Thursday, May 06, 1999

Amateur chef discovers true joy of cooking

The Cincinnati Enquirer


        Ten middle-aged women behind propane burners, and nobody had to ask “Is it hot in here, or is it me?” It was obvious.

        Our skillets were smoking, and we were making omelets as if there were no tomorrow. Ham, cheese, mushrooms, onions, green peppers. Any combination, any way the customer ordered. No tips unless you count some exceedingly warm wishes.

        “God bless you, ma'am.”

        A blessing. For eggs, sometimes scrambled.

        Not at first. When I began, my omelets were gorgeous, the ingredients spread evenly and thinly, the fold nearly perfect. My work station was pristine. But I learned to work fast and heap on the good stuff. If my omelets split, gushing ham and cheese onto the plastic plates, well, so much the better.

        This meal might have to last my customers until tomorrow.

Omelet queen
        We were working at Our Daily Bread, a soup kitchen on Logan Street in Over-the-Rhine. By 9:30 Wednesday morning, people were lining up. Breakfast is served every day, but omelet day is only once a year. Alice Walters from the Ohio Poultry Association has brought about 700 eggs, already shelled and beaten.

        We are in business.

        Swaddled in a white apron and plastic gloves, I am elbow-to-elbow with some of the soup kitchen's regulars. Barbara Schneider drives in every Wednesday from White Oak to serve patrons. Diane Clark, the kitchen manager, started as a volunteer and now is there every day.

        Alice Walters said these eggs are “not surplus.” She will have me know that this food is donated by farmers who know this is how it will be used, feeding the hungry. Tomorrow, she will go around the corner to the FreeStore/FoodBank to supervise delivery of 43,200 more eggs.

        She has personally made more than 20,000 omelets, so we pay close attention to her instructions, mostly tips on how to avoid turning ourselves into volunteer flambe.

        I fancy that my reputation — my heavy hand with the cheese — is keeping my line steady. “Larry,” I ask loudly, “is that the best omelet you've ever had?” Larry says it is the only omelet he has ever had.

        Down a corridor, away from the cooking, is the office of Joanne Queenan, a social worker who is part of the “hospitality” offered in the afternoons. Her specialty is untangling red tape, but she has found new rubber tips for a pair of crutches and helped a woman get a birth certificate.

The invisible homeless
        Most of the people who come to Our Daily Bread need more than food. Some need help in sorting out rent and utility bills. Many are unable to read. Sometimes it is as simple as a bus token to get to work until the first paycheck. Sometimes it is as complicated as disability benefits and the bureaucracy.

        Some who lean their heads on tables for a quick nap are the invisible homeless. They're not exactly on the street, but they're sleeping on somebody's kitchen floor.

        “They may look able-bodied,” Joanne says, “but they're not. A lot of people here are the walking wounded.”

        Every time I come here, I ask the women for their wish list. Their wishes are not grand. Right now, they want coffee and bus tokens. They could really use an electric knife. And money, of course.

        The stream of people through the door is constant. And to me, a little daunting. They need so much. They need jobs, but they need training. And a lot of the available work is temporary. Without benefits. Some are sick. Some are without hope. But right now, it is simple. They are hungry, and I have food. I am collecting brilliant smiles, not in the least dimmed by broken and missing teeth. I am being God-blessed for handing out an omelet. So I keep making them as fast as I can.

        As if there is no tomorrow.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she can be heard Mondays on WVXU radio and on NPR's Morning Edition and InterMedia's Northern Kentucky Magazine.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at