Soup's on: Catholic Worker volunteer Michael Mack believes in customer service.
Soup's on: Catholic Worker volunteer Michael Mack believes in customer service.
Brett Amole

The Pot Thickens

There's a reason that soup kitchens feed the poor with their namesake dish. "Soup is satisfying," says Michael Mack, a volunteer cook with Denver's Catholic Worker soup kitchen. "And it's the easiest way to stretch things. If you've got a stone, a couple carrots, some celery and some water, you can make soup."

Of course, most people make their soup from cans -- not from scratch or stones. But for Mack and his fellow Catholic Worker volunteers, soup is no convenience food these days. For the past year, the 23-year-old outfit has been like its clients -- homeless -- and unable to serve its signature fare from a permanent location.

The odyssey started two years ago, when the kitchen lost its longtime home on Welton Street ("Soup With a Smile," December 23, 1999). The group then opened a temporary kitchen in a space owned by the Denver Catholic Archdiocese but was soon forced out by unwelcoming neighbors and the Denver zoning office, which was concerned that the workers had set up shop without obtaining the necessary approval from zoning or neighborhood groups.

For the past six weeks, soup's been on at 3 p.m. every Wednesday and Friday at the St. Francis Center, 2323 Curtis Street. Although Curtis Park residents are already complaining about the kitchen's efforts and the people it attracts, for Denver's homeless and fixed-income population, the return of the kitchen is good news. This soup is very good food -- free or not.

On a recent Friday, hungry men and women file into the St. Francis Center. Each arrival is greeted by Byron Plumley, a Catholic Worker volunteer who gives the guest a smile and a playing card with a number scribbled on its back. In a few minutes, volunteers will call numbers and invite card-holders to fall in line for soup, salad, fresh fruit, pastries and au gratin potatoes. Since the kitchen started serving here, Plumley says he's handed out about a hundred cards each day. Today he's reached 147 and is still dealing.

A few feet away, a man shakes an ace of hearts with a "12" on its back and grumbles. "I don't know who came up with this bullcrap," he says, "but I'd like to punch him or her in the mouth. My sugar's dropping; I need to eat."

Mack approaches the man, assures him his complaints will be addressed, then tends to the first of the day's diners. Before becoming a Catholic cook three years ago, Mack spent fifteen years in Denver's restaurant industry, and he believes customer service is as important in this soup kitchen as it is at any other eatery. "They don't pay," he says of his clientele, "but it's the same as if they were going into a restaurant to us. It's a two-way street."

Mack's customer-service skills are matched by his magic with soup. Every Friday, he builds a batch with castoff supplies rounded up from the city's food vendors, cooking thirty-gallon quantities split between three pots in the kitchen of St. Paul's United Methodist Church; the soup is transported to St. Francis in five-gallon containers. (Sue Lane does the cooking on Wednesdays.) Mack's paying job, at Alliant Foods, a local restaurant-supply house, makes his volunteer gig much easier. "There were a lot of times when the Catholic Worker tried to feed a hundred people on soup made from two chickens," he says.

Today's turkey-broccoli-noodle started with birds donated by a Denver butcher; the stock got a flavor boost from cut-up broccoli stalks from a box of produce Mack procured at Alliant. Once the stock was ready, he added more vegetables and noodles, then boiled the mix for about thirty minutes. Soup, Mack explains, does not benefit from extended cooking times. "That's a myth," he says. "You lose the texture and consistency of your product. Don't cook the life out of your vegetables." On the other hand, it definitely benefits from added ingredients. "Use everything God gives you," Mack advises. "The more produce the better."

The result is delicious. "This is the real deal," says one man, staring down into his styrofoam pint of nourishment. "Fantastic," says another, after tasting Mack's efforts du jour.

Darren has been enjoying Catholic Worker cooking since 1987, after becoming homeless up north. "Only thing they feed you in Wyoming," he says, "is a bus ticket down the highway."

Although Denver has numerous free feeds, Mack's fans are willing to go an extra mile for his handouts. While Mack admits his cooking has received raves from street gourmets, he doesn't fault lesser cooks at other kitchens. "If it's all volunteers and nobody cooks," he says, "they may make the best pot of soup they ever made."

As four o'clock approaches, empty soup cups fill the center's trash cans and the guests file outside. A pair of men trade friendly jabs and head for shelter, bellies full, smiles on their faces. "If you put yourself in the position to give food away to the poor," Mack points out, "that doesn't mean you can just slop the hogs. You have a responsibility."


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