When Kim Hardwick shops for 450 pounds of sweet potatoes, she gets noticed. Last November another shopper couldn’t help but ask what they were for. “We’re making casseroles to support local missions,” Kim told him. “We’re from Mountain Brook Baptist Church, we’re Cooks on a Mission.” And before she knew it, Kim and the man were sharing recipes, and she was answering lots of questions about what Cooks on a Mission is and who it supports.
“I told him we cook two days a month, put casseroles, soups and more in the freezer, and then offer them to our congregation in exchange for donations,” she says. “We volunteer our time, so all of the money goes straight back to local missions.”
Meet the Cooks
The first two Fridays of each month Cooks on a Mission take over Mountain Brook Baptist Church’s kitchen and fills it with laughter and conversation. You’ll find several college students, a great grandmother and lots of ladies of all ages in between, all talking as much as they cook. After all, it’s the “fellowship” they come for just as much as the cooking and the opportunity for service. “You’ll hear all kinds of laughter in there, sometimes you’ll even hear singing,” Kim says. “When one of us has a prayer request or a family crisis, this is the group we turn to first. Our group text is an incredible link. Not only have we grown in our cooking skills, we have grown in our faith too.”
The Cooks on a Mission are not just pretty good amateur cooks, but also close friends, despite the diversity within the group. “We all bring something different to the table,” cook Aimee Turner says. “We have meticulous ones and more laid back ones, sentimental ones and more stoic ones. God really put together a remarkable group of believers, and we need each one.”
While it’s all hands on deck for most of each cooking day, each cook has their preferred job. Edna is the head dishwasher. The other cooks will tell you she makes everything sparkle, and that “Edna clean” is the gold standard. Puerto Rico native Joann not only brings her famous Black Beans and Rice recipe to the table, but she also is the prayer warrior of the group and frequently leads the group prayer time. Chris, a college student and the only male of the group, is the “muscle of the team” and gets called on to help get things off tall shelves and lift heavy stockpots.
Frances, a nurse by trade, makes the scones for the group: bacon cheddar chive scones, orange cranberry scones, apple cinnamon scones, and more—all delicious. Another baker, Sale, bakes hundreds of loaves of sourdough bread from a 100-year-old starter from Wales.
Jane, a retired attorney, is the chief organizer and official filer of recipes and labels. She also makes cakes with her secret five-ingredient recipe, and has begun a sub-ministry of caring for first responders in the community.
No matter their role, all the cooks are serious about their food. They pride themselves on making everything from scratch, with fresh vegetables, fresh herbs, and real butter and milk. Whether it’s cooking roux for 45 minutes to get depth of flavor in their gumbo or grating cheese by hand, they take pains to make sure everything is top quality. On any given day they will be making 50 to 125 batches of a recipe. And yes, that requires a lot of math.
Along the way, the cooks have developed a rotating repertoire of dishes. Kim and Aimee aren’t quite sure why a dish as easy to make as Poppy Seed Chicken is so popular with church members, but it ranks up there along with the more labor-intensive Beef Bourguignon, kid-friendly Baked Ziti and single-serving French Market Sandwiches (ham and cheese on a croissant with a buttery poppy seed spread). All casseroles are available in three sizes, and soups come in two sizes, with the smallest containers serving just two people—ideal for college students, seniors and empty nesters.
And then there are the tasting days. When the cooks want to add a new item to their menu, they cook several different versions of the dish and hold a taste test in the church conference room. The staff and anyone else who is in the building at that time is invited to taste and then vote for their favorite.
Many of the dishes are family favorites. For example, the Over the Top Mac and Cheese was Aimee’s sister-in-law’s recipe but got its name “because the four cheeses and cream in the dish make it decadently good,” Kim says. When one taste tester sampled a new ground beef-and-pasta casserole, she said, “I don’t know what you call it but it’s heavenly.” And just like that, it had a name: Heavenly Delight.
On a Mission
As much as these cooks love to, well, cook, their biggest heart is for the mission behind it. In fact, their roots go back to 2009 with a “Christmas house” that acted as a lunch and dinner venue for two weeks to raise money for MBBC’s annual family mission trip. After three years of that they switched to serving a monthly Sunday lunch, but the lightbulb moment came when they made and froze traditional side dishes for Thanksgiving. They reasoned that lots of people would like the homemade dishes, but without all of the work, and they were right. Their Thanksgiving food sale is now their largest month, by far. In addition to dressing, sweet potato casserole, squash casserole and Over the Top Mac ’n Cheese, they also offer fresh-baked layer cakes and pies. In 2017 they took orders for almost 60 cakes and pies.
All of the money they make from food “sales” goes straight back to the community. “We call it a sale because that just makes sense,” says Sherrie, “but it’s really a donation for the ministry, and 100 percent of the money goes to support local organizations.”
“Ultimately, we want to share the love of Christ with others,” says Sherrie, “but it’s really hard to be receptive to that if you are hungry, so lots of our activities involve feeding others, including students at three area elementary schools who are at risk of being hungry over the weekend.” The group delivers bags with a weekend’s worth of child-friendly food items for students each week.
They provide meals for families with infants in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at UAB/Children’s Hospital and for the pediatric oncology parent support group at Children’s of Alabama. They’ve helped fund tablet computers and breakfasts for the GED program at M-Power, and as other needs arise, they have the flexibility to address them, such as for a missionary family from Liberia who had to unexpectedly stay in Birmingham through the winter months and needed winter clothing and coats.
Lately the cooking and mission parts of their name have become even more closely integrated too. For the past two years the cooks have been joined by ladies from The WellHouse, a rescue and recovery organization for women who are victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking. It started as a way to provide job training for the ladies, but has grown into much more.
“We were nervous when we went to meet the WellHouse ladies for the first time,” Aimee recounts. “We knew they’d been trafficked, that they had histories. We couldn’t even begin to imagine the horrors they had endured. And we thought, ‘How are we going to connect with these women who have such different backgrounds from ours?
“But the Lord opened our hearts to them and gave us the words. Eventually, the walls began to come down. It was a miracle. I think the girls realized we are real, we have our own challenges, so they have begun to let us in. We just love them for who they are. Sometimes we hear terrible stories, and we don’t always know what to say, but we always listen and love. A hug goes a long way.”
On Fridays the cooks and WellHouse ladies alike all share in life, over the stove and over the table. The WellHouse ladies and the cooks sit down for a family-style lunch and share what’s on their hearts. Over time, trust is built and the cooks share the good, the bad and ugly of their own lives too. “They haven’t had many people they can trust,” Kim says. “But we work hard to make sure they can trust us.”
With the funds they raise, the cooks provide food to the WellHouse ladies and frequently help the ladies who graduate from the program stock their pantries when they start out on their own. Sometimes they pay for various expenses the graduates encounter, even basics like a suitcase or scrubs for a job training program.
Even after the ladies leave the WellHouse, the bonds forged on the Friday cooking days continue. WellHouse graduates are now in Chicago, Florida, Kentucky and many other places in the US. Social media helps the cooks keep up with the ladies and continue to minister to them. The cooks can recount story after story of women they have built friendships with. One was originally not comfortable in a church because she had been trafficked at a ministry convention. Now she’s driving an 18 wheeler all over the country, all five feet tall of her, and blogging about her adventures as she goes. Another is a welder, another is in the Navy, and still another is recently engaged.
One of Kim’s closest friends is a graduate of the WellHouse. A while back, Kim helped her get her driver’s license, car tag and insurance. “The day she got her license, I was as proud of her as I was of my own daughter,” Kim says, beaming, “because I knew what it represented to her. It’s another step to freedom.”
But the endings aren’t always happy. Sometimes the women find themselves back in the life they came from. Kim and Sherrie recall a day when they set out for a truck stop on Finley Boulevard to pick up one of the former WellHouse residents who had gone back to her trafficker. “Addiction is really hard,” Sherrie says. “We had no idea how hard. She ended up not coming with us that day, but she knows we love her, and we would go again in a heartbeat.”
These relationships have also enabled the cooks to become better advocates for getting people out of trafficking. Aimee recently saw a girl at her neighborhood CVS who caught her eye. “I would have never given it a second thought before, but it triggered something and I thought, ‘That girl is being trafficked,’” she says. “I knew by the way she looked and her demeanor.” The girl wasn’t open to Aimee’s offer to help, but she also knows it won’t be the last time she’ll encounter something like that.
The cooks bubble over talking about all the learning and loving on cooking days and beyond, and their gratitude to their church congregation for supporting what they do. “It’s a blessing all the way around,” Aimee says. “Our personal relationships are so special, and we are so blessed to know the WellHouse women. Our faith grows every day. It’s taught me to keep my eyes open and to be watching for God’s hand.”
Join Cooks on a Mission
Stock Your Freezer
Anyone in the community is welcome to come to Mountain Brook Baptist on the third Wednesday of the month 2-6:30 p.m. to pick up casseroles, breakfast items and soups. Save them for your family, or to take them to a friend or neighbor. Note that they take off June and July.
Cook with the Cooks
Cooks on a Mission prepare food all day on the first two Fridays of the month and welcome anyone in the community to join them. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for information, or follow them on social media at facebook.com/CooksOnAMission/ or @cooksonamission on Instagram.
Pass it On
The Cooks on a Mission ladies would love to see other churches or groups in the community form their own version of Cooks On A Mission to raise money for local causes, and they’d be happy to share what they do with anyone who is interested. “We do all of this for the glory of the Lord,” Sherrie says. “We would love to see other groups take this idea and make it their own.”