Volunteer ‘gastrophilanthropist’ spices up Hudson Salvation Army

Gourmet chef and culinary journalist Stephen Henderson has flown to Paris to review Michelin-starred bistros, then hit a posh fashion show in India featuring thousands of flowers, fire-eaters and acrobats in gold body paint. 

But Mondays, he and his husband love to be in the Salvation Army’s Hudson soup kitchen whipping up a 100 delicious, nutritious meals from donated foods. Henderson has created foolproof cheap-yet-gourmet recipes that can easily be expanded for dozens of diners. When he globetrots, he visits soup kitchens from downtown Austin and L.A., to Israel and Iran. He volunteers to cook whether its on a rickety stove or a fire pit in impoverished rural Uzbekistan where he roasted a lamb for hungry farmers. 

He coined the term “gastrophilanthropy” to describe his combo of foodie passion and volunteerism. He put his fascinating adventures into a book, now released in paperback, called “The 24 Hour Soup Kitchen.”

All proceeds from book sales go to New York food banks. And yes, it contains recipes.

Henderson volunteered at the Hudson Salvation Army kitchen over a year ago. He said that some gay friends asked him if the Salvation Army was homophobic. (Years ago, the Salvation Army renounced homophobic views expressed in an interview by one of its leaders overseas. It now makes an effort to recruit and hire LGBTQ staff.)  

“I was welcomed with open arms, with love, respect,” said Henderson, whose photo graces the Salvation Army website. “And when I bring my gay friends, they’re welcomed, too. The experience has been better than good. It’s been great.”

Hudson Salvation Army director Darcy Connor says she and the clients adore Henderson.

“He’s kind and generous and so talented,” she exclaimed, insisting that Henderson’s wit and attitude make even chores like dish washing fun. “He’s made us famous in Hudson. We get volunteers who have heard how fun and creative he is. And he brings his wonderful friends who volunteer, too.”

Henderson believes that gourmet cooking is a set of skills more than an inborn talent like singing or dancing. He offers himself as proof. He grew up poor, the son of a Levittown pastor whose low salary was supplemented by a tradition called “pounding.” 
The congregation donated pounds of rice, flour, oats, butter and produce, stacking them in pyramids and towers on tables festooned with construction paper decorations. His mom was busy with duties as a pastor’s wife so she didn’t have a lot of time for the kitchen. But Henderson was fascinated by how flavors clash and complement. He didn’t believe a strict budget condemned a family to lousy food. 

He learned how rich flavors and sophisticated textures could be coaxed out of cheap, humble staples. His hero is chef Alexis Soyer, a Victorian-era bon vivant who created elegant meals at London’s Reform Club, a haven for wealthy progressive Whig and Radical politicians. Soyer was in demand at elite parties as a guest due to his charm, singing voice, storytelling talent – as well as his culinary genius. 

Soyer is also known as the father of soup kitchens after traveling to Ireland during the potato famine to feed hundreds.
Soyer’s and Henderson’s budget recipes are completely different than those created by American experts during the Great Depression. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt constantly urged the new Bureau of Home Economics to discover dishes that could feed huge families and soup kitchens for pennies. The recipes were dutifully printed in newspapers and broadcast on radio.

The bizarre results included Onions Stuffed with Peanut Butter, maybe the most infamous dish Roosevelt promoted.
Food historians Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe detail in “A Square Meal – A Culinary History” how Eleanor served her husband, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the awful dishes including her recipe for noodles boiled into mush then mixed with mashed carrots.  A 1933 Mulligan Stew recipe suggests using whatever grass or weeds grew nearby to thicken broth – then add Bull Durham tobacco for flavoring. FDR’s palate was as refined as his blue blood but he felt the meals helped him empathize with Americans.

“A Square Meal” summarizes the recipes as “the dreariest food in Washington, also some of the most dismally prepared.”

The pandemic is not a Depression. But Henderson and Connor say their lunch crowds are bigger than last year. And low income neighborhoods are often food deserts where affordable fresh produce and nutrition dense foods can be scarce.
Connor said, “We mostly get clients who are working poor. They often work more than one job but don’t make enough to cover food and bills.”

There have been days when a surprise surge in diners has left Henderson with more people to feed than food.

“It’s never been like a ‘Chopped’ TV contest where I have only ginger, rutabagas and charcoal to use,” he said cheerfully. “I can always scramble eggs.”

He visits the Salvation Army Sundays to check the fridge and pantry. He often donates supplemental ingredients. And Henderson promises for volunteers whose families can’t eat what they cook, he’ll find useful tasks they can do to give clients a gourmet experience.