Life lessons from soup kitchen ingredients

Abraham Villarreal
3 min readOct 23, 2022
Roasting green chiles on a gas stove makes an amazing smell and taste. Perfect for a soup kitchen salsa.

Cooking on Saturdays at a soup kitchen over the years has taught me one very important lesson: every ingredient matters.

That didn’t come from an older, wiser grandma whose been cooking for years. It also didn’t come from a famous TV chef or one of those online cooks that make cooking seem like a fast-paced reality show.

The greatest life lessons usually don’t come from those people. They often come from places you can’t identify or have a hard time remembering. Unexpected people from unexpected places. The kind of people you might meet just once in your life.

At a gospel mission in rural New Mexico, a former hard-rocking hippy from the 1960s taught me that basil is a necessary life ingredient. His name was Kurt, and he grew up in the northeast, near a shore somewhere. I don’t think he was Italian, but every Saturday he would request a pasta dish.

Tomatoes, basil, garlic, and freshly shaved parmesan cheese were all he needed to feel complete. I like pasta as much as the next guy, but I could never reach the love for it Kurt had. On the Saturdays that pasta was on the menu, I would make sure that fresh basil was used.

Cutting each leaf from its stem, rolling the leaves together to slice them into long strips, and sprinkling them into a boiling saucepan made me realize how special it could be to someone somewhere that grew up eating it on a regular basis. The smells, the feeling of it. The way it stands out from the rest of the food but doesn’t take away from it. Basil does seem like something special. It was to Kurt.

At a soup kitchen in southern Arizona, a man from the Midwest told me that he’s a potatoes and meat kind of guy. He grew up hating vegetables like most kids. A meal with mashed potatoes or diced potatoes and a big hunk of any kind of beef would do just fine for him.

On most Saturdays, when I visited his kitchen, it was hard for me to think of a meal that didn’t include fresh cut veggies, a homemade sauce with some kind of veggie, or a meat casserole that didn’t have veggies hidden in it. He gave me a challenge!

When I knew he would be there, I’d made sure to make a portion that was veggie free. What seemed plain to me at first felt like a gourmet meal when I saw…

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Abraham Villarreal

People are interesting. I write about them and what makes them interesting.