Ohio woman makes soup for free lunch program for 24 years

By Dan Kane - The Repository

CANTON, Ohio (AP) — By 10:30 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, before you were probably even thinking about lunch, Cindy Zielaskiewicz had made 27 gallons of chicken-and-rice soup.

This was no rare achievement. She’s been making mass quantities of soup every Wednesday morning for 24 years and never been paid a penny for her efforts.

“I like to cook,” said Zielaskiewicz, a dedicated volunteer for the Samaritan’s Table, a free lunch served Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the parish hall of Basilica of St. John the Baptist, 627 McKinley Ave NW.

“It’s fun because there’s such a variety of food items you have access to here that you wouldn’t have at home,” Zielaskiewicz said. Ingredients for the lunches are provided primarily from Community Harvest but also the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank and other donors.

“And nobody should be hungry,” Zielaskiewicz hastened to add. “And we have such a good time in the kitchen. The volunteers are great.”

For Thursday’s lunch, Zielaskiewicz filled three 36-quart stainless steel kettles with chicken-and-rice soup, made with shredded boiled chicken and its broth, oven-cooked rice, carrots, instant mashed potatoes (for thickening), bay leaves and other seasonings. Made Wednesday morning then refrigerated, it would have 24 hours to thicken and develop more flavor before being served to 400 or more people.

“The pots don’t look that big but they take forever to fill,” Zielaskiewicz said, stirring soup in the hall’s well-equipped and very clean kitchen. When she first started volunteering, she made two pots of soup but the weekly crowd has grown in 24 years.

Leftovers from the previous week’s Samaritan’s Table often turn up in the next week’s hearty soup. Leftover Johnny Marzetti was transformed by Zielaskiewicz into rich pasta e fagioli soup with the addition of white beans, diced tomato, beef broth, Italian seasonings and a blend of hot and mild Italian sausage and ground beef.

Leftover cheesy potatoes became cheesy potato soup with the addition of diced ham and a pan of leftover green beans enhanced with onions and bacon. The previous week’s baked ham leftovers could become this week’s ham-and-bean soup. Chili is another crowd-pleaser.

“There’s no recipes to anything, it all depends on what comes in,” Zielaskiewicz, 70, said.

Soup is popular year-round at the Samaritan’s Table. “Sometimes they run out. Thicker soups go faster,” Zielaskiewicz said. “If it’s not all used up, they send it home with people in containers.”

Her husband, Ken, is another Wednesday-morning kitchen volunteer. “We see these people here every Wednesday,” she said. “It’s probably our closest group (of friends). We talk over everything.”

Doug Zartman began volunteering in the kitchen for Samaritan’s Table after retiring from the Canton Police Department in January 2019. “My mother (Jackie Zartman) said, ‘I’ve got a job for you.’ She’s been here at least 15 years in the dessert department.”

After having been in law enforcement for nearly 40 years, Zartman said, “this seems like you’re helping people out in a direct way. This is food you’d want to eat. It’s a nice sit-down meal. Cindy’s soup is fantastic.”

Tom Preiss, kitchen manager and “chief cook and bottle washer” for Samaritan’s Table, has been volunteering for the weekly meals for 14 years, since his retirement as plant manager of a Canal Fulton machine shop.

“This is not a mess hall or a soup kitchen,” Preiss said. “The food we get from the foodbank and other sources is very high quality. It doesn’t take any more effort to make it look and taste good. I’m a little picky. All the plates have to look nice.”

A previous Thursday’s lunch menu was baked ham, cheesy grits, tossed salad, chicken-and-rice soup, croissants and a selection of desserts including cupcakes, cake and cheesecake. The dining room was full, with a supervised line awaiting seating.

There are more than 100 active members of the volunteer team for Samaritan’s Table, with about 60, organized into teams, working each Thursday. “For retired people, it’s a nice place and to meet-and-greet,” Preiss said.

Interested volunteers, Preiss said, should come to the parish hall at 10:30 a.m. Thursday and they will be put to work.

By Dan Kane

The Repository