Serving the hungry
By Ty Johnson
Published in News on July 23, 2012 1:46 PM
There is the occasional clamor of pots and pans that shatters the morning silence at the Community Soup Kitchen.
The smell of browning hamburger emanates from beneath an industrial-sized hood where Maria Lecott stands -- just as she has for the past 30 years.
Her German accent seems even more pronounced as her voice echoes through the kitchen, offering guidance and instructions to the half dozen volunteers gathered there. Her halting dialect gives every duty -- from peeling labels off soup cans to mashing potatoes -- an air of extreme responsibility. Every volunteer feels like an essential cog in the machine.
Susan Britt, who leads the team at the Kitchen, seldom needs to micromanage when Mrs. Lecott is cooking, which has happened every Thursday and the third Saturday of every month for as long as she has been at the Kitchen.
"She can direct them," Ms. Britt says. "All I've got to do is tell her."
It's one of the reasons why Doricia Benton, the Soup Kitchen director, likes having Mrs. Lecott around and why she was honored in March at the Kitchen's annual meeting for her 30 years of volunteering.
"It's nice when you have new volunteers because she knows the routine," Mrs. Benton said.
On top of that, the group she volunteers with on Saturdays has been formed into a single Mrs. Lecott-run unit, she says.
"She's got them trained," Ms. Britt said.
Ana Halley is one of those volunteers.
She has known Mrs. Lecott for 25 years through the St. Michael the Archangel church at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and said she marvels at Mrs. Lecott's ability to take assorted ingredients donated by dozens of different entities and turn them into a home-cooked meal.
"She definitely can whip up things," Mrs. Halley said. "You think 'How is this dish going to come together.' I hate to use the word magic, but it comes together somehow."
She prefers to make the main dish, Ms. Britt said, and has put together quite a list of specialties ranging from meatloaf to a homemade salad dressing.
Today, the main course is shepherd's pie, though, and she stands before a beach ball-sized bowl of boiled potatoes while she and a volunteer mash them by hand.
In less than two hours, a line of people will be queued at the door. Some have been down on their luck for years. Some are more recent victims of the economic collapse.
None of that matters to Mrs. Lecott, though.
To her, they're all just hungry.
She is shy about her age -- she admits only that she's in her 70s -- but she has no problem sharing her story as a girl growing up in war-torn Germany.
Her mother, a home economics teacher, taught her to cook, often with whatever was around the kitchen.
"I grew up during the war and I knew hunger," she said, thinking back to her parents' struggles to feed their children. "I remember hunger."
Those memories never left her, even when she married her husband, Don, in New Jersey in 1956.
The Air Force brought the couple to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base where Lecott retired and began teaching at Mount Olive College.
She was a charter member of Seymour Johnson's International Women's Club, and still serves as hostess of that group today. In March 1982, she found another group to become involved with -- the Soup Kitchen.
She said she's the type who, when she commits herself to something, a deep conviction to remain committed develops.
She started out going with the chapel's group once a month, but that grew into a weekly tradition by 1991.
She remembers the Kitchen's early years at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church when she wasn't yet experienced enough to help cook. She was told to help prepare things, just like the fresh-faced teenagers she directs now who shred purple cabbage and mix fruit salads.
When the Kitchen moved to its Oak Street location, Mrs. Lecott, and her conviction, moved with it.
"People who are hungry need to be fed," she says as the line outside grows.
Soon the doors will open and she will take her spot in the serving line, passing out drinks just as she had for so many years.
Her life's rhythm revolves around her civic volunteerism. One day with the Women's Club on base. Another at the Soup Kitchen.
And the routine is like clockwork.
When she comes to the Kitchen, she stops to pick up doughnuts from Krispy Kreme, arrives at 8:30 a.m. and starts to prepare the day's meal.
"She's very punctual," Mrs. Benton said, adding that if she's not there on time, the staff members nervously debate calling around to find out what could have kept her.
And even a day off, to Mrs. Lecott, is hardly an excuse to not show up.
In May, an International Women's Club meeting fell on a Thursday, but there she was in the kitchen anyway. She left early to make her meeting, but those gathered for lunch were still eating food she had a hand in preparing -- something that is never far from her mind as she's cooking.
"Before anything I put out, I taste it," she said.
She rarely eats the meals she has worked to prepare, although she has taken some recipes home to her husband and, in some cases, the mentality of cooking for dozens of people.
"Sometimes I get into the mood to cook and he'll ask 'Who is coming for dinner?' because I've cooked so much," she said.
"He doesn't like leftovers, either. My husband is a very funny eater," she said.
He's more of a meat and potatoes guy so she doesn't always get to embrace her creativity at home like she does at the Kitchen.
And as the hungry people file in and accept their plates of shepherd's pie, she hands them their drinks, scooping ice from a cold, metal bowl.
She smiles as dozens pass by, just as she has for years before.
In the torrentially unstable lives of those that are hungry, the Soup Kitchen has emerged as a constant upon which they can depend.
And over the course of 30 years, Mrs. Lecott herself has become another.