The Friendly Kitchen has served us all

Last modified: Sunday, June 19, 2011
Last Sunday night in the Rundlett Middle School library, I watched more than 200 Concord-area residents donate their time, share their talents and open their wallets to help raise funds to rebuild the Friendly Kitchen after last month's fire.

The event was communal, but the timing was also of special importance to me on a personal level - because exactly 10 years earlier, on June 12, 2001, I set foot in New Hampshire for the first time of my life. I was interviewing for a job just around the corner from the Friendly Kitchen, and in the decade since I have worked three different jobs and lived in two different houses all within a quarter-mile of the kitchen's Montgomery Street location. I can tell you as a neighbor - and in light of the questions other neighbors have raised about its rebuilding plans - that there is more value to this humble soup kitchen than one might initially expect.

That full value was on full display Sunday night, as a team of volunteers redecorated the middle school library into a warm and elegant "pop-up restaurant." The brainchild of Concord cookbook author and food guru J.M. Hirsch, this classy five-course meal raised more than $20,000 for the rebuilding effort - but the night's value wasn't just in the money. Like the folk story of "stone soup," where a hungry traveler turns an empty pot into a nourishing meal through the gifts of others, this dinner drew entirely from the community. Every single bite of food, every plate, every hour of work and every inspired decoration was donated. Local chefs led the kitchen, local restaurants and food companies donated hundreds of pounds of food, and teams of area wait staff took a night off to help. Even Granite State celebrities waited tables: from Mayor Jim Bouley and Executive Councilor Dan St. Hillare to on-air talent from NHPR, WMUR, and NECN - and of course, favorite Concord son and NBA star Matt Bonner. Two seatings of 100 tickets each sold out quickly.

The Friendly Kitchen serves those in need. But the multitude of people who came out to help with the dinner shows that we all are in need. We are hungry for community, and for a way to support each other.

In late 2004, after three years living in Concord, I considered moving away from New Hampshire. I had been traveling for months in the Midwest for

work, and after losing my job I drove two 12-hour days from Des Moines to Concord. I had no job to return to, and I wondered if I should pack up my things and head south. I pulled into a gas station on North Main to fill up after the final leg of the drive, and as I waited to pay someone said hello from behind me. It was Peter, the owner of Eagle Square Deli, and he greeted me like a neighbor. "Colin, I haven't seen you in months! Where've you been?" It felt like I was home.

A community isn't just a group of people who live near each other. It is a group of people who care about each other.

I care about the Friendly Kitchen. I'm not a regular volunteer, but I'm a grateful neighbor.

I know that when they open their doors to people who need a warm meal, they are helping all of us by building a community that will pull together in times of crisis. It's a reassuring feeling, and I think it's that feeling which prompted so many to pitch in to help the rebuilding effort.

Ten years after setting foot in Concord for the first time, I'm glad I stayed - and I am thankful for the nourishment that this humble soup kitchen has given me.

(Colin Van Ostern calls Concord his home.)