Cooking for crowds

Salvation Army chef got his start in big-city communes

MONSTER MASH Miles Satterfield, 10, on left, and Eric Fleischman, 11, learn about making mashed potatoes for 150 people from an expert in large-scale cooking, Hal Howard.

MONSTER MASH Miles Satterfield, 10, on left, and Eric Fleischman, 11, learn about making mashed potatoes for 150 people from an expert in large-scale cooking, Hal Howard.

Merciful mess hall: The Salvation Army offers free dinners Sunday evenings from 5-6 at its church, 567 E. 16th St., Chico.

As an only child, 71-year-old Hal Howard didn’t have any early-childhood experiences that prepared him to cook for the ever-growing crowds that show up each Sunday at the Salvation Army facility on 16th Street in Chico.

He got his start cooking for crowds in communes the year he turned 40.

It was 1972. He had completed an undergrad in English and a master’s in voc rehab and was working in inner-city Chicago schools. “I was ‘radicalized’ in the late-'60s,” Howard recounted. After a divorce, he hitch-hiked to California, motivated by an intuition he’d have to take custody of his kids.

In preparation for the full-time child-raising he anticipated, Howard joined a group that had 30 communal-living houses in San Francisco. “My job was to procure food for everyone,” he explained. He quickly developed an expertise for harvesting the “urban excess” that otherwise would have been tossed out from restaurants, grocery stores and farmers’ markets.

After about six months, Hal did get custody of his kids—and he joined another communal household where he lived with five other adults and 16 teenagers. “Everybody took a turn cooking, even the kids,” he described. “You had to decide what was on the menu, come up with a recipe for the main dish, cook it, serve it and clean up.” During his years in this communal household, he purchased a tattered Army cookbook from a garage sale. The recipes in it are designed to feed a “company” of soldiers: 100 people. He frequently turns to this cookbook now.

In the early days of the Salvation Army dinners, which commenced 12 years ago, Howard fed 75-80 people twice a month. Now, the average attendance at the Sunday dinner is 140. Recently, a whopping 197 showed up for dinner. Hal now cooks every third Sunday of each month.

Chico churches and the Salvation Army cooperatively produce the dinners. The Army provides the ingredients and the venue, while the churches provide the cooking teams. Howard is a member of the Chico Church of Religious Science, which has two cooking teams involved in the effort to feed Chico’s homeless and hungry.

“I saw cooking Sunday dinners as a way to serve the community,” Howard said. He enjoys working with the team members, many of whom gain confidence in learning new skills in the kitchen. “People have fun, and we always have plenty of volunteers.”

The big “payoff,” he said, is in the many smiles and thank-yous that come from people in the food line. “Sometimes women even ask me for my recipes!” Howard laughed.

Some of the dishes he and his crew whip up for the Sunday dinner include meatloaf, chicken stir fry, hamburger stroganoff, meatballs and rice, beef stew, and ham and sweet potatoes. He’s found a “short-cut” for beef stew: Most recipes call for simmering the beef cubes for three to four hours, but he simply grills them on the open grill, adding seasoning, then tosses them into a big pot with stewed tomatoes and cooked vegetables.

Howard said he’s still “working on” certain recipes, and perhaps his biggest challenges are those Sundays where he’s praying for an “extra 20 minutes” so he can have dinner ready by the 5 p.m. serving time.

Not one to be idle, Howard runs a full-time floor-refinishing business and also volunteers for Habitat for Humanity and Enloe Medical Center.

Hal’s Ramen Goulash
4 packages chicken ramen noodles

2 quarts water

8 oz. cubed cooked chicken

2 packages (16 oz. each) frozen stir-fry vegetables (or chopped fresh or leftover)

1 can (11 oz.) cream of mushroom soup

1 can (11 oz.) cream of chicken soup

salt, pepper, and other seasonings to taste

In a 4- to 5-quart pot, bring water to boil with the noodles and contents of the flavor packs. Add chicken and lower heat to simmer. Add vegetables and canned soups. Season to taste. Simmer 10 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally until liquid is thickened and absorbed.