‘Freely given gifts’
Stone Soup offers more than meals to the community
Head chef Kirsten Johl Levitt hands the first plate of food to a volunteer at the beginning of a Stone Soup Café meal Feb. 8. “I always plan to cook for a hundred,” Levitt said.
Chef Kirsten Johl Levitt checks the flavor of a dish at the Stone Soup Cafe at All Souls Church, Unitarian-Universalist, in Greenfield.
Volunteers Louise Sauter, Aggie Mitchkoski and Brian Witherspoon are ready to lend a hand at the Stone Soup Café in the basement of All Souls Church in Greenfield on Feb. 8.Recorder/Trish Crapo
With less than half an hour to go until mealtime, volunteers Karl Mutchler, Jeff Center, Lucy Leete and Ceridwyn Carlton are busy in the kitchen on Feb. 8, chopping fresh vegetables and fruit for Stone Soup Café’s hearty and healthy meal.
GREENFIELD (February 8, 2014) — Volunteers and community members stand "in circle" for a moment of silence before a Stone Soup Café meal held on Saturday. The basement of All Souls Church in Greenfield was transformed into a festive dining room, with tables decorated in red and white, with heart centerpieces, in honor of Valentine's Day. Recorder/Trish Crapo
GREENFIELD (February 8, 2014) — Greenfield resident John Bolton offers a brief prayer before a Stone Soup Café meal held in the basement of All Souls Church. Organizers of the meal invited those gathered to share not only food but community. Recorder/Trish Crapo
GREENFIELD (February 8, 2014) — Volunteer Jeff Canter chops parsely before a Stone Soup Café meal. The meals feature a variety of healthy fresh and cooked dishes, all clearly labeled as to ingredients and potential allergens, such as gluten. Recorder/Trish Crapo
GREENFIELD — The menu, celebrating the Chinese New Year, included spicy peanut noodle salad, ginger-garlic green beans, braised bok choy with twice-cooked tofu, plus tamarind glazed chicken and duck.
But Stone Soup Cafe, where more than 100 people turned out recently for the pay-what-you-can buffet, is about much more than the meal.
Volunteers begin arriving at All Souls Unitarian-Universalist Church as early as 7:30 a.m. one recent Saturday, some of them after also a couple of hours of preparing vegetables and sweet and sour fish soup the night before, and shopping for fish, chickens and other ingredients at Foster’s Super Market and other markets.
Other food came from the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and Greenfield Community Farm.
“It’s definitely a labor of love,” says Christine Bates, one of seven kitchen volunteers helping volunteer chef Kirsten Johl Levitt while Bates’ 15-year-old daughter, Ceridwyn Carlton, and seven other helpers decorate the parish hall with paper dragons, set the 13 tables and prepare chafing dishes. Bates helps two Northfield Mount Hermon School students — Jane Do from Vietnam and Sandy Subkuryard from Cambodia — stuff wonton wrappers, as Levitt helps the others prepare tofu, the bok choy, noodles and other ingredients.
“This morning, I looked at what we had for protein and went to buy a few more chickens, because what if people didn’t get their (government) checks?” asks Levitt, wearing a black chef’s hat adorned with colorful butterflies. “The first of the month is typically not a busy day for us, but I don’t know how the week fell out for people.”
Begun in 2012 as the “All You Can Eat Cafe” after the Zen Peacemakers sold its Montague Farm retreat and ended its community meal there, Stone Soup sought to complement the Franklin County Community Meals program, which offers meals every weeknight somewhere in the county, but not on weekends.
Stone Soup, now under the auspices of All Souls, with a single paid staff member, fundraiser Ari Pliskin, so keenly removes separations between the needy and volunteers that it’s hard for anyone to make distinctions.
When Pliskin and other “engaged Buddhist” volunteers went to soup kitchens in Boston, New York and elsewhere, he says, “A lot of people would treat us with plenty of love, but not necessarily any dignity. There was a separation between server and served. We asked, ‘How do we create an environment where people are more connected, where we’re all adding something and all benefiting?”
With ambitious, from-scratch menus — attentive to gluten-free, vegetarian and vegetarian diets — and elements like an “opening circle” and post-meal “council circle” to anyone who chooses to “bear witness” to each other speaking “from the heart,” Stone Soup combines Zen emphasis on openness without distinctions, Unitarian-Universalist dedication to the dignity of all people and a pay-what-you-can model, Pliskin says.
There’s an honor system at the wooden donation box, and guests who prefer to volunteer rather than pay may do so. So each Sunday, 20 to 30 volunteers show up, in shifts that include set-up, cooking, serving, breakdown and cleanup, ending by 3 p.m.
Among these is Alyssa Sutton, a 2009 Franklin County Technical School culinary graduate working amid basil, cumin, music, chopping sounds and chatter in the kitchen. Meanwhile, Rayna Disciullo helps prepare the hall, setting up real silverware — the first week plastic utensils are avoided entirely.
Disciullo, a 1993 Greenfield High School graduate now working as a dental hygienist in Greenwich, Conn., “was having a hard day” with a broken car windshield last spring when she visited her local library and discovered “The Dude and the Zen Master,” about the Zen Peacemakers. She took the book home, and read about the group’s plans to set up a community meal in her old home town.
“They talked about opening a cafe that’s done with dignity, with community, where you feel you belong,” says Disciullo, who decided to begin weekly visits to volunteer and stay with her family. “I said, ‘That’s my gig.’ The first time I did it, it was amazing: I didn’t know who needed it, who was volunteering. Everybody was sitting together. That got me, and I got hooked.”
Cooking with love
Levitt, a self-trained chef who “can’t remember a time when I wasn’t cooking” and has been volunteering here for about a year as well as serving on the church and Stone Soup boards, leaves her reading specialist’s job in Williamsburg each Friday afternoon and heads straight to do shopping, then evening kitchen prep with the list of ingredients she’s prepared during the week.
Each week, she tries for an international theme. The menu might include South American Butternut Squash Stew with Queso Blanco, or golumpkis and “Lazy Perogi.” This week it included homemade clam chowder and Southwestern Turkey Shepherd’s Pie.
“I think people need to feel they’re accepted, valued, loved, welcomed,” Levitt says. “When you’re scrapping for survival, you need to know there’s a place where we care about you. My philosophy is just cook with love, give as freely as you possibly can. Something really happens when they sit down and start eating: the tenor of the room changes and everybody takes a deep breath and relaxes ... The idea of having a meal is old; the idea of creating a sustainable model of social entrepreneurship where all people are equal, where judgment is suspended ... where you offer an environment for people to explore, expand and grow, that’s exciting.”
According to Pliskin, a yoga instructor who’s also been helping groups in Boston, California and Britain to set up a similar meal, 80 percent of the cafe’s customers are low or moderate income, with about 15 percent reporting as first-timers. At the end of each month, when attendance swells because money from support checks tends to run out, the cafe offers entertainment by banjo and guitarist Michael Nix, by singers Morning Star and Moonlight Davis and others.
“The weekend is a nice time for community and fine dining,” Pliskin says. “People like to slow down, to take a little more time and be with friends and listen to music. Because of the fact we’re the only ones doing a weekend meal, we do it more weekend style, while everyone else does weekday style.”
As part of that weekend approach, the meal provides take-out containers for people to bring home leftovers for themselves or friends. Since there is no Sunday community meal in the area, this may be the last meal of the week for some.
Stone Soup has seen an increase in its donations, from Hope and Olive restaurant’s free soup and games nights, from the annual Valley Gives fundraisers and the United Way of Franklin County contributions at the meals, and it’s also seen an increase in attendance at the meals — although Pliskin says, “Who’s to say whether it’s because of an increase in need or because of the program?”
Cafe Manager Aggie Mitchkoski of Deerfield, who began volunteering after her Quaker worship group had tried setting up a soup kitchen, arrives each week at around 9 a.m. to oversee setup, making elaborate menu signs and running the carpet-sweeper vigorously over the entryway rug.
“One really nice thing about this café: a lot of boundaries you see in the world you don’t see here, there are people working together on very equal ground,” she says. “It’s freely given gifts.”
Among those receiving — or is it giving? — a few minutes later during the meal is “Storm,” a Franklin County Interfaith Council member who’s also on Stone Soup’s board and in the past has been homeless and on Supplemental Security Income.
“We focus both on feeding food and also feeding a community,” he says, pointing out that while other community meals are prepared by various faith communities, and also by Deerfield Academy students, this is a meal put together by volunteers from the Franklin County House of Correction, from various schools and faith groups.
That coming together, he says, of people from the RECOVER Project, from Greenfield High School , from all financial strata — volunteers and non-volunteers together — provides “opportunities, exchanges of information and getting to know each other,” where people in need come into close contact with people who may know where there are resources to help them. “It’s really important,” adds Storm, an ordained minister.
Another regular at the meals, retired Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School teacher Bob Cantius of Amherst, says that in addition to bringing people together around wholesome foods that many of them may never have encountered, “It’s also a forum, and a format — I think it’s kind of spiritual, in a way. It makes you feel good.”
On the Web: www.stonesoupgreenfield.org
You can reach Richie Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269