By Brian P.J. Cronin
Photographed by Jackson Summers
In the Benedictine Order, one of the gifts of the spirit is the gift of hospitality. Some have this gift, and some don’t. Which is why, at Benedictine monasteries, they always give the monk who has been blessed with this gift the bedroom closest to the front door. That way, if a weary or troubled traveler should pound on the front door in the middle of the night seeking refuge, he or she will be welcomed in with warmth instead of yelled at by someone who’d rather be sleeping.
Beverly Kipp has always believed that she had that gift. A registered nurse, she’s been involved with St. John’s Reformed Church in Red Hook for over 40 years, sometimes simply as a congregant, and sometimes in more official capacities. She had been running a health ministry program for the church until last year when her minister broke the bad news that because of budget cuts, her position was being eliminated.
Kipp wasn’t upset. She’d had a calling. She wanted to feed the hungry.
“In our faith, you’re called to something and then you’re confirmed,” she explained. “So I told the minister I wanted to do this, and he was thrilled. That’s confirmation. So he then talked to the office staff about it and they were thrilled. That’s more confirmation.”
The church was already running a food pantry program in which, once a month, residents in the Red Hook School District could come by and pick up three days’ worth of food. But Kipp wanted to add a program that didn’t just feed the body, but fed the soul as well. “We want anyone who is hungry, or broke, or lonely to come to eat,” she said.
Kipp’s Simple Supper program started in January, serving homemade soup and homemade bread every Wednesday for lunch. “I love this church, and I make great bread,” she said toward the end of a recent serving as volunteers cleaned the tables and packaged leftovers. She then leaned forward and whispered, “But I’m not a cook.”
Kipp was worried about stepping outside her comfort zone and making food that, as she put it, “actually had to be good.” Considering the program’s popularity, she needn’t have worried. A core group of volunteers comes every week to help with food prep and cooking, and some professional chefs even make big batches of soup in advance to drop off.
Kipp may underestimate her cooking skills, but she’s very particular about what she serves. She’s been able to support the program strictly through donations by only serving a few different things, by using donated foods that come in from area farms and restaurants and by being extremely thrifty. “We don’t waste anything,” she says.
But quality is extremely important to Kipp as well. “My goal is to make a hearty and nutritious meal,” she said. “We don’t do industrial.” They make all the stocks from scratch or, as a last resort, use organic boxed chicken stock. In the winter, they make venison soup using deer she’s either hunted herself or been given by fellow hunters. “Obviously, that’s as organic as you can get,” she said. And she adds dry milk to all of her baked breads for a higher protein-to-carb ratio. “It’s a little more expensive, but I want to make sure that the families who come in aren’t just filling up on white- bread carbs.”
At first, families were actually a rarity at Simple Suppers. Then Kipp realized that many of the people she was trying to reach were the working poor who were too busy working to attend lunch, so dinner service was added on Wednesdays. “I was a single mother at one point,” Kipp says, “and if I had been able to get off work, pick my kids up, and take them for a good meal that someone else had made, put only what I could afford in the donation basket, or nothing on a tight week, and not have to do dishes, I would have been here every week.”
Dinners are still fairly simple one-pot meals, such as chili or pasta, but as with lunch, no corners are cut. “Tonight we’re having homemade fried chicken with waffles made from scratch and real maple syrup,” she said. “Honestly, I’ve never heard of that combination, but everyone tells me it’s really good.” Dinners have also been known to occasionally feature desserts. “I had 16 kids from 4-H here last Tuesday night zesting lemons,” she said. “Everyone’s now lobbying me for dessert once a month. They’re losing, but they’re lobbying.”
The 4-H kids aren’t the only ones helping out. Kipp estimates that about 65 percent of her volunteers, just like those eating, are from the community at large and not the church. That includes homeschooled 10-year-olds, high schoolers doing community projects, people in their 80s and those with disabilities. “I haven’t had anyone who had to do court-ordered community service come to me, but I’d be open to that,” she said. “Let’s face it, any one of us could be in the justice system at any moment. There but for the grace of God go I.”
No matter who’s serving or eating, the Simple Supper program succeeds on the strength of not just its food but the community that Kipp has created. As she wanders around the room during service, she checks in with a group of senior citizens who have been coming every week since the program started. For them, it’s a chance to see each other and catch up. And for Kipp, it’s a chance to get some honest feedback.
“Did anyone try the cold pea soup?” she asks. “It’s such a hot day we thought we’d try offering a cold soup.”
“I thought it tasted more like a salad than a soup,” offers one woman.
Everyone looks at each other in silence. “That’s good!” she exclaims.
For more information about Simple Supper Wednesdays, visit their Facebook page. █