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The Chicken Soup Project: Food and Love

Los Angeles Jewish AIDS Services Delivers a Lot More Than Food.

August 29, 1996|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I've been making these for years and years," says Mollie Pier, 76, as she rolls out dough for her potato knishes.

This time, Pier was making the knishes in a special place for a special purpose. The place was the Hirsh Family Kosher Kitchen on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles. Here, under the aegis of Project Chicken Soup, volunteers meet two Sundays a month to prepare meals that are delivered to people with AIDS.

On this Sunday morning, 50 volunteers ranging in age from 9 to 88 were working briskly on two menus. They were simmering two huge pots of soup: meatless vegetable-bean and the signature chicken soup, which goes out with every delivery. One team was chopping vegetables for a kibbutz-style mixed salad. Others were putting together two main courses: turkey meatball stew with vegetables and cranberry chicken with rice and baby carrots.

Pier supervised squads of workers who rolled, filled, cut and baked knishes. The knishes and carrot kugel were this day's side dishes. The dessert was to be fruit salad and freshly baked brownies. Fruit juices and the Jewish bread, challah, would also be sent along.

Recipients don't have to choose menus. They get both "so there is something for the next day," says Rabbi H. Rafael Goldstein, director of Los Angeles Jewish AIDS Services, which sponsors Project Chicken Soup.

Other household members are also treated to the generous meals. "Typical Jewish mother philosophy is, you shouldn't eat alone," Goldstein says. "Everyone is in this struggle together. Better they eat together and the person who is in charge of cooking gets a day off."

One client who is tube-fed gets regular deliveries too--flowers instead of food. "It's the visit, the personal touch, that is important," Goldstein says.

Project Chicken Soup has grown from 50 meals a month to 360, from 50 volunteers to 170, from one workday a month to two. The food is not always Jewish, but it is consistently kosher. Recipes come from cookbooks, newspaper clippings, the Internet and from the volunteers and their friends. If necessary, they are revised to kosher standards. For example, kosher equivalents of onion soup mix and a popular bottled salad dressing were sought out for cranberry chicken.

Menus do not include dairy products because kosher law prohibits consuming them at the same meal as meat. Red meat is not popular with clients, so instead of brisket and roast lamb, they get turkey and chicken dishes.

Project coordinator Rod Bran converts the recipes to quantity proportions. Instead of a regular cycle of the same dishes, there is constant variety. "We don't want to give institutionalized food," he says. "We want to give a little bit of love with the food."

This summer, volunteers donned leis while they put together a Hawaiian luau. The meals, each presented with an orchid, included Hawaiian turkey meatballs with pineapple sauce over rice, orange Polynesian chicken, tropical fruit salad and macadamia nut brownies.

Hygiene standards are strict. Workers put on plastic caps, aprons and gloves the moment they arrive and change gloves as necessary to avoid contamination. Bran and the team leaders each take home a package of the day's meals to review for quality.

Children can join in the work, but only if accompanied by parents. Instead of knives, they are handed colored markers to personalize the food packages with cheery messages such as "Enjoy! Enjoy!" "Eat Well" and "Shalom from the Jewish Community."

Some volunteers drive many miles to reach the kitchen by 8 a.m. They are greeted with coffee and juice, bagels and danish. There is lots of chatter, and you can feel the enthusiasm. "It's really fun," says Jenny Carron, 9, the day's youngest helper, who was assigned to package decoration.

The oldest, Arno Tanney, 88, works almost daily in feeding programs. "I discovered that the most important need of the day in volunteering is AIDS work," he says.

Lili Feingold, who provided the kibbutz salad recipe, kept on her feet despite an ankle disabled by torn ligaments. After deliveries are completed, participants gather for a meal at a neighborhood restaurant. "Romances have blossomed," she says. "It's very serendipitous."

Los Angeles Jewish AIDS Services is a program of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. Its annual budget is just $200,000, says president Mark Meltzer. This must cover staff salaries as well as pay for food and finance other activities.

Volunteers are always welcomed and need not be Jewish. The organization accepts donations of certain food items and over-the-counter medicines, household supplies and personal hygiene necessities, which are delivered to clients once a month. HIV-positive individuals are eligible for the meals as well as people with AIDS. Call (213) 653-8313 for information on volunteering, donations or receiving the meals.

MOLLIE'S POTATO KNISHES

Mollie Pier makes a large batch of knishes, then stores the unbaked stuffed dough in the freezer to use as needed.

3 large baking potatoes

1/2 large onion, finely chopped

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