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A Hudson Valley Author on the Soul-Stirring Power of Gastrophilanthropy

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Photos by Marcus Teo

Hudson-based journalist and writer Stephen Henderson has traversed – and cooked – across the globe in an effort to help those in need.

Food is a connector, a life-giving force, a record of the past. It’s an outlet for creativity just as much as it’s a means of comfort. It has nutritive powers that strengthen growing bones while simultaneously feeding the soul.

In short, it’s essential to life as we know it. It’s also something to which thousands and thousands of people around the globe lack access.

And that’s where gastrophilanthropy enters the picture.

As the term suggests, gastrophilanthropy is a means of giving back to others by way of food. For Hudson-based author and journalist Stephen Henderson, it’s this concept that drove him to lend a hand at soup kitchens around the world and, in the process, lay the foundation for The 24-Hour Soup Kitchen: Soul-Stirring Lessons in Gastrophilanthropy. Published in April 2020, the book is a memoir comprised of personal essays that recount his volunteer experiences in places as far-reaching as Japan, Mexico, and South Korea. It’s heartwarming, it’s humorous, and it’s a powerful example of all the good a helping hand can do.

To learn more about Henderson’s book, the entire proceeds from which he’s donating to Food Bank for New York City, we touched base with him to talk inspiration, giving back during a time of crisis, and what gastrophilanthropy really means.

First things first, how did you make your way to the world of writing?

I was a frustrated writer for much of my life. I was an English major in school and a big reader. I ended up getting a job in PR, [and] I liked working in PR. At a certain point I realized I wanted to be the person talking [to subjects], so I turned myself into a journalist. I sold a story to The New York Times, and that allowed me to write more [for the publication].  I parlayed that into writing for places like Food & Wine, Gourmet, and Men’s Health. It was through travel writing that I blundered into the idea for the book I just published.

When were you first attracted to the concept of gastrophilanthropy?

My dad was a Baptist preacher, so I grew up with the idea of helping others. In my early 20s I did some early volunteer work overseas. I always knew about philanthropy, but it was eight years ago when I was doing a travel story in Delhi, India that I was introduced to a soup kitchen that fed 20,000 people a day and was run by all volunteers. I volunteered and wrote a story about that.

And then…?

I started to add on a few days to my [trip] itineraries and research the mechanism [of the soup kitchen]. It has to be something like a factory to produce all that food. I began researching mass cookery.

So what does Alexis Soyer have to do with all of this?

You know Julie & Julia, how the author has an imaginary friend in Julia Childs? In my nod to that I found out about this fantastic, 19th-century French chef, Alexis Soyer. He was one of the most famous chefs in the world and he invented a kitchen at this very posh gentleman’s club in London that was kind of like the Apple store of its time. No one had ever seen such an organized way of preparing food.

During the Irish potato famine, he basically invented the soup kitchen. He was a showman, but he also made enough bread and soup to feed enough people. The goal of my book is to help people understand that people who work in soup kitchens, some of them are saints, social workers, and Mother Teresas. But you don’t need to be.

Henderson meal preps for a crowd

What role has gastrophilanthropy played in your own life?

It’s almost a cliché, but this story and this search have changed my life. They gave me the opportunity to experience charity and helping people in a way that I had not had the courage to do before. It has been a blessing and a fascination and a wonder to meet the people I’ve met.

More recently, I just showed up at the Salvation Army in Hudson and dropped off some food. I know there are more people suffering from food insecurity because of COVID-19. I know how to cook for lots of people. So I talked to the manager, and she asked me to come the next Tuesday. I’ve always been a pretty good cook, and I got a recurring gig there. [The challenge is] how do you produce enough food on an average Tuesday to feed another 100 people? That skill I learned by researching and writing this book.

How can Hudson Valleyites get involved with gastrophilanthropy?

Go online, type in “where is a soup kitchen near me?” They do need volunteers. Soup kitchens, like hospitals, are probably the safest place to be right now. They have to be very careful of contamination. Even if you can’t cook, you can chop onions or peel carrots or even just work on bagging meals.

There are lots of hungry people and it’s not just at Thanksgiving, it’s not just because of COVID-19. I’m hoping readers of my book are inspired to know more.

Stephen (center) with volunteers at the Salvation Army in Hudson

What’s next for you?

I had planned to go on a book tour. I was going to drive myself around the country and arrange a series of diners to cook for the staff in soup kitchens. My goal, which I will do, is to bring attention to these people who cook in soup kitchen day in and day out. [They’re] the real heroes. I want to and fully intend to celebrate those people.

I like to cook and be around mass cookery. I think I will continue to explore this.

To learn more about The 24-Hour Soup Kitchen, visit the book website here.

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