Hauck plans for a two-hour session once a week — they would cook for an hour, then eat for an hour. The residents would pick the menus, Hauck would buy and bring the groceries. When she shows up the first Tuesday evening, there’s Leon, the hands-down star of the book: one shoulder higher than the other, a sideways way of looking at people caused by severe neurological problems from birth, a puckish sense of humor and a hard-nosed insistence on facing the truth. He’s Beatrice to Hauck’s Dante, leading her up the stairs to the residence, helping her carry the groceries, introducing her to the ways of the House, running interference, casting aspersions on slackers, letting her know what would and would not fly with “people.”
The book’s structure, like the project itself, is shaped by Hauck’s unswerving adherence to the four guiding principles of volunteering, namely “show up when you say you will show up; know your one small task and do it the best you can; be prepared to improvise, because you’ll have to improvise, because inevitably something unforeseen will arise; and the easiest or hardest part — leave when you are supposed to leave, and then come back again.”
The point is to make food that people want to eat, and these are teenage boys, not epicures. There’s a lot of stir-fry chicken and quesadillas. But something mysterious happens in the simple act of cooking and eating together once a week over the course of three years. Hauck writes, “It took weeks before the boys wouldn’t just serve themselves, weeks before they’d wait with a dish, hold it out for the kid sitting beside him, nod, and pass it on to the next. That was the eventual grace, and that was all that was actually homemade.”
The boys tease her: She’s a “teacher,” which is to say, an authority figure and outsider; she asks endless questions about their week at school and their lives, she calls them by their “government names” instead of their nicknames. But the program she started as a way to stay close to her father takes on a life of its own. The boys count on it: the promise of one communal dinner a week, the bottles of soda, birthday cakes, occasional meals at a pizza joint they call “Heaven,” the kibitzing and jostling and cooperation of cooking together.
It’s clear there’s little continuity in their lives. When boys leave the House — which they do frequently, at a moment’s notice — they’re said to be “dead.” Hauck probes: Where are they, really? Sometimes, jail. Sometimes, they’ve “aged out” or been placed in another home. Sometimes, they run away; sometimes no one knows where they’ve ended up. Leon spends time in the hospital having surgeries: Hauck visits, bringing food. “I knew it was about cooking,” she writes, “but I was slowly discovering that the project was also about belonging.”