Tonia Griffin has spent the past 22 years cooking food for the hungry in Zion City. It’s not surprising then that she joined other Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge staff members in creating and sharing a “Peace Gumbo” recipe in honor of the organization’s 25th anniversary of “cultivating unity, justice and peace.”
Her contribution to the tips for making Peace Gumbo? “Diversity is key - always include a variety of spices.”
Asking local faith communities to share their own versions of peace gumbos during the celebration period of Sept. 9-18 seems especially appropriate since the anniversary falls during the same week that the nation will observe the 10th anniversary of 9/11, said the Rev. Robin McCullough-Bade, the federation’s executive director.
Each Monday through Thursday, Griffin prepares a hot, nutritious noon meal for the Holy Grill, a feeding site sponsored by the federation in Zion City, a neighborhood near Plank Road and Airline Highway in north Baton Rouge. The program was dedicated in early 1987.
It originally used the dining room at Jordan United Methodist Church in Zion City, but today Griffin prepares the food at the federation’s office at 3112 Convention St., and transports it to the Holy Grill at BREC’s Cadillac Park, 6117 Cadillac St.
The federation, then known as the Greater Baton Rouge Federation of Churches and Synagogues, chose Zion City for its project because it is one of the most economically depressed areas of Baton Rouge, the Rev. Jeff Day, the federation’s first executive director, said when the Holy Grill opened its doors almost 25 years ago. Twenty of the federation’s member congregations recruit volunteers to serve the Holy Grill’s food, maintain the dining room and “share peace gumbo.”
“We are the only direct service serving hot food that regularly in that area,” McCullough-Bade said. “We get food from the Food Bank and the federation supplements the supplies. We don’t make desserts, but we do have a hot main course. The project is supported with federal money that comes to the city in the form of a Community Block Grant and through MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.
“It would be wonderful if we could have Holy Grills throughout the community,” McCullough-Bade added.
Griffin, who has always liked to cook, had worked as a cook helper at an Exxon refinery cafeteria before being hired by the federation job 22 years ago. However, until her Holy Grill job, she’d never prepared such large amounts of food by herself.
She is a member of Jordan United Methodist Church, where the Holy Grill ministry began, and “I applied for the post of cook, but didn’t get it. Two years later, I applied again and got it. All my life I’ve lived in Zion City. I’m a graduate of Glen Oaks High School and I went to Southern for 2-1/2 years in business management. She has two children, Ashley, 27, and Arthur. 21, and two grandchildren.
It was a Thursday morning, and before putting that day’s hamburger patties into the oven, Griffin prepped ingredients for her Famous Holy Grill Red Beans that would be served the following Monday.
On her way to the office she’d stopped at a grocery store to pick up the fresh ingredients, meat and produce. Griffin shops “wherever they have bargains,” she said. That day’s menu was barbecue hamburgers, lettuce and tomato salad, baked beans, chips and, “if I have time, blueberry muffins (made from a mix) compliments of the Food Bank.”
Griffin handles “everything that pertains to the kitchen,” including keeping it spotlessly clean. After preparing a meal for about 100 people, she cleans up the kitchen, loads her car with the food and takes it to Cadillac Park for noon. If there are no volunteers from the member congregations to help serve the food when she arrives at Cadillac Park, she does that, too. “I pick out people (who are there to eat) to help.”
While the Holy Grill averaged serving 94 people, many of them children, Monday through Thursday in July, Griffin said one day “we got up to 116. I had made a rule (several years ago) - children had to have a parent with them, but I had to change that. I can’t do that. It might be their only meal of the day. Sometimes it’s babies watching babies. I say to clean up after yourselves. I mama them.”
McCullough-Bade pointed out that the entire Interfaith Federation staff are “pretty good cooks” and are willing to lend a hand in the kitchen when needed. They also contributed to the federation’s “Peace Gumbo” recipe.
Bookkeeper Joyce Evans sits closest to the kitchen “and helps stir the pot.” Vivian Walker is director of the federations Caregivers program, which recruits volunteers to help the elderly get groceries and medicine, and Susan Davenport is receptionist.
While the office staff talked about favorite dishes they make, Griffin prepared a giant sheet cake from the muffin mix. “I don’t have a muffin pan,” but even if she did, she wouldn’t use it. “It would take a lot of time” to make individual muffins. “I have to be on a schedule. Each minute has to be accounted for.”
However, she does take the time to cook dried red or white beans because “I don’t like canned.” But, she doesn’t presoak her beans, saying, “It seems to me soaking takes the flavor away from the beans.”
About 11:30 a.m. the office staff goes to the kitchen to help Griffin load the food into her car. Anything with liquid is carefully wrapped and everything is transported in special food containers that keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.
With school starting, Griffin expects to serve fewer people at noon. “It’ll be different ages (than in the summer months) - kids 2, 3, 4 years old, those not in school. People come in from different areas to eat. Some come from the Scotlandville area, but the majority are from Zion City.”
McCullough-Bade describes Griffin as “sweet, so responsive, and she genuinely cares for the people” in the Zion City area. “It’s her ministry. These are her neighbors - she knows so many of them by name. She wants to serve food that tastes good, and she runs a tight ship so that people who come to eat know they need to treat each other with respect. It’s a safe place. Tonia and I deeply appreciate the volunteers, and they have to establish the attitude of hospitality.
“When it comes to the Holy Grill, I don’t know what’s more remarkable - a sustained feeding program for almost 25 years or to have the same cook for 22 years. No doubt the reason it has sustained is because of the quality of work by Tonia and her dedication to the neighborhood.”
Here are some recipes from Griffin and the federation’s office staff: