When Liz Hauck first explains her intention to show up every Tuesday night and help a group of teenaged boys living at a state-run residential center cook dinner together and then eat together, their reaction is comically honest.
“I think people would be more interested in my idea,” one boy says. “You cook … we eat.”
Hauck shows up with bags full of groceries and an invitation to help cook anyway, nearly every week for three years, and her new memoir, “Home Made: A Story of Grief, Groceries, Showing Up — and What We Make When We Make Dinner,” invites readers to accompany her into the kitchen.
Hauck’s project is initially undertaken in honor of her father, who worked at the residential center for many years and had once expressed interest in teaming up with his daughter to teach the boys to cook.
Those plans were derailed by his devastating cancer diagnosis, and Hauck is still reeling from his early death when she shows up at the center hoping to feel closer to her father and do something meaningful with her grief by following through on the idea.
She arrives every week not knowing if any of the boys will turn themselves in to help cook or even to help eat.
What participation she does get at first is often reluctant and inconsistent, and her initial vision of teaching the kids to cook a variety of healthy foods soon turns into acceptance that they are most attracted to “real” food — stir fries, quesadillas, pizza and the like — and will usually flatly refuse to try anything else.
Rather than pushing it, Hauck makes it clear that the experience of creating something together and then sitting down as a community to eat is far more important to her than any particular menu.
As time passes, the boys’ initial resistance lessens a bit, and Hauck gets to know them better, though they never let their guards down completely, and there are clearly large parts of their lives that Hauck is excluded from.
Early on in the book, she is careful to tell readers that this is not a “white savior” narrative, where she will swoop in and magically fix the boys’ lives through cooking, and readers see her repeatedly realize the limitations of what she can reasonably hope to achieve in the face of the broken systems that have shaped the boys’ lives.
Still, some truly meaningful connections are made, and Hauck’s compassionate, warm-hearted portraits of the teens make “Home Made” a really moving and memorable read.
The heart of this book is Hauck’s remembered conversations with the boys she meets around the table, whom she always treats with respect and kindness, even when their choices and circumstances frustrate her.
While Hauck has changed some details to protect individuals’ privacy, she fully succeeds in making the boys feel real on the page and in making the readers care about what happens to them.
I laughed, cried and got angry alongside Hauck and shared her frustration at not always knowing what happened next in the teens’ stories after they left the center.
“Home Made” is ultimately an eloquent tribute to the power of what Hauck refers to as a “ministry of presence,” the act of showing up consistently for someone, letting them know that they aren’t alone, and being at peace with whatever they’re willing or able to give back in that moment.
This kind of service isn’t about getting big, flashy results, but simply trusting that community and connections matter and make a positive difference in people’s lives.
Hauck lets the boys sit down to eat even when they don’t help to cook, even though she knows that makes it less likely that they will help cook.
The idea is not to set up a punitive space with lots of rules, but to allow everyone there the opportunity to both experience and extend hospitality at least once a week.
“The really radical act of hospitality,” Hauck writes, “was not that I showed up with groceries, but that the boys let me into their kitchen and extended their table, and that we all sat down together.”
I whole-heartedly recommend this memoir to anyone looking for an emotionally moving read about the power of community and cooking.
Mara Fass is a library associate in Technical Services at the Champaign Public Library.