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These community meals bring Southern Illinoisans together

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Knights of Columbus chicken dinner

A member of the Murphsyboro chapter of Knights of Columbus packages brownies for the monthly Sunday dinner, which is now served to-go because of the pandemic.

If there’s anything that can bring a wide array of people together, despite varying religious beliefs, political affiliations or backgrounds, it is food.

Through local outreach programs to feed those in need and fundraising events based on community food celebrations, the volunteers who work to organize, cook, and deliver food, as well as the recipients of the meals prepared therein, all benefit from our society’s shared desire to enjoy a delicious meal.

These four organizations are just a small part of the community food system that unites our region:

Collaborative Kitchen

The owners of two local restaurants recently came together in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to aid in feeding at-risk groups in the community at a time when an already food-insecure region was facing unemployment, lost wages, and school closures. Leah Maciell, who owns Cristaudo’s in Carbondale with Jennifer Rollinson, Nicholas Stewart and Rachel Cristaudo, decided that the temporary shutdown of the cafe and bakery could turn into an opportunity to help local organizations feed people in need.

“At Cristaudo’s we have always tried to be community-minded. We knew that the school district was dropping meals off, but we noticed on the weekends that’s kind of a long time to go if you need help with food. This brought us closer to Attucks Community Center and the Boys & Girls Club especially,” Maciell said.

The owners of Cristaudo’s contacted fellow local restaurant owner William Lo of New Kahala in Carbondale for help in recruiting more restaurants and caterers in the area, and the Southern Illinois Collaborative Kitchen was born.

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Leah Maciell (left) and Nicholas Stewart distribute meals on Saturday, April 28 in Carbondale as a part of the Southern Illinois Collaborative Kitchen program to support local restaurants and provide meals to those who need them during the pandemic. Proceeds from the program will provide meals to the Carbondale Warming Center and the Boys & Girls Club of Southern Illinois. 

The Kitchen now serves 100 meals to the Boys & Girls Club of Carbondale each Friday, and 100 meals to Attucks Community Services, 50 meals to Women for Change and 40 meals to the Carbondale Warming Center every Saturday. The meals are prepared by a different local restaurant or bakery each week and are purchased at a reduced price by the Collaborative Kitchen.

The money used to purchase these donated meals comes from funds raised through the organization’s GoFundMe page and the sale of prepared meals each week, too. These meals, just like the ones donated to local charities, are prepared by a local restaurant and are available through online ordering. The precooked meals are ready to reheat and come with a suggested donation price so that those who are unable to pay the full cost can still enjoy a wholesome dinner.

The Collaborative Kitchen serves a dual purpose of providing meals to those in need in our community while also increasing publicity for local eateries that are open for business during the pandemic. Some of the restaurants involved in the effort are Emma & Arnie’s Sandwiches, Rise Above It Bakery & Cafe, Walker’s Bluff, Pat’s BBQ, One Hot Cookie, Cristaudo’s, St. Nicholas Brewing Co. and Debra K’s Catering Company.

Although the Collaborative Kitchen receives donations through anonymous sponsors each week, the winter months and holidays are an especially difficult time for many in Southern Illinois, and the need for meal purchases through this wonderful organization will likely see an increase.

“We wish we could do more, but we always knew we wanted to help as much as possible,” Maciell said.

For more information, visit facebook.com/SoIllColKitchen or southernillinoiseats.com/southern-illinois-collaborative-kitchen.

Knights of Columbus

One longstanding community food event that provides homestyle meals to local residents while supporting a boundless amount of charities are the dinners cooked and served at the Murphysboro Knights of Columbus.

Garrett Cook, a member of the Catholic fraternal organization for more than 20 years, has worked with other members of the Knights of Columbus to keep their twice monthly community dinners available to the public even if the usual dine-in buffet option is no longer feasible during the pandemic restrictions. Without the Knights of Columbus hall being rented for weddings, reunions, and other events, the members have had to work hard to make up for the financial shift.

“We’ve really had to rethink to continue. These dinners are the only way we can keep going right now,” Cook said.

However, the feel of camaraderie is still present in the warm building with the savory smell of cooked chickens being chopped and added to boiling pots of hand-rolled dumplings, watching men gather to prepare food and talk quietly amongst themselves about their lives and activities. The excitement grows as the diners start lining up in their vehicles to purchase their meals, with orders taken at one end of the building and delivered outside the rear door on the opposite end of the building.

With a fried chicken or chicken and dumpling lunch the first Sunday of every month and a chicken and fish fry the third Friday of every month, the Knights of Columbus provide home-cooked, warm meals to a wide array of people in Southern Illinois. The vast majority of customers at these dinners are not affiliated with the church, but are community members looking for a wholesome, affordable meal while supporting local charities. While the patrons who now line up to wait for their order to be delivered at the Knights of Columbus drive-thru are thankful for the opportunity to get a good meal, the appreciation goes both ways.

Bigger fish to fry

The weekly Murphysboro Knights of Columbus Fish Fry converted its operation to a drive-thru on Friday, March 20 in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The people that show up are very appreciative and they sometimes don’t have the opportunity to get a good meal. It’s a good, safe way to get people out of their homes. We appreciate them, too, and we are very blessed,” Cook said.

The servings are large and on the chicken and dumpling Sunday, the main dish is served with a heaping portion of mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and a dessert.

“We’re quicker than McDonald’s and we have very healthy portions. You’re going to be happy with your food. It’s from scratch, the real deal,” Cook said.

Farm to Table

Abby Ancell, general manager of St. Nicholas Brewing Co. in Du Quoin and president of the Du Quoin Chamber of Commerce, knows quite a bit about the relationship between community and local food sources, as she is one of the original organizers of the Farm to Table Banquet that the Du Quoin Chamber of Commerce first hosted in 2017.

After brainstorming for an event that would appeal to a broader audience, aside from the annual golf scramble, Ancell and longtime local food movement supporter Billy Rogers began researching the farm-to-table concept with the help of organizers that had executed successful farm-to-table dinners in Missouri and Colorado. The goal of the event was to connect local farmers with community members to highlight their homegrown products as well as showcasing Du Quoin businesses and raising money for the chamber's general fund.

“Our main goal was to showcase the farmers and local food sources that we have and we wanted to pay the farmers. We didn’t want them to have to donate their food to us,” Ancell said.

The first event and all that have followed have been hugely successful, and local businesses continue to come together to make the event a success. Pepsi Mid-America has donated the soft drinks at past events, and farmers usually donate fresh goods beyond the items that are purchased by the chamber. Local businesses not involved in the food service industry pitch in to help decorate and set up, serve food, and purchase advertisements in the banquet booklet. St. Nicholas donated beer and bought wine from Blue Sky Winery. The chamber, local businesses, and the entire Du Quoin community have come together for three consecutive Farm-to-Table Banquets, and only missed 2020 because of the recent pandemic restrictions.

Social Seen: Du Quoin Chamber Farm to Table dinner

Les Browser of SI Drones of Herrin provided aerial footage of the 2019 Du Quoin Chamber of Commerce’s Farm to Table Dinner. The dinner was canceled this year due to the pandemic, but organizers say it will return next year.

A huge goal of the farm-to-table event is to establish relationships between restaurants and local farmers so that food can be sourced directly from the farms resulting in fresher, higher quality fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products. Once the farms are chosen for the dinner, the ingredients are provided to the restaurants responsible for preparation of the meal along with an idea of the dishes in mind. These restaurants have established connections with the farms involved over the last three years, creating a mutually beneficial arrangement for all involved.

“It really did bring the community together and I think people were shocked that we could make an entire meal, that could appeal to so many people, out of everything sourced locally,” Ancell said.

The event is normally held outside in downtown Du Quoin with the streets cordoned off, but ultimately, the banquet would have involved too many risks this year if not properly spaced out and monitored. Ancell looks forward to 2021 when members of the community can come together to socialize and enjoy a locally sourced dinner, while connecting local food farmers with their Southern Illinois customers. 

Rice & Spice

Aur Beck of Carbondale has been in the community food mindset for many years after starting the Rice & Spice weekly slow food movement meals at the Gaia House in 2009. He is now anxiously awaiting the opportunity to get back to preparing meals for the Good Samaritan House in Carbondale once a month. Beck was raised by parents who showed him not only the benefit of giving to those in need, but also how to efficiently and economically prepare large quantities of food.

“I have to thank my parents. My dad’s Native American giving mentality was always ‘if you give you get more than you give,’ so I absolutely love giving. And my mom grew up in a Kibbutz in Israel where they eat communally, so she never had to learn how to cook, but she did teach me how to buy massive quantities of food and cook massive quantities of food affordably,” Beck said.

The combination of these two traits kept the Rice & Spice weekly slow food gatherings going for more than four years. International students met at the Gaia House each Friday and helped prepare a meal introduced by a different international chef each week. The students had the opportunity not only to enjoy a freshly cooked meal, but also gather and make friends when they may have been alone or felt out of place. But food brought the students together as a shared interest.

“One guy was a regular at the dinner. He was from Pakistan. He took me aside and showed me his passport and said it was not good for travel to Israel,” said Beck.

The man told Beck that even though his country of origin told him the two should not be acquainted with each other, because of their shared love of food and eating, he considered Beck a friend.

After the Rice & Spice weekly meals ended, due to an end of the license for the event, Beck took a four-year break while spending more time with his company, AES Solar, and turning Rice & Spice’s Facebook page into an online monthly cooking show. But, the call of giving returned.

He began preparing a monthly meal for 60 people at Good Samaritan House in Carbondale almost two years ago that provided a well-rounded dinner, and breakfast for the next morning, to residents of Good Samaritan. Before COVID-19 struck, Beck used the kitchen at Grace United Methodist Church to prepare the meals along with volunteer groups from several other area churches. Many different faiths worked together happily to prepare, package, and deliver the meals to Good Samaritan House each month.

“It always amazes me when I see people that society is trying to divide, come together and it always seems to me to be over food,” Beck said.

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