of eggs at the drop-in center, but we don’t need to buy eggs for the house right now because we have chickens in the backyard! The chickens are delightful! They’re out and about, tearing up our garden.

We’d usually get a lot of donations from the farmers market, and we’re not getting those right now because it’s closed. There’s an amazing community garden organization in South Bend, and we’ve gotten a lot of stuff from them. We’re getting our garden going slowly, and it by no means produces all the food we need, but it’s a big garden, and it definitely does help supplement our vegetables. But the only thing that’s up and growing right now is the chives. If we can’t get produce from one of those alternate sources, we just spend and buy it at the grocery store, like normal people.

Our extended community has been really generous and have sent a lot of financial support, especially the people who are normally here volunteering and helping out and can’t right now. So they’ve sent money, which has been great, and we’ve been able to purchase the cleaning supplies we need. We get a lot of in-kind gifts that have meant we haven’t had to spend as much on groceries or supplies or whatever.

One example: There is an urban market gardener who lives on the other side of town, and anything he hasn’t been able to sell through his normal channels, he’s brought over on Saturday afternoon. So I’m cooking these super fancy microgreens we could never afford to buy! Sometimes stuff like that happens, and we’re suddenly blessed with a beautiful donation.

The “Stew on a Starch” Rule

The standard American diet is so heavy on processed meat, and it’s so unhealthy, and I made a rule for myself long ago to never serve just, like, meat on its own—I’m never going to serve a hunk of meat on a plate and just call that dinner. I make an exception for salmon. But it’s usually my preference to serve meat as part of the dish, because I really want people to eat vegetables and plant-based protein and things with fiber in them.

And we don’t eat meat on Fridays. So tonight I’m going to make a variation on this great Food52 recipe: olive oil–braised chickpeas. I don’t cook from a recipe generally, because we just don’t know what we’re going to get, but I love to read recipes. When you’re always dealing with a surprise ingredient situation, it’s good to have a lot of recipes in your head so you can do variations.

I do a lot of big chunky stews that can be served over some kind of starch. That’s a great way to serve a lot of people at once. I try to make it brown rice or quinoa. My mother comes from an Italian family, so we always had pasta when I was growing up, so that’s kind of my comfort food, and I really wanted it yesterday. So I made rigatoni and then had a ground turkey ragu with some canned tomatoes, a couple of carrots that I grated up. I chopped some celery that was on its last legs, really fine, and we had onions from the grocery store.

We do a lot of stir-fries. I almost always have a salad. I try to make sure there’s some kind of vegetable-centric dish at every meal—usually a salad, but in the winter we’ll do a lot of braised greens, kale, or collards. We get a lot of donations of those.

We just don’t ever really do a big cut of meat. We might cook a turkey for Thanksgiving, but we’d never just put the turkey out—we’d carve it in advance and put it on a platter. Big cuts of meat don’t work for the community. I also try to be mindful of the fact that there are a few people in the community who don’t have a lot of teeth. One of them was actually going to get teeth, had been fitted and had dentures made and ready to go, and then the pandemic came. … They have to wait.

I really don’t bake very much. There’s processed crap everywhere, and the first thing that anyone wants to serve to people who are homeless is, like, fucking day-old doughnuts. It’s not good for anyone. It’s shortening people’s lives. I will do cake for birthdays and stuff. But just for every day, I’m not serving hot dogs, and I’m not serving day-old doughnuts. And with the quantity of food I’m making, and cooking five nights a week, I have kind of decided I don’t really have time for baking.

A Few Recent Hits

I recently made something that worked out really well. We were given something that’s like a nice version of TVP. … I’m a lifelong vegetarian, and when I was a kid it was always like, “Here’s some gross TVP!” But this Beyond Meat stuff we got from a donation was really nice. I used that and then a bunch of ground turkey and made a few different meatloaves—which is not a dish I had grown up with, but it was really good, and all of the older Midwestern people here really liked it.

Something else I’ve made a couple times that’s been really good is really simple. It came to us from another member of the community. She just took extra-firm tofu, drained it and pressed it, and then threw it in with some chopped-up broccoli, and dumped a marinade that was soy sauce, olive oil, ginger, and garlic on top. Let it sit for a bit and then throw it in the oven at high heat and forget about it for a while. All together on one sheet. I’ve done it with Brussels sprouts, I’ve done it with broccoli, I’ll probably do it with kale or any other kind of cruciferous vegetable. Even people who are like, “Ew, tofu!” snapped it up. I’ve made that a couple times now—it’s probably my recipe of the pandemic.

Passing It On

There are a number of families in the area that we’re in touch with, and we’ve been able to make up boxes of food from what we get and bring it over to them—that’s something we’ve done forever. We keep a pantry with the stuff we get from the food banks so we can give it away. Now, we’re not offering meals open to the public, at the house. So instead I’m boxing food up for some neighbors and leaving it on their doorstep—prepared food and pantry stuff. Last week I couldn’t help myself and made too much lentil soup, so I brought over a quart of it.

When you are closely connected to communities who are experiencing racism and poverty, the crisis isn’t new. We’ve been dealing with a crisis that feels apocalyptic in proportion for a long time. We already know how terrible the problems of food insecurity and lack of medical care are. … We have been seeing it. This is crisis compounded on top of crisis. The pandemic of coronavirus and loss of work, layered on top of the epidemic of opioid addiction, lists and lists and lists of things layered beneath.

It’s hard for me to know how our guests are feeling because some of them aren’t super open or articulate about those things. But among the staff … we have this feeling of “OK, things are OK now. They could get really bad. We have to be prepared for that, and we’re just going to keep peace in the home to every extent that we can.”

I hope this can be a time of restoration and healing for a lot of people. And I do think food is one of the ways it’s going to happen.