She flavors her stuffed peppers with ketchup, adds sour cream to her chicken pot pies. But if you’re around her for any length of time, you know Pearl Johnson’s secret ingredient is honey.
“Honey, I hope this tastes good to you.” “You take care now, honey.” “Oh, honey, I hope you start feeling better soon.”
As kitchen manager for Ashe Outreach Ministry, Pearl prepares hot lunches for seniors and shut-ins who live along the rural mountain roads of western North Carolina. Week after week, she cooks comfort food for 60, nourishing souls with meals and kindness.
Supported with multiple grants from The Duke Endowment, the ministry plays an important role in a challenged region. One in five Ashe County residents is 65 or older; nearly 16 percent of the population lives in poverty. Factories that once employed hundreds have shrunk their workforce, or closed.
Pearl, who grew up here, works alongside other staff members and volunteers who assemble and deliver the meals, stuff bags with weekend food for needy children, and run a pantry for families struggling to make ends meet.
She joined the nutrition program after working 16 years at a Toyota plant in a nearby county. She comes in at 6 a.m. to stir-fry the cabbage, boil the potatoes and brown the hamburger. At 9:30, she helps package the food in individual boxes. Volunteer drivers deliver the meals, but Pearl pitches in if someone cancels.
One route takes her to Dalton, a grizzled man who lives alone in a mobile home; to Charlie, who’s recovering from gall bladder surgery; and to Tootsie, on the mend after a broken arm.
Jim lives in the tumbledown house at her last stop. As her car tops his gravel road, he’s waiting by his woodpile. A belt holds up his loose trousers; a gauze bandage covers one side of his face. Stricken with mouth cancer, he’s had trouble eating.
“Will you be able to manage this?” Pearl asks, handing him the box of food. “Maybe I should come back with some soup.”
Not long ago on a delivery, she noticed that his kitchen chairs were so worn out, he had to eat standing. She found four replacements, and brought them by.
After she carried the first chair in, Jim told her to watch her step. His floorboards are rickety, so Pearl thought he was worried she’d fall through.
But Jim said a rattlesnake had slithered inside – and he couldn’t find where it was hiding.
Back at the community center where Ashe Outreach makes its home, Pearl works until early afternoon, scrubbing pots and pans and prepping the next day’s menu. She’s finished “when the last tater is peeled.”
“Have I always liked to cook? Not really,” she says, laughing. “But I always wanted to do something rewarding that I feel good about.”
Robert R. Webb III
Director of Rural Church