After the April launch party for his book, “The 24-Hour Soup Kitchen: Soul-Stirring Lessons in Gastrophilanthropy,” at The Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen in New York, Stephen Henderson was going to hit the road. He planned on embarking on a cross-country trip in May, stopping to cook in soup kitchens along the way.
Of course, all of that has been put on hold. While the current situation means that he’ll be staying local for the time being, Henderson is still pitching in to help, volunteering to cook each week at a soup kitchen in Hudson, N.Y., near the upstate home he shares with publicist husband James LaForce. And his original intention, to donate all proceeds from book sales to the Food Bank for New York City and celebrate the local chefs working in soup kitchens around the world, is still in tact and more vital than ever.
Volunteering is nothing new for Henderson. He’s spent years observing charitable kitchens, volunteering to cook in South Korea, Iran, Israel, and Stateside in cities like Austin, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.
A longtime travel journalist, Henderson was on assignment covering fashion week in India when a local-based design assistant took him to a Sikh temple in Delhi. “The scale of this operation in Delhi just amazed me,” says Henderson of the kitchen that fed 20,000 people a day.
After that, he began tacking extra personal days onto his work trips in order to see how the hungry get fed in different parts of the world. What started out as a personal interest eventually morphed into the idea to collect his gastrophilanthropy travel essays into a book.
“I would be cooking with one hand and be scribbling notes in my notebook with the other,” he says of working alongside local chefs and listening to their stories. “And you should see these notebooks, they’re splatter-stained and grease-marked.”
The book opens with a short account of Henderson’s childhood. The son of a Baptist preacher, he grew up helping his mother cook for their family of seven.
“In those days Baptists didn’t drink, they didn’t go to movies, they were removed from the world — but they loved to eat,” says Henderson. “I grew up in church basements where the church ladies were pumping out mass quantities of food for the congregation, so I grew up with this notion of mass feeding,” he says.
The book also contextualizes the history of soup kitchens. Alexis Soyer, a French chef from the 19th century, is the father of food shelters, and serves as a sort of mascot running throughout the book’s narrative. Henderson was first introduced to Soyer by the maker of Lacanche ranges (he and LaForce had recently commissioned one while renovating their New York apartment), during a trip to France on assignment for Gourmet magazine.
“Stoyer was a fop, he spent a lot of money on clothes, he was a bit of a lush, he spent a lot of money on Champagne, and he was a joker and a showman, and he brought all of that flamboyant energy to Dublin when he went there to cook for the most miserably poor people, starving because their potato crops had failed. He moved between worlds, and it gave me permission that I could be that bold in moving between worlds, too.”
Henderson hopes to underscore this duality in his book, a concept that is more relevant than ever.
“This crisis has brought about a lot of gastrophilanthropic efforts,” he adds. “What I’m hoping is we remember some of this in post-Covid times when we return to ‘normal.’ I think a lot of Americans only remember soup kitchens exist on Thanksgiving, and that’s the one day of the year soup kitchens don’t need your help.”
Henderson proposes that everyone has a part to play in making this a better world.
“I discovered that I can do something like this once in a while,” says Henderson. “There are very few Mother Teresas in the world, but a lot of us could be a little bit more like Mother Teresa every once in a while,” he adds. “A little bit from everyone would add up to a lot more than one Mother Teresa.”
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