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A kosher kitchen helps convert grief to giving

Mollie Pier helped establish Project Chicken Soup as an expression of love for a son who died of AIDS. She plans to participate in Sunday's AIDS Walk.

October 16, 2011|By Hailey Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times
  • Molly Pier, 91, who helped to found Project Chicken Soup, holds a photo of her son, Dr. Nathaniel Pier. One of the first private physicians to treat AIDS patients in New York City, he died of AIDS in 1989.
Molly Pier, 91, who helped to found Project Chicken Soup, holds a photo of… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)

After her son Nathaniel died of AIDS in 1989, Mollie Pier threw herself into a number of volunteer efforts on behalf of gay men and lesbians.

She also helped found Project Chicken Soup, a nonprofit volunteer organization that provides kosher meals for people throughout Los Angeles County living with HIV or AIDS. For Pier, the group's activities and other outreach efforts became a link not only to her son but to hundreds of others.

"I can't even begin to tell you how many people I've helped be who they are," says Pier, 91, who plans to participate in Sunday's 27th annual AIDS Walk Los Angeles. Although she will be in a wheelchair, this will be the third time she has taken part in the fundraising event.

Pier's blue eyes light up whenever she talks about her son, who died at age 37.

In the 1980s, Nathaniel Pier, a doctor, was among the first private physicians in New York City who treated people with HIV and AIDS. He had already come out to his mother but was skeptical about her acceptance and feared she would eventually reject him, as some other parents of gay children had done.

Maybe she should see a psychologist, he told his mother. Despite her assurances, she obliged, hoping to ease his mind.

"He was fearful," said Pier, who has two other sons. "When he finally did come out, I wrote him a letter and told him, 'You're my son, and I love you, and whatever life you're happy in, I will be happy, too.' "

Pier read all the literature about homosexuality she could find. She joined Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays as well as a group for Jewish parents of gay children. It wasn't long before she started leading meetings and giving speeches.

"Once I came out, I came out to everybody," Pier said. "I made no bones about it: My son is gay."

Shortly before Nathaniel died, Pier and a few other volunteers started gathering in a small Hollywood synagogue kitchen to make kosher meals for people living with HIV and AIDS. Despite its growing death toll, there was little outreach to AIDS patients at the time.

"We decided that these people can't work. They're sick; they need food," Pier said. "They need more than counseling."

In 1989, she helped found Project Chicken Soup. The group has grown from a few volunteers to dozens who gather twice a month in a kosher kitchen in Culver City to cook for about 125 people.

The group delivers grocery bags that contain, along with salads, desserts and side dishes, three entrees and two quarts of soup, one of which is always chicken. All of the food is kosher.

Many of the dessert recipes are Pier's, including chocolate-chocolate chip cookies and the coffee cakes. "I feel I have a spiritual connection with [Nathaniel] because he did everything he knew how with his medical knowledge, and I'm doing it with my cooking knowledge," she said.

A few days before each food delivery, Pier spends time calling clients to make sure they will be home. The conversation is often about more than just dinner.

"Sometimes, they're lonely, sometimes they're upset or not feeling well and just need an ear," Pier said. "I'm kind of the resident Jewish grandmother."

Among her many other activities, Pier for the last two decades has baked cookies for the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles.

"She's found her way of connecting with her son and standing with other gay men and standing for our fights and our struggles," said Lee Stickler, a member of the choir. "We're really touched. It's like having your grandmother or your mom out there rooting for you."

Over the years Pier has used any means she could to reach out to the gay community. She has made YouTube videos in support of gay marriage and has a Facebook profile with links to her AIDS Walk fundraising page.

Days before Nathaniel's death, he and his partner, Michael Hannaway, exchanged rings in his hospital room. "I thought, there isn't any rabbi, priest, pope, anybody who can tell me this kind of love is sinful," Pier said.

Nathaniel died on Dec. 24, 1989.

"There are some people who never come out of it and go into mourning," Pier said. "I'm not that kind of person. I thought, 'I'm going to make Nathaniel's short life have meaning.'"

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