When disaster strikes, an islander helps with heaping helpings of food
Food can be a comfort to the giver and receiver. And when disaster strikes — in our neck of the woods that’s usually in the form of a hurricane — food can unite neighbors in unexpected ways.
Maureen Patton, executive director of The Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston, is a seasoned hand at evacuation and cooking on the run when calamity comes our way. When Hurricane Ike hit in 2008, despite her worries about what the storm might do to The Grand and to her own home on Galveston Island, Patton had the presence of mind when packing the car to stuff all the frozen shrimp from her home freezer into an ice chest for a feast later at her evacuation home.
“I wasn’t about to leave all that good shrimp behind,” she said.
Anybody who came back for the look-and-leave on the island a few days after the storm can understand. A quick visit home during daylight hours for most residents meant emptying stinking refrigerators filled with rancid, spoiled food.
Fast forward nine years to Hurricane Harvey.
Patton, who’d been profoundly affected by Ike with major rebuilding both at home and at work, wondered aloud what she could do for her daughters and their neighbors up on the mainland in Friendswood and Houston. Both areas were severely flooded, and people were isolated in neighborhoods with no power for many days and few prospects for a home-cooked meal.
“One day, my daughter Melanie was telling me over the phone that she had been visiting friends all day long and was just devastated by the damage she’d seen,” Patton said. “I knew what that survivor’s guilt felt like, and I asked, ‘What can I do to help?’”
Melanie Patton told her mother she could cook because these families couldn’t even get a Whataburger. The neighborhood hamburger joint was flooded and out of commission, too.
Relieved at having something useful to do and remembering the days when Ike had put her own kitchen out of commission, Maureen Patton started cooking.
“I knew how to cook in large quantities and I had a few recipes that I felt would work,” Patton said.
A family favorite, chicken or turkey tetrazzini, depending on the season and what was on hand, met the criteria for comfort food, something that in a crisis takes us back to the comforting meals of our past. Creamy noodles seem always to fit that bill.
“I’d fill these two huge roasting pans I have, then dish it out into plastic containers,” Patton said. “We’d go to the store, grab bags of salad, loaves of some special bread and packages of cookies, then package it all in grocery bags and take them up to Friendswood.”
Melanie let her mother know how thrilled the recipients were and read from their thank-you notes to Patton. Every couple of days, she’d cook up two more huge pots of some comforting, nourishing one-dish meals like what she calls hamburger hash — potatoes, green beans, carrots, corn, beef and anything else imaginable, all cooked into a hearty stew.
She took them up to her other daughter’s neighborhood in Houston to be distributed to families of co-workers who still couldn’t cook at home.
“Finally, they called me and said, ‘I think we’re all good,’” Patton said.
Relief mingled with the satisfaction of knowing she’d participated through the gift of food in the community’s crisis and its coming back together.
Patton shared her basic tetrazzini recipe, though she said she generally doesn’t measure quantities and makes it from memory.
Her daughters will tell you she’s fierce about using whole ingredients — real butter, whole milk and cream, real cheeses — for the dish and to not even bother if you’re going to try and make it less fattening.
“Just try to not eat as much,” she said. “Our family isn’t that strong.”
MAUREEN PATTON’S CHICKEN TETRAZZINI
Quantities here can be doubled, tripled or quadrupled, depending on how many people you’re feeding. This version feeds six.
4 pound roasting chicken, or mixed breasts and dark meat pieces, or leftover chicken or turkey
3⁄4 pound long spaghetti, don’t use extra thin, broken in half
1 or more small onion
1 or more green bell pepper
3⁄4 pound American cheese, cubed or shredded
3⁄4 pound Old English sharp cheddar cheese (cheeses can be varied, add something different if you wish), cubed or shredded
1 medium can or jar of mushrooms, or a container of fresh mushrooms, washed and chopped
1 quart of mixed whole milk and half-and-half (Patton warns: “Don’t use 2 percent; it’s flavorless.”)
1⁄4 pound butter
1⁄4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon Accent flavor enhancer
Stew the hen in seasonings of choice (onion, celery, etc.) or bake it. Patton prefers baking for more flavor. Don’t be afraid to season the chicken well. Leftover chicken or turkey also can be used. Pull off the bone, pull off skin and shred meat with fingers into bite-size pieces.
Save the juices from the baked or stewed hen. Add juices to enough water to cook the spaghetti and boil until al dente. If the juices are spare, throw in some bouillon cubes for more flavor. Drain spaghetti and set aside.
Melt the butter. Drain the mushrooms, saving the juice, or chop fresh mushrooms, dice onion and bell pepper and sauté them and mushrooms together in the melted butter.
Add flour over medium heat and whisk together and cook slightly. Add the milk and half-and-half and drained juices from mushrooms, if you used canned, and continue whisking until smooth. Add the cubed or grated cheeses until they melt into a smooth sauce. Add the Accent.
Add the chicken and the cooked, drained spaghetti and mix together until it’s all evenly blended. Simmer on the stovetop until it’s all heated through or bake at a low temperature for about an hour.
(It tastes even better the next day, Patton said.)