Cynthia Pappas and husband George Grier preparing Paella for the SquareOne Villages benefit.
A group of friends raise money to house the homeless and feed the hungry.
by Cynthia Diane Pappas
My husband, George, has loved to cook since he worked in his frat house kitchen, under the tutelage of Cora, a strapping African-American who made magic with a limited budget. She could make a turkey last all week through careful planning. Monday’s menu was turkey slices, mashed potatoes and greens, Tuesday’s was turkey gravy on open-faced sandwiches, Wednesday’s was turkey enchiladas, Thursday was chili night, stretching the turkey with potatoes and beans, and Friday’s was turkey and rice soup.
George cooked through single parenthood, during his full-time farming days, while employed as a stock broker, and finally, in retirement. Now, at 71, he cooks for a cause. He joined a group of cooks who make paella for fundraisers that support our local food bank, raise money to build tiny houses for the homeless, and fund children’s services at a family shelter.
Now that I’m retired, I decided to follow his lead and become a paella maker. This is a leap of faith, given my lack of epicurean skill. Ever supportive, George surprised me with a paella pan and propane cooking set-up for my birthday.
Why paella? It all started when a Eugene woman living in the Canary Islands cooked paella for her sisters when she was visiting them in Oregon. Paella is a dish cooked over open fire in Spain. Then she was cooking for her sisters’ friends and when they all got together they decided to have a party and invite folks to come eat paella and donate to FOOD for Lane County (FFLC). Fast forward twelve years later and Paella Fest has become a coveted invitation-only annual soirée.
This loose-knit group of thirty do-gooders and amateur chefs who cook at the annual home-grown Paella Fest have raised $106,000 for FFLC over the past eleven years. Fundraising has grown from $700 raised in the inaugural year to $26,000 raised in 2018.
Making paella is simple: 1) a day ahead of the event, chop all ingredients and store in the refrigerator (two hours of prep time); 2) make chicken stock (two hours of prep time that can happen simultaneously while chopping ingredients); 3) on the day of the fundraiser, arrive a couple hours ahead of time at the site location and set up your propane tank and level your paella pan; 4) gauge when the meal needs to be served and turn on the propane an hour prior to that time; 5) in hot olive oil, cook the chicken or chorizo or seafood; 6) add all chopped vegetables; 7) add spices and diced tomatoes; 8) add Arborio rice and chicken stock and stir together; 9) cease stirring, allowing ingredients to marry; 10) turn the pan clockwise in small increments to cook evenly and produce soccarrat, the crispy goodness at the bottom of the pan; 11) turn off the propane (about 50 minutes cooking time); 12) add edible flowers from the garden to garnish; and 13) serve with a joyous heart.
Paella is meant to be shared communally. It allows those being helped and those with the means to help a chance to interact with each other and the paella chefs. As the thick aroma of paprika and cumin emanate from the bubbling paellas, stories unfold as new friendships are made. Feeding people is such an intentional act of community. It fills me with a sense of celebration to witness the generosity of community members. Full bellies and full hearts is the best combination ever.
The fledgling tiny houses for the homeless movement in our community, started by Reverend Dan Bryant with First Christian Church of Eugene, and other advocates for the unhoused, is fueled by the deliciousness of an annual night out at a local winery with supporters eating paella under the stars. Just four years in, our group of paella chefs have already helped raise almost $550,000, the equivalent of twenty tiny homes, making housing affordable for those with limited means. According to Bryant, “Paella in the Vineyard has been a phenomenal success and the favorite charity event of the year for so many of our supporters. We could not do it without our fabulous paella chefs.”
Thanks to this committed group of paella makers, a homeless family has permanent shelter from the Oregon rain, those struggling with food insecurity can access food at FFLC, and a child suffering the indignity and uncertainty of homelessness can meet with a trauma-trained counselor.
I am grateful to be part of this group that makes giving such fun and creates so much good out of something so simple. Many thanks to the four chief instigators of this paella tradition: Don McElroy, Charlene Decker, Eric Gunderson, and Maureen Smith.