Henrietta Clanton Foote runs a free kitchen with an open heart
For Foote, known as the ‘angel of East St. Louis,’ cooking up a free meal for those in need is her vocation and her joy.
East St. Louis, Ill. — In a well-known Bible passage Jesus is asked, in response to his admonition to love one’s neighbor, “Who is my neighbor?”
He answers with the story of a traveler who is robbed and left for dead. A stranger – who happens to be from Samaria – sees the injured man and takes him to an inn where the Samaritan tends to the man’s wounds and pays for his needs from his own purse.
That man, Jesus said, knew what it was to be a neighbor.
Anyone in search of a modern version of the good Samaritan story need look no further than Henrietta Clanton Foote. The woman sometimes called the “angel of East St. Louis” understands exactly what it means to treat all her fellow beings like family.
On one recent Sunday, while her fellow members of the 15th Street Baptist Church were upstairs celebrating Youth Sunday, Ms. Foote was down in the church basement putting the finishing touches on a delectable buffet.
Generous slices of ham, perfectly cooked ribs, and cheese-drenched macaroni are among the more than a dozen different meat and vegetable offerings steaming in serving dishes. Homemade rolls and corn bread add to the meal, while cheerful wedges of pink and yellow layer cakes are just a few of the dessert choices.
It’s all good, and it’s all free to anyone who’d like a meal.
Foote loves to feed people. Today, she is expecting a crowd of 200 to 300. Some will be her fellow church members but most will be strangers to her – not that it matters.
Feeding people has been Foote’s vocation for decades but for even longer it has been her hobby and her joy.
“If I can just give people one good hot meal,” says Foote, a petite, grandmotherly woman with a quick laugh and a tender demeanor, “that makes me so happy. I don’t know where they’ll get their next. But at least I know that they got this one.”
Foote began this particular form of giving more than three decades ago. A longtime resident of East St. Louis, Ill. (she moved here from Mississippi as a girl), she used to enjoy serving Easter dinner to her family in their yard. But the meal was so inviting that neighbors and others would linger nearby asking – sometimes in jest, but not always – if they could join in.
“Why not?” Foote asked herself. So she opened up her Easter dinners to anyone who wanted to come. This meant friends and family and it also meant homeless people and any other strangers in need of a meal. That was fine with Foote.
Over the years, Foote’s dinners grew to include Thanksgiving, Christmas, and special occasions of all kinds.
But it was the everyday needs of her community that inspired her most. East St. Louis, a city of 27,000 across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, has a troubled history of crime and blight. According to some estimates, about a third of its population lives below the poverty line, and the city’s murder rate is among the highest in the United States.
But when Foote looked out her window, she didn’t think about crime statistics – she simply worried about hungry people. Every morning, she says, “I used to see prostitutes, the drug dealers, the winos. They had been out all night, sometimes in the cold.” The burning question for Foote was: “What are they going to eat?”
She began putting out breakfast on a table in her yard – grits, rice, bacon, eggs, oatmeal, coffee, juice – food that was hot and substantial and would stick to the ribs of those in need of a good meal. Word quickly spread – as did the smell of the coffee – and soon people knew where they could find a hot breakfast.
For Foote, the motivation was simple.
“The Lord has blessed me with so much,” she says. “I want to give some of it back.” And when she does, she says, she is always rewarded with happiness. “I’m thrilled to be able to do this,” she says. “I love to meet different people.” Because after all, she adds, “They’re my family.”
About 15 years ago, Foote took a job as a dishwasher at the Doubletree Hotel in neighboring St. Louis.
Eager to learn, she soon worked her way into the cooking side of the operation. There, she became even more skilled at preparing meals for large groups. “At Easter at the Doubletree we might serve 2,000 people,” she says.
At about this same time, Andrew Prowell, pastor of the 15th Street Church where Foote has been a member since 1976, approached her with an idea: Why didn’t she move her meals into the church? It would create a support group that would allow her to serve an even larger crowd.
Bringing the meals into the church, she says, “was the best thing that could have happened.”
Today, more than a decade later, the Sunday breakfasts that are open to all have become an institution at the church, which has taken on responsibility for their preparation and the expense. Occasional Saturday and Sunday lunches are still Foote’s domain – and continue to be done largely at her own expense.
She prefers it that way, she says. When others get involved in making decisions about the quality and quantity of the meals, she says, they sometimes say, “Oh, that’s too much.” Or, if someone comes back for seconds a server may say, “You’ve already had a plateful.”
That’s not the way Foote likes to do things. She prefers to be as generous as she likes. “I want to serve till I feel sure that nobody’s going away hungry,” she says. Pastor Prowell estimates that Foote shoulders about 60 percent of the cost for the lunches.
Fellow church members help Foote with preparation, although the bulk of the work still falls to her. To prepare a meal like this Sunday spread, she bakes the cakes on Wednesday, prepares the meat on Saturday, and then gets up early Sunday morning to do all the rest, so that it will be as fresh as possible.
Church members – especially the young – help with serving. Prowell says it’s a great opportunity for church youths “to see what it is to give back.”
Foote retired from her job at the Doubletree last year. Before she retired, however, she was honored with Doubletree’s Light and Warmth award; she was singled out from among the company’s more than 79,000 employees because of her lifelong habit of feeding those in need.
She now has 19 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. She’s happy to have more time to spend with them. She says one of her greatest joys is taking the littlest ones fishing.
Her meal schedule is somewhat abated these days. She still cooks on holidays and offers the regular Sunday lunches once every two or three months.
Occasionally, she says, the thought comes to stop – even the Easter meal, long her signature occasion.
“Every Easter now I say to myself, maybe this year is the last,” she says. “But then I do it again. I think that I always will.”
Edward Cherry, a church member who has been enjoying Foote’s meals for many years – both as a member but also in the days before he joined the church – says that “there’s an aura, a spirit to her cooking.
“People may come to get Henrietta’s cooking,” he says, “but what they leave with is the Word.”
Prowell says his parishioner is clearly “a great cook.” But it goes beyond that, he insists. She is also “a woman of great integrity with a heart full of compassion.” And in many ways, he says, it’s her character that does the nourishing.
“Anyone who eats Henrietta’s meals,” he says, “gets fed twice.”
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