It’s 9:30 on a Sunday morning, and Brenda Hartshorn is putting the finishing touches on an evening meal. It’s odd timing, but Hartshorn has a date with a motorcycle and some fall foliage and wants to get this task out of the way.
She grabs a chicken breast and slathers it with a knifeful of garlicky pub cheese. On top of the spread, Hartshorn adds a slice of Swiss cheese and a sliver of Black Forest ham. Then she rolls up the breast, dredges it in egg and coats it in bread crumbs. The kitchen in Hartshorn’s Duxbury home is like an assembly line, each chicken breast emerging identical to the one before it.
Hartshorn, who’s been cooking for her family for years, chats as she works and doesn’t bother consulting a cookbook. She could prepare this dish in her sleep. It’s a skill that comes in handy when she’s supplying the Moretown meal train, a local network that feeds victims of Tropical Storm Irene.
Hartshorn pours a little vegetable stock in the pan so the chicken won’t dry out, then pops it in the oven. She’s got enough to feed a family of 10, but this meal will need to sustain only four — Hartshorn; her husband, Skip Wallace; and a couple who have been displaced from their flooded Moretown home for the past month. Hartshorn’s improvised dish might as well be called chicken à la Irene.
Since Irene left about 2000 Vermonters homeless in late August, neighbors have stepped in to take care of those affected. Help has come in many forms — providing an extra bed, cleaning up, housing displaced pets. But in this time of crisis, the most essential form of assistance has remained the most basic: a home-cooked meal.
In communities around the state, friends, neighbors and total strangers have been pitching in with casseroles, lasagnas and soups to feed flood victims working to rebuild their lives and livelihoods. Most of these food donations are impromptu, much like the neighborly ones that arrive after a pregnancy or an illness. But in some communities, like Moretown, the meal trains are organized affairs, with scores of volunteers lined up to cook. Food is the most obvious way to sustain a community.
The Moretown meal train is the brainchild of Michelle Beard, who became the town’s de facto food coordinator after the storm. In the immediate wake of Irene, the town gathered for big lunches and dinners, catered events featuring food donated by nearly 20 area businesses Beard helped to marshal. One night, a mobile pizza kitchen from Open Hearth Pizza rolled into town to make pies. Another night, the community gathered to indulge in a lobster dinner, with crustaceans donated by a Maine lobsterman who grew up in Moretown.
Once things settled down and the pace of work slowed, the community meals tapered off. But, says Beard, there were people who still needed those meals — families whose kitchens had been destroyed, whose houses were uninhabitable, or who were just plain exhausted from all the gutting and hauling. So she set up a meal train, seeing it as the next logical step.
Beard’s call for volunteers yielded more than 20 people willing to cook for the 11 families who needed help. “There’s no end to people who are willing to cook for another family,” she says.
Hartshorn, a teacher at Moretown Elementary School for the past 29 years, volunteered to cook because it was a way she could help by doing what she loves, she says. She’s been cooking since she was a little girl, so doubling a recipe or making an extra pie is no trouble.
In the beginning, Hartshorn cooked a couple of meals a week for two families Beard assigned her. She didn’t know all the recipients, but it didn’t matter. They were all her neighbors in some way.
For those families, “I think it’s nice to know that someone is out here still thinking of them,” Hartshorn says. “The drama has died down, but not for them.”
Now Hartshorn cooks every Sunday for a couple whose first floor was washed away; they are temporarily living in Fayston. She tries to involve the pair in meal planning so they can get exactly what they want. If they’re tired of lasagna or dying for an apple pie, Hartshorn wants to know.
Over the weeks, Hartshorn has prepared vegetable lasagna; stuffed zucchini squash with rice and wheat germ; and her version of chicken Cordon Bleu. She cooks with leftovers in mind. For dessert, she’s made an apple crisp drizzled in maple syrup, a honey cake with dried cherries and walnuts, and a couple of batches of chocolate-chip cookies. Each of the meals comes with a fruit plate, homemade bread and butter, and a few chocolate truffles. With the most recent meal, Hartshorn included a jar of her mother’s spiced currant jam.
Hartshorn downplays her contribution, saying she would be making meals for herself and Wallace, anyway. Plus, she says, “I like to cook, and I figure they need the full meal from beginning to end.”
Currently, the number of families still receiving meals from the Moretown meal train has dropped to six. Howland Brown’s family is one of those. Brown is just starting to put his house back together after Irene; he’s installing new insulation and has had workers come out to do electrical jobs. The long hours that he and his wife, Beki Auclair, devote to rebuilding make it difficult to cook anything beyond a meal from a box. But, with two children, eating well matters to them.
“It’s taken off a burden,” Brown says of the meal train. “It’s a really nice feeling at the end of the day to come home to a nice meal.”
So far the family, currently living in a neighbor’s house, has received hearty lasagnas with salad and garlic bread, Moroccan chicken with fresh mozzarella and sliced vegetables, lentil soup, and a whole roast chicken. Brown says he didn’t know a handful of the people who cooked for his family when they started receiving meals, but he knows them now.
Paula Mastroberardino is one of those volunteers who is anonymous to some of the people who enjoy her home-cooked meals. But knowing the people she feeds is irrelevant to her, she says: Providing meals is just the right thing to do.
So far, the Moretown resident has offered vegetarian shepherd’s pie, ratatouille, polenta and a variety of pies with local fruit. Mastroberardino’s background in food preparation — she used to own a natural-foods market — has come in handy. She understands the healing power of food.
“What people have done for their neighbors,” she says, “it brings tears to your eyes.”