Feeding the soul
Each week, members of churches, synagogues and other places of worship gather to share a meal. But who labors behind the stove to create these classic comfort foods? Meet some of the cooks who have made their meals can’t-miss occasions.
Click here to read some of our church and synagogue cooks’ most-requested recipes.
These individuals go by many names: the women’s auxiliary, the volunteer guild, the Temple Sisterhood or just plainly, the church cooks.
But their duty is the same: They prepare every warm, filling and loving meal their church or synagogue provides. And it’s some of the best in town — homemade, slow-cooked and created to nurture those who eat it.
From hearty soups and covered dishes to sweet treats and homemade rolls, these cooks prepare meals that are the ultimate in comfort food. In Tulsa, where there is a church within every square mile, many have memories of those in their congregations who performed these duties, memories that cannot be recalled without also thinking of the dish they were best known for creating.
Rabbi Marc Boone Fitzerman, of Congregation B’nai Emunah, writes in the B’nai Emunah Sisterhood cookbook about this connection between faith and food:
“The buzz of activity is warm and enfolding. It feels like the hum of continuity and tradition, of culture itself affirmed and transmitted. … All of this is about food, but it is also about love, and a force that holds us together as a family as surely as the formal patterns of the tradition.”
He’s right. Filling up a person’s stomach also begins to fill up his or her soul. The parishioners, volunteers and lifetime cooks featured on the following pages are looking not for glory in their efforts, just the clean plates of full and contented people.
Asbury United Methodist Church
On Sundays, Virginia Huddleston feeds between 700 and 900 people.
On Wednesdays, add another 300 to 400.
Sprinkle meals throughout the week for various events, and Huddleston easily prepares food for and serves more than 1,000 people each week at Asbury United Methodist Church.
Today, Huddleston is the church’s food service team leader, but she began making meals for the church about a decade ago when she started as a volunteer.
“I’ve always loved to cook,” she says. “And that makes me have a better job than anyone in this church.”
Yearly, Huddleston cranks out 52,000 homemade hot rolls. Talk about mass quantities.
“You just have to figure out how to stretch a recipe,” she says. “It’s no different cooking for 300 or 30. It’s the same work; you just might have to peel a few more potatoes.”
Huddleston says providing meals is central to a church’s mission, something she witnessed first-hand after the devastating ice storm of 2007. Asbury opened its doors as an emergency shelter and served food to anyone in need. She and other volunteers prepared to feed 150, but they ended up feeding 650 people the first night.
“That’s what the church is here for,” she says. “It didn’t matter if you were Catholic or Baptist; it was the coming together of the community.”
While Huddleston works well beyond 40 hours each week to feed the large crowds, she says she’s not looking for another job anytime soon.
“Heavens, I’m going to do this until I’m so old that people say, ‘OK, Virginia, it’s not tasting so good anymore,’” she says.
Congregation B’nai Emunah
Ever since moving to Tulsa 22 years ago, Nancy Cohen has baked for the special occasions at Congregation B’nai Emunah, the midtown Tulsa synagogue, as a member of the B’nai Emunah Sisterhood.
And when women work together for as long as many have from the Sisterhood, a unique language develops to describe how to complete each step.
“Everything is baking, boxing and ‘traying,’” Cohen says. “We ‘tray’ about 20 or 25 trays for each event.”
She chuckles, realizing she’s slipped into the Sisterhood vernacular.
“For us, the word ‘tray’ has become like a verb,” she says. “We’ve created this word that is specialized to this event.”
About 10 times a year, the Sisterhood gathers to help celebrate happy occasions of the synagogue, such as its bar and bat mitzvahs. The process starts with 10 to 15 women in the synagogue’s kitchen baking favorites such as apple cakes, strudels and rugelach.
After the baking is done, another team launches into action. Taking donated shoeboxes from Brouse’s, the women box the goodies for storage. Finally, the last step is to place all the sweets on trays for the special occasion.
Cohen says the foods are prepared the same way they have been for years, long before she was involved.
“This is a tradition that has been going on for generations,” Cohen says. “We’ve helped teach the little kids, and we learned from the older generations.
“Baking is a labor of love.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: In 2007, the Sisterhood created a cookbook as a fund-raiser for B’nai Emunah to capture all the sweet and savory recipes they’ve shared over the years. In the dedication, friends of Nancy Cohen wrote that they could sum up her enthusiasm for preparing food for others with a quote from M.F.K. Fisher: “Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.”
Verdigris United Methodist Church
Joyce Luttrell began cooking for Verdigris United Methodist Church, located near Claremore, in the 1980s as part of a Wednesday night children’s program called Pioneer Club. Children were invited to come to the church for devotions and games, and the meals served as an incentive for them and for their parents, who wouldn’t have to worry about that evening’s meal.
After all these years of cooking and serving, she says she’s about mastered it all.
“If someone hands me a recipe, I can pretty much do anything I need to, I’d imagine,” she says.
Each Wednesday night, she and about eight other volunteers feed more than 100 people.
“Now that people seem to enjoy it, they beg us to keep doing it,” Luttrell says.
Often, instead of meeting at the church and using a large kitchen to prepare the oversized suppers, the volunteers cook the meals at their homes. They then caravan the dishes to the church.
“I’ve been going on like this since ’85,” she says, “and it was just something that I felt was one of my talents.”
She’s quick to pass credit to the other volunteers who shop, cook and cart the food to the church each week, including her husband, Mark.
“Mark helps me out a lot,” she says. “I’d say we peel about 40 pounds of potatoes together a week.”
She says that over the years, some dishes have emerged as clear favorites among the congregation. From roasted mashed potatoes with gravy and homemade rolls to her own carrot cake recipe and potato cheese soup, she says she has appreciated seeing people enjoy her cooking.
“It doesn’t much seem to matter what we have; there is very seldom anything left,” she says. “So they must like it.”
St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church
For Terry Watts, church should feed two needs in everyone’s life.
“I think that there are two kinds of nourishment at a church — spiritual renewal and the actual physical nourishment,” he says.
At St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church, he aims to provide the latter.
Every Wednesday, he and others provide a low-cost meal to parishioners. In the winter, the group prepares hearty soups with salads and bread, mostly serving hungry choir members on their way to practice.
But during the summer, they draw a larger crowd with their offerings at “Dinner and a Movie.” About 90 people attend each week to watch both classic and contemporary films while feasting on good food.
“I think it is impossible not to become closer when you come together to share a meal, and laugh or cry or be challenged by the message of a socially provocative film,” he says. “The more time we spend together, the more we learn about each other and the world around us.”
As the group enters its third summer with the weekly event, Watts says his favorite part is seeing someone’s entire day change for the better through enjoying a meal and the company of others.
“We are a real extended family that serves others in and outside the boundaries of our parish,” he says.
This focus on fellowship is a core tenet of the church’s beliefs, he says.
“Our faith tradition has its very roots in hospitality,” he says. “Early Christians hosted each other in their homes. They shared a meal. They educated and supported each other. The very act of our Eucharistic celebration, Holy Communion, is the re-enactment of our spiritual leader’s last meal with his friends.”