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Hunger meets match in House of Charity kitchen

As a culinary student, Ellerie Easterwood had to take weekly “black box” tests: An instructor reveals a surprise ingredient – a meat, a grain – and it’s up to aspiring chefs to turn it into something beautiful and delicious.

Black box exercises test chefs’ imagination along with their knowledge and skill.

Cooking for the House of Charity is like that every day, Easterwood said. It’s like “Iron Chef” – except what’s at stake is lunch for 250 people a day, on average, who might have nothing more to eat until they come back the next day.

Passing the test every day is a job Easterwood, the House of Charity’s kitchen assistant, shares with Tami Rossi, its food service coordinator. Rossi calls the job “a calling.” Easterwood said she has “a passion for feeding hungry people, and not people with the deepest pockets. Food can be really healing for people.”

More people need the help. The number of meals served in the House of Charity’s dining room is about 18 percent higher this year compared to 2010, according to Rossi, and the 2010 numbers were 17 percent higher than 2009’s. The dining room served 350 people for lunch on at least a couple of occasions this fall, and it gets busier as it gets colder outside.

Starting Friday, the House of Charity’s kitchen also will prepare enough soup for the Christmas Bureau’s 100 volunteers a day.

Despite the challenges, Rossi and Easterwood work hard to present a varied menu, said Ralph Trim, a volunteer who works several days a week in the kitchen.

“They’re very creative,” he said. “They cook off the cuff.”

Ranch in the béchamel

The surprise ingredients come from disparate sources: grocery store donations, food drives, restaurants, food banks, and surplus from other shelters and kitchens that serve the poor.

A $500 monthly food budget covers everything that isn’t donated – oils, spices, the occasional splurge on a bottle of wine for a sauce. The House of Charity serves hot lunches six days a week to homeless and low-income adults, along with continental breakfasts. In total, the dining room at 32 W. Pacific Ave. in downtown Spokane serves about 10,000 meals a month.

Like home cooks, the chefs keep mental tallies of what’s available, what might be combined with what. They share and trade ingredients with other shelters and free-meal sites. They do their best to stay ahead of spoilage, but if salad greens start to brown, for instance, they send them to local pig farmers who donate the food back in the form of sausage.

Their diners need to worry more about getting enough calories than about vitamins, Rossi said, especially if they’re spending cold nights walking the streets.

Their bodies are often damaged, whether by poor nutrition, illness or physical abuse suffered on the streets. Many are diabetic, she said.

“Feeding homeless people is almost like feeding people in a Third World country,” she said.

The chefs get inspired by the ingredients that land on their loading dock.

They served cod trimmings from Dick’s drive-in with a lemon-dill butter sauce.

They got excited about a gift of Brussels sprouts, Easterwood said – they roasted them and tossed them with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

“We’ve made some killer stir-fries from canned pork,” she said. 

One perennial challenge is providing protein. But it can be done, Rossi said. The crew started last Monday with three hams. Rossi wanted to use them in scalloped potatoes, but she didn’t have enough cheese. So they used what they did have, whisking together a béchamel – a rich white sauce – and combining it with ranch dressing. They layered in steamed potatoes, diced onions and green peppers.

The three hams became a rich dish for 300 people that day, with at least a little protein for each. The kitchen served the potatoes with steamed broccoli, green salad and dinner rolls. For dessert, Easterwood made sweet potato bread pudding.

‘Proud to be here’

Easterwood took the job in October 2009 after working in some of Spokane’s most highly rated kitchens, including Luna and Mizuna. Rossi, a food scientist by training (her recipes include Cyrus O’Leary pies), started cooking at the House of Charity in February 2010.

The two chefs get prep help from about 10 volunteers a day – some are regulars with kitchen know-how, some are visiting groups of middle-schoolers who may or may not be trusted with knives. The dishwasher is in his 70s; he volunteers eight hours a day, six days a week. He has done so for more than a decade. 

“Everybody’s got a piece or a hand in what we do here,” Easterwood said.

Besides meals, the House of Charity provides a medical clinic, laundry and mail facilities, sleeping accommodations for 108 men nightly, and mental health and case management.

After a two-year funding drain, the shelter expects to lose what remains of its public money in 2012, said Rob McCann, executive director of Catholic Charities Spokane, which runs the House of Charity. That’s because political leaders are putting what money is available for low-income housing into permanent housing for low-income people rather than shelters, he said.

He’s all for permanent housing, McCann said – but it doesn’t help people sleeping under bridges who need immediate help. The funding cuts give new meaning to the label “faith-based organization,” he said. Catholic Charities will try to find a way to keep the shelter open.

“This is one of those moments where we’re going to have to rely on faith,” he said.

After losing his job and wearing out his welcome at a relative’s house, volunteer Trim, 59, lived at the House of Charity before finding permanent housing nearly a year ago. A visual artist who graduated from Gonzaga University in 1991, he’s still looking for paying work.

In the meantime, he gives his time in the kitchen. It’s a way to help the organization that helped him, he said, but it’s also a way for the experienced kitchen worker to preserve his skills – and to rebuild the self-worth eroded by a long job search.

Trim took a break Tuesday on the loading dock behind the kitchen. That morning he had spiced a 30-gallon tank of mulligatawny simmering in the kitchen, thickened with leftover stuffing.

“Proud to be here is how I feel,” he said.

New donations

The Christmas Bureau distributes grocery vouchers, toys and children’s books to people in need. Paid for with donations to the newspaper’s Christmas Fund, it’s a joint effort of the Volunteers of America, Catholic Charities and The Spokesman-Review.

Thanks to new donations, the fund now stands at $68,452.81.

Dick and Trudy Raymond, of Spokane, gave $500 “in memory of our dear parents and in honor of our friends and relatives. We pray for a Merry Christmas to all and for many blessings in the New Year.” Also giving $500: Scott and Shannon Sevigny, of Spokane; and Dennis and Janice McMann, of Newport, Wash.

An anonymous donor gave $300.

Giving $250: Don and Linda McClellan, of Spokane; and an anonymous donor from Hayden.

The Quilt Charmers, of Colbert, gave $200, as did Robert and Deborah Glaza, of Spokane.

Richard and Lucille Hallett, of Spokane, gave $165.

Darlene Waller, of Spokane, donated $125 in memory of Darroll R. Waller and Jack and Margaret Waller.

The following Spokane residents gave $100: Leo and Georgia Lang; Otto and Shirley Stevens; an anonymous donor; Thomas and Elaine Pitzer; Richard and Mary Schroeder; Jose and Anna Maria Cepeda; James Dallen; and Al and Vicki Falkner. An anonymous donor gave $100 in memory of Patti Fowler. John, Debbie and Michelle Melius, of Veradale, gave $100 in memory of Frank, Izzy, Joe and Helen. Roy and Joey Schmidt, of Cheney, also gave $100, as did Ruth and Thomas Conklin and family, of Spokane Valley, who gave “in honor of all of your volunteers that help make this fund such a success.”

Kent Holbrook donated $96.80 via PayPal.

Dorothy and Harvey Lochhead, of Spokane, gave $70.

The following Spokane residents donated $50: Marlene Westhoff; an anonymous donor, in memory of Joe and Irene Lynch, of Coulee Dam, Wash.; Peter and Annette Sanburn; another anonymous donor; Jim and Kate Jones, who wrote, “Best wishes to all!”; and Charles and Kathleen Huggins.

Spokane Valley residents who gave $50: John Mackie; Carol Wilson; and Gary and Cheryl Allen. Charles and Mary Ellen Steen, of Liberty Lake, also gave $50, as did the Reidburn grandchildren – Tera, Georgette, Jeffery and Tyler.

B.L. Scheele, of Spokane, gave $45.

An anonymous donor from Spokane gave $30. Tim Shauvin, of Spokane, gave $30 in memory of Ruth Shauvin.

An anonymous donor from Spokane gave $25 in memory of Don Morley, of Grand Coulee, Wash.

Robert Potts, of Spokane, gave $20.

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