Wherever archaeologists unearth artifacts from centuries past, there are nearly always bowls. Because surely, not long after man discovered fire, someone took a handful of mud, shaped it, and placed
Wherever archaeologists unearth artifacts from centuries past, there are nearly always bowls. Because surely, not long after man discovered fire, someone took a handful of mud, shaped it, and placed it beside the flames to harden. Throughout history, immigrants and explorers, pioneers and cowboys, carried few belongings on their treks, but there was always a bowl.
Three decades ago, potters Teresa Boone and Stacey Carson proposed an idea to Mike Aiken, then the executive director of Greensboro Urban Ministry (GUM). Rather than asking outright for funds to feed the hungry, why not invite the community to a feast that ultimately feeds those in need? Boone and Carson would encourage their potter pals to create and donate handcrafted bowls — a symbol of sharing — as a gift to participants. And what better time to schedule the event than at Thanksgiving, a holiday centered on food and gratitude?
Thirty-two years later, and always on the Thursday before Thanksgiving, the Urban Ministry’s Feast of Caring draws hundreds of diners to First Baptist Church in Greensboro. Patrons can purchase advance tickets online — $30 is the suggested donation — or simply show up at the door. The enthusiastic response motivated the organizers some years ago to include lunch service as well as dinner, and lines from early.
“I think people come early because they want first choice of the pottery,” Cheryl Ledford, GUM’s director of special events, says with a laugh. And what a choice! The display of available goods occupies an entire room. Varied as the potters themselves, hailing from Seagrove and locally, the bowls inside the Pottery Room range in hues from blues to greens to yellow and rust. They’re speckled and tricolored; textured or glossy and smooth; mug-shaped with handles or folded and veined to resemble leaves. All are etched on the bottom with artists’ initials or the letters “FOC” for Feast of Caring.
Rather than getting a bowl, patrons can opt for six honor cards designed annually by artist William Mangum, indicating a donation to Urban Ministry, to give as presents during the holidays. (Mangum has donated his time and artistic talents to GUM through donor holiday cards even longer than the Feast of Caring has been in existence.)
Still, the Feast is the thing, after all. Bowls in hand, folks enter the large fellowship hall filled with round tables and stations of soups and breads. Up to a dozen varieties of soups in big kettles are on offer, from Senegalese chicken soup — an annual favorite created by an Urban Ministry chef who was himself a one-time “client” of the organization — to matzo ball soup stirred up by cooks from Temple Emanuel. There’s also tomato bisque, vegetable beef, potato leek, and chicken and rice, all prepared and donated by area restaurants or individuals. There’s no limit on the portions served in disposable bowls by volunteers; feel free to sample a bit of everything. And don’t forget your bread selection, from corn muffins to challah, crescent rolls to popovers, all donated by churches, Temple Emanuel, and local bakeries.
One office brings its staff for lunch, families come for dinner, Sunday school classes gather, and individuals drift in, joining strangers and greeting friends while marveling over the variety of food, pottery, and people. Has the soup ever run out? “We’ve come down to the wire,” Ledford says, bringing to mind the miracle of loaves and fishes.
“They don’t want to leave,” adds Christine Ringuette, GUM’s former communications and marketing director. “You’ll see their bowls stacked up on the table; they’re urging each other, ‘Taste this, taste this one.’ ” Local music makers, including saxophonist Wally West, along with Dr. Bobby Doolittle and Jim Carson, who’ve been playing to the crowd for decades, take to the stage for entertainment, and both a pastor and a rabbi give thanks. The scene is leisurely, lively, casual, congenial, and yet somehow profoundly moving.
The Feast of Caring is a fundraiser for those experiencing food insecurity, yes, but “it’s also a ‘people-raiser,’ ” says Myron Wilkins, GUM’s former executive director, “to make people aware that the community right in your own neighborhood is struggling for food. What you’re eating — soup and a piece of bread — might be the only meal someone nearby has had all day.”
Wendy Apple, a member of the Greensboro Woman’s Club, which has been volunteering at the event for years, offers another perspective. “For me, this is what begins the true meaning of Thanksgiving and Christmas: giving back,” she says. “There’s a beautiful mix of community — in need, and not — coming together at the tables, and everyone is welcome. It’s not about your station in life, or your faith practices; it’s all about reaching across the table and getting to know your neighbor and sharing a bowl of soup.” The handcrafted bowls aren’t just for one season, either; people have collections gathered over years of attendance. “My family loves soup night because I put out all the different bowls from years past, and they pick theirs,” another Woman’s Club member explains. “For chowder, for chili.” These are bowls just right for peanuts or peppermints, olives or oyster crackers, salsa or sugar. Bowls for sharing with others, for giving to others.
Every year, Ledford begins planning the Feast of Caring long before November. She estimates that more than 100 volunteers are behind a typical day of feeding 700 diners. It takes a lot of people to shape and fire and ship, to chop and slice and simmer, to set up and serve and clean. But, oh, the mere hours when the event takes place, on a single day, serve so many more. The humble meal of two basic elements, soup and bread, “allows us to connect with the feeling of deprivation some GUM guests know well,” Ringuette says. “It reminds us that in a week’s time, we’ll be sitting down at big tables of food, and others won’t.”
So the music plays on, the ladles keep lifting, and the tables fill, empty, and fill again, just as the bowls do. This simplest of implements, filled with uncomplicated ingredients, nevertheless yields a feast. One that feeds the body, warms the soul, and inspires gratitude in donors and diners long after the season, and the soup, is finished.print it