Paula Hunt Hughes
I’m starting this blog with the story of a home cook who’s already made me feel better about this city.
Over the past two years I’ve been a supporter of The Table, a grassroots effort to feed the homeless in downtown Birmingham on weekends, when other kitchens are closed. A group of about ten to twelve people would cook food at home, bring it to the Firehouse Shelter in the afternoon, and serve as many as 120 hungry men and women with dignity at the table, as though they were guests in your home dining room. For some diners, The Table meal would be their only meal of the day. Sadly, The Table fell victim to the recession, and served its last meal August 8.
I’d been hooked on The Table since my first time volunteering, when a man came to the kitchen near the end of the meal and yelled, “Hey! Cornbread Lady! Thank you so much, I love cornbread!” I got my congregation involved. I wondered about the people I’d cooked for and what happened to them. I started to care about other services Birmingham could provide for the homeless. News of The Table’s end was disheartening. But the announcement came days after I’d met Paula Hunt Hughes, and thinking about what she’s starting gave me hope.
Paula was once the copy chief at Southern Living, and she frequently treated her co-workers to homemade cookies, cupcakes and brownies. (In fact, it was a Southern Living food editor who told me Paula is a fabulous cook who makes “superlative baked goods.”)
So I met Paula at her home in South East Lake, and she told me she started cooking as a teen—she and her brother were assigned a night every week to cook for the family. She’s always tinkering with a basic cookie recipe, creating new flavors based on what’s in her pantry. She loves trying new things, recipes are more inspiration to her than instruction, and she keeps a food blog called Let’s Eat Tonight.
Paula also told me she loves feeding people, and feeding people—particularly Birmingham’s homeless—is her latest endeavor. “I was on a church choir trip last summer, and I very strongly felt a call of God to feed the homeless,” she said. So she and her partner, choir director Lisa Latham, started Grace’s Kitchen, a non-profit organization to feed the homeless. Their ultimate plan is to open a pay-as-you-can restaurant in downtown Birmingham later in 2010. “We feel we’re called to create a sense of community, so that’s why we chose downtown,” she says. “And, we feel called to serve people with dignity. To give them choices. I don’t think we realize what a gift choice is.”
Paula and Lisa’s hope is that people who can afford to pay more will, to help provide food for those who can’t—and, that their downtown restaurant will bring Birmingham’s classes together, even if just for a meal. Maybe the people who are invisible will become less so. Maybe it will knit the fragments of our city into a stronger, better whole.
Paula and Lisa already have received donations to support their work, including a generous donation of restaurant equipment, and Paula says they’re close to leasing a spot. For now, Paula answers the call by preparing breakfast for 75 people in her small home kitchen every Thursday morning. She makes cheese grits, pancakes, muffins, and bacon, packs it up, and takes it to Linn Park at 6:30 to feed those who come. The food is served hot, and is usually gone in an hour. The favorite item: Paula’s Sausage-Cheese Muffins.
Paula’s note: Depending on the size scoop you use, this yields 12 to 18 muffins. Don’t buy preshredded cheese; you won’t be happy with the results!
1 lb. breakfast sausage
1 (8-oz.) block Colby-Jack or Cheddar cheese, shredded
2 cups self-rising flour
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1. Cook sausage in a skillet until crumbly and browned. Drain; rinse with hot water.
2. Combine flour and cheese in a mixing bowl. Add in sausage. Stir in eggs and buttermilk.
3. Scoop batter into lightly greased muffin cups, filling almost full.
4. Bake at 350° for 25 minutes or until done.