Volunteer Harlan Meinwald is always eager to talk about cooking.
Soft-spoken, radiating calm and kindness, Harlan has prepared fresh and healthy meals for Transplant House’s community dinners monthly (and sometimes more frequently, by stepping in to help when others are unable to bring food) since 2018. Without fanfare, but with much care and creativity, Harlan and a dedicated group of Cleveland Cooking Club members continue to strive to ensure the meals for our guests are fresh — both in terms of ingredients and variety — as well as popular and healthy.
For many of us, the most thought we give to dinner is about what to cook. Evening meals are an established part of the rhythm of our day-to-day lives – a sign of regularity we take for granted until its absence. For our guest families, the regular rhythm created by shared meals is often not easy to find. Far from home, separated from family and friends, in an unfamiliar city, and frequently spending long days at the hospital, many of the comforting patterns of daily life are upended by demands that are physically and emotionally exhausting.
Harlan senses this acutely. No more so than during the past two years because of the additional challenges brought about by the pandemic. “I feel for the guests who are dealing with so much,” Harlan says, “the turmoil around the health of their loved ones, having to relocate to an unfamiliar environment often without the rest of their support system nearby, and the possibility of COVID impacting their immunocompromised friends and relatives.” This deep appreciation for what those families awaiting or recovering from organ transplantation are going through, is at the heart of why Harlan cooks for Transplant House of Cleveland.
This is also why he strives to ensure the guests have healthy, home-cooked, and diverse meals. The list of the most recent meals Harlan and Cleveland Cooking Club (and here, we would be remiss if we did not pass along “a special shout-out and thank you” from Harlan to Dylan, the club’s founder and sponsor as well as fellow members Jenny, Katelynn, Sharyn, and Robinson who often help with dinners) have prepared speaks to the thought that goes into each dinner: breakfast for dinner, lemon chicken, pasta with sausage and meatballs, tortilla soup, meatloaf, salads. It is especially apparent when speaking with Harlan that he takes pride in treating our guests to the best meals possible. Providing comforting meals is also a culinary challenge: “Scratch-prepared ramen was probably our most ambitious effort, with a choice of traditional pork or vegan broth and a dozen garnishes including braised pork belly.”
Guests have let Harlan knowhow grateful they are for the care taken when preparing these meals – and also which ones are their favorites. “I was surprised how popular the lentil soup was,” Harlan says, “with someone requesting a recipe.”
Harlan’s thoughtful consideration of the contents and variation of meals comes from professional experience and personal beliefs shaped over a lifetime. He holds a degree in Food Science and before retiring worked in product development at Nestle creating recipes for Stouffer’s and Lean Cuisine among other brands. So, to Harlan cooking is a process of experimentation and discovery as well as a way to bridge distances and make connections.
“I see food as a great way to travel the world without getting on a boat or a plane,” Harlan says, “and as one thing people can share regardless of age, politics, religion, sexual orientation” or other differences. And his belief in the power of food to shape fellowship is inspired by his family: “My folks hosted dinners for friends and family. For one family celebration, my mom cooked for 150 people. We moved all of our furniture into the garage, set up rented tables and chairs in all of the rooms, and stored food in friends’ freezers and refrigerators.”
Food, then, is about bringing people together, sharing a space and a moment in time with others, and being present for one another. The community dinners Harlan remembers best, are those during which guests, volunteers and staff served as empathetic listeners and caring supporters for one another: “I enjoyed the pre-COVID meals when guests and staff would sit together and share experiences and information. It was always nice being part of that hospitality.”
The imagination and curiosity Harlan brings to the kitchen also propels his life in other ways. He plays French horn with a number of community groups and small ensembles and enjoys being an active member of the Independent Movie MeetUp group where he encounters “films I would not have seen otherwise.” However, Harlan admits, “Not unexpectedly, my other vice is trying diverse restaurants.”
For those interested in knowing more about Cleveland Cooking Club, please visit https://www.meetup.com/Cleveland-Cooking-Club/ All are welcome to sign up and join.