Monday, May 23, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood

Tin containers with a dollop of love


Her dangling foot hangs loose in the air, tapping to some silent beat as she talks. If you look closely, a spiral tattoo loops around the fine bones at the top of her foot. With a few twists of your neck, the words that make up the spiral become clear: “This above all to thine own self be true.”


“I’m an open book,” says a laughing Brandy Lueders.

No kidding.

The old wooden screen door propped open at the back entrance is a sign that things are not going to be as usual. Not so long ago, hobos jumped from trains and approached folks’ back kitchens for a handout. Not so different today, it appears, as I approach the back door to the kitchen for my dinner.

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The few people in line are certainly friendly, smiling, but clearly in recovery from a long day at work or chasing kids. Business attire appears to be the current dress. Nice cars are parked on the street outside. Greetings and small talk are overheard as friends are discovering old friends on this back porch at the Wallace House in Sherman Hills.

The screen door opens wider, ushering the next person into the bright kitchen. Once inside, a man with tattoos running up and down both arms stands behind the table passing out tinfoil containers of food and figuring out your order.joes 1 10.29

“Hello,” he cheerfully greets each customer.

John Cornish, a psychologist by training, now a wellness coach, yoga teacher and massage therapist (“John Cornish Wellness”), is here to hand you your take-home supper. He smiles. Perfectly serene. Grounded.

And over there, moving between rooms, is the cook. A vision of piercings and tattoos and colorful clothing. A fairy loose on earth.

joes 2 10.29“I’m a farm girl from northern Iowa. I spent a lot of time with my grandma, who lived just up our drive. She was a cook. She loved to cook. So I was just up there hanging out with my grandma cooking.”

With wide eyes and a gravelly voice and a seen-some-life verve, Brandy Lueders speaks warmly of her beginnings as a cook.

“Everybody was farming. My grandma put together these meals that she sent out twice a day. She drives to all the fields to deliver these lunchboxes. She had all these tin containers, and she would make these casseroles, and they would get amazing meals — even apple dumplings. This is the environment I grew up in.”

And so began the trajectory of Brandy’s life. Off to culinary school at DMACC for several years, perfecting her cooking skills. Then off to Portland, Oregon, for several more years, cooking in restaurants around Portland. And then over to St. Paul, Minnesota, cooking for a large food service. Then finally home to Des Moines to eventually start her own business, preparing healthy meals once a week for anyone and everyone. Life in a paragraph.

But of course, life is never just that. Two past marriages (“I’m a relationship wreck,” she says with a laugh), two kids that are the essence of her life, a three-year romantic partnership with John, and the home birth of her own business — The Grateful Chef. Grateful indeed.

“At the time, I had two small children at home, still married, and this is when The Grateful Chef was conceived. I had a girlfriend who came to me and said, ‘You know, I am overwhelmed and need some help.’ I said, ‘OK,’ and began preparing meals. It very slowly started from there. I was doing all this from home.”

“All this” is providing prepared meals for all of us. Healthy. Unusual. Fun. A treat to be picked up every Wednesday afternoon. Main courses, soups, salads. Pay your money and take your goodies. And back out the screen door you go.

Ah, but of course this isn’t just about the food.

Brandy reads an email she just received from a woman who has lost her husband — “He showed his love for others by cooking for them. Friends knew this and worried I wouldn’t do a very good job taking care of myself following his passing. You are helping to ensure I am eating healthy. I know this pleases him to no end.”

My goodness. Is there more?

“People have become like family to us. They are so appreciative. It just blows my mind. I donated all these meals to people who are going to get a meal on the day they’re going to have their chemo treatment. It’s through a group called Can Do Cancer. My admiration for these people who are fighting cancer? I bow down to them. One of those persons is in remission and she has become a great friend. It’s just so cool.”

OK, what is going on here?

“I believe in energy in general. When I’m in this kitchen, I love — and I mean love, because cooking is my passion — every minute that I’m here. Like I just love it. I’m dancing, doing crazy stuff. I try to keep the energy light and fun. That is important to me. We have fun when we’re here. That love and fun goes into the food while you’re making it. It’s in there.”

And Brandy smiles at me. I can buy it or not. Her beliefs won’t be shaken by my doubts. She is who she is. Period.

I take my two big tins of food. My soup. My salad. I pay my money. The screen door shuts behind me.

As I drive off, the two tin containers sit stolidly on the front seat. Mute. No more smiling fairy dancing around, or tattooed John speaking softly. But, I think as I turn onto the freeway, what if these tins are in fact mixed with a dollop of love?

I hurry on home to supper. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:

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