Few people turn down Dominic Maduro's rich macaroni and cheese, even when they are sick with a life-threatening illness. In fact, it may be just what they need.
"We can't give them enough," said Maduro, the "head chef" at Manna at the Shore, a social action project of Congregation Beth Israel in Northfield which provides prepared meals to area residents with AIDS or other serious illnesses. "It's the biggest comfort food."
Maduro and other volunteers meet twice a month at the synagogue to cook, package and freeze some 2,000 meals that are picked up by the South Jersey AIDS Alliance and delivered free to about 200 AIDS clients throughout South Jersey. Manna has also provided meals to hospice clients too sick to cook.
A trained chef, Maduro has been volunteering with the group since it was founded more than 18 years ago by Roberta Connors, a nurse, and her friend Deb Monheit, when Connor's son was dying of AIDS. They have since died, but their work continues through the synagogue.
Maduro, a Mays Landing resident, and "sous chef" Paula Koiro of Mays Landing, coordinate the menu.
"They want the comfort food they grew up with," Maduro said, reciting a list of other popular dishes, including stuffed shells, stuffed baked potatoes, penne alfredo with spinach, sweet and sour meatballs, vegetarian chili and chicken with gravy and mashed potatoes.
"We try to do four entrees a month," Maduro said. "I started trying to do gourmet food, but that's not what they want. And high-calorie food is good for them."
Group members know even being able to buy food can be a struggle for people sick and not working. This year Manna at the Shore is struggling a bit itself. The group spends about $3,000 a month on food, buying through the Community Food Bank. The South Jersey AIDS Alliance provides the chickens each month.
Manna's one annual fund-raising dinner in December usually raises enough for the year, about $30,000, but this year's event was less well attended as residents struggled to recover from Hurricane Sandy. Now the group is several thousand dollars short. Manna is hoping to recoup those funds by hosting one or more dinners at area restaurants that have supported them. The first is at Sage restaurant in Ventnor at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
On a recent Thursday a group of Manna volunteers cut up dozens of cooked chickens, mixed up huge bowls of pasta, and sealed them all into individual containers that can be quickly re-heated.
"We use the same containers as the Meals on Wheels program," Manna board member Susan Simon, of Northfield, said as she sealed up containers of barbecued chicken wings. She began volunteering in the group's second year.
Manna has a good number of volunteers, but can always use more hands. Most regulars are retired, but youth groups have also helped out.
Sue Maxwell, of Galloway Township, first came four or five years ago as a project for her son's Cub Scout troop. Her son is now 15, and still comes with her.
"It's a great service project, and the kids love it because they're kept busy," Maxwell said.
Koiro said she's a hobby chef, and just loves the mission of the group. Maduro said if she's there, even if he's not, he knows he won't have to worry about anything.
Volunteers said they like knowing they are providing something essential, and since the work is done just two mornings a month, they can pretty easily make the time to come.
"I came to try it, and stayed," said Ruth Block, of Northfield, who has been assisting for five years. "Whatever needs to be done, we all do."
"When you're having fun, you just keep coming back," said JoAnne Kettler, of Upper Township, who was chopping up a mountain of cooked chickens with Koiro and Rhoda Brown, of Ocean City. How many has she done?
"After the first 50 or 60 who's counting," Kettler said with a laugh. "But I need to take a course in knife skills."
The mac and cheese recipe feeds about 400 and includes three pounds each of butter and flour, 24 quarts of heavy cream, five pounds of parmesan cheese, five gallons of milk, 30 pounds of pasta and 30 pounds of mixed mozzarella and cheddar cheeses.
"And don't skimp," said Kettler of those who might entertain the idea of using low-fat milk or cheese. "That's what makes it good."
Kathy Darcy, of Egg Harbor Township, started coming nine years ago after retiring from the federal government, Rebecca Harlan, of Ventnor, is a retired teacher, one of many who help out, she said. Newcomer Joan Slotkin, of Margate, was only in her second time, and came because a friend asked her to help, and she plans to keep coming.
"I really feel like I'm doing something good," she said.
Members of the Manna board of directors include: Lisa A. Benninger, Jerry Bernstein, Beth Blumberg, Anne Bullen, Shirley Gash, Sherry Hoffman, Adria Light, Dominic J. Maduro, Irv Pincus, Debra Rosman, Nina Soifer, Susan M. Simon, Susan Sokalsky, John A. Trave, Carrie Wiesel, Paul McKay, Shelley Furman, Brooke Rose and Jon Rosky.
Contact Diane D'Amico:
Wine tasting and dinner
7 p.m. Tuesday at Sage Restaurant, 5206 Atlantic Ave., Ventnor. Tickets are $50 per person and the event benefts Manna at the Shore. Call 609-641-3600
To volunteer for Manna at the Shore, contact Beth Israel at 609 641-3600 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.