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The Blessings of Good Food

A trained chef uses her culinary skills to give struggling women confidence and faith.
Elizabeth Urlaub with her students
Credit: Chris Bohnhoff
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I stood in front of the group in the shelter kitchen. Six women had signed up for the class and they were all looking at me. I took one last glance at my notes and smiled confidently—at least I hoped I looked confident. I wanted to keep things simple. “We’ll try some different recipes over the next ten weeks; each one will tell you a lot about nutrition and cooking.”

“Nutrition?” said one student. “All I care about is making something that tastes good.”

“Something my kids will eat,” said another.

Right. Who has time for nutrition when you’re struggling to put food on the table? These women were recovering from addictions or had escaped abusive relationships. Or both. They were barely holding on, their spirits battered, but that was why I’d volunteered for this. To give them that sense of accomplishment cooking always gave me and to help them heal.

Good nutrition is one of the foundations of life. It doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. And mealtimes keep families close. I wanted to share what I knew and help them get their lives on track. Lord, I prayed, if only I can convey what a blessing good food is!

I got my first cookbook at age nine. I picked out a recipe for chocolate chip cookies and followed it carefully. I’ll never forget that first bite of the first cookie I ever baked. But the real reward came when my family tasted them. Out of the simplest ingredients, I’d cooked up joy!

I started my own cookie stand. Eventually I went to culinary school and got a degree. But you don’t need to be an expert to get the biggest and most basic benefit from cooking—food that tastes good and is good for you. Meals that are simple and fun to make.

I wanted the women at the shelter to understand that they and their families didn’t have to settle for junk food and fast food.

That first day was chaotic. They divided into pairs to make strawberry cheesecake. “Where’d Amy run off to?” griped Shelly, stirring the strawberry sauce with one hand and trying to slide a bowl over with the other.

“Who stole the paper towels?” yelled Tawana, rushing over to the stove.

“You plan on burning that, Tawana?” asked Lois.

Somehow the three teams managed to make three cheesecakes to put in the fridge. “I’m sure the rest of the women will enjoy them,” I said. I think we spent more time cleaning up than cooking.

A week passed before I went back, a week of worrying. Was I getting through? I stood before my students, still nervous. “Everyone loved the cheesecake!” Shelly declared.

“They couldn’t believe we actually made it,” said Tawana, beaming.

We baked whole-wheat bread, cornbread and cranberry-walnut bread. The class learned about carbohydrates and fiber, the difference between “good” and “bad” fat. We made chicken noodle soup, chili, beef stew, Thai cashew chicken, pecan tilapia, pineapple shrimp and seared salmon with beurre blanc (easy yet fancy).

I showed them how cooking from scratch is a lot cheaper and healthier than using prepared or frozen foods. I gave them frugal shopping tips.

“My little boy was so proud of my chili he told the other kids his mama made it,” Tawana said near the end of our 10 weeks.

Shelly told me, “Now I don’t have to show up at family gatherings emptyhanded, thanks to you.” There were tears in her eyes.

The real test came at our last class. We had a surprise visit from a group of businessmen who support the shelter, including former Vikings tight end Joe Senser. On the table was a dessert spread including banana crêpes, cream puffs, flan, cookies.

“You ladies made all this?” the men asked. Soon they were exclaiming, “If I take one more bite I’ll burst.” “Man, that’s good!” “Can I have seconds of those crêpes?”

My ladies looked radiant. When was the last time, I wondered, that something they did made them proud? Or was found praiseworthy? So much of their lives had been mired in negativity and heartache. Here was something practical and healthy, something they could do for themselves and their families.

I’d worried I couldn’t get through to them. But it wasn’t me who got through. It was a power that heals and nourishes us in every way we can imagine, even in the simplest things we do.

Try Elizabeth’s recipe for Turtle Cheesecake!


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