Cooking for a Cause

Primavera merges food, fundraising and--most importantly--philanthropy

OK. It's confession time, and I have two to make.

Decades ago, when I was a largish frog in the smallish local pond of daily journalism, I tried to be stern about a guiding principle that we reported the news and didn't make it. Simply put, that meant we should not involve ourselves personally in activities which we might have to deal with as reporters or editors. Extended further, it seemed a pretty good idea not to be involved with things our colleagues might have to cover. So, signing or carrying petitions to advocate a position seemed sketchy, much less taking part in protests, volunteering for/becoming a board member of an organization, or running for office. Ahhh, it seemed so much simpler in the black-and-white certainty of those days and that mindset.

But the older I get, the more I find myself parsing the grayscales of such things. And the truth is that at the time, I was a hypocrite of the first order, and therein is my first confession. On Saturdays for a period of time, I'd spend the afternoon cooking in bulk and driving out to the Primavera shelter to work with a crew serving up dinner. And I put in a lot of hours with what was then the Tucson Community Foundation, reviewing grant applications and working with other more-talented people to develop what is today the PRO Neighborhoods program and what has become SAAF, the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation.

I was a closeted, very amateur social worker, not practicing what I preached in the newsroom. But I had such enormous and unrelenting admiration for people like Nancy Bissell and Gordon Packard, the visionary co-founders of Primavera, and Craig Snow and Jerome Beillard, who almost single-handedly created the AIDS-awareness movement in Tucson, and I had models like Punch Woods at the Community Food Bank, Brian Flagg at Casa Maria and Wayne Blankenship, who helped birth what is today Wingspan.

In addition to the commonality all these folks and their institutions had in being on the cutting edge of forcing conscience on a community, they also shared the challenge of finding funds to survive and evolve. And no institution has been smarter about that than Primavera. Whether it was creating "feeding" teams at Primavera or Five Points, whose members became fully invested in the work, or herding artists together to create food vessels for purchase (and cooks to provide the soups, noodles and beans to fill them at events), Primavera has always sought ways to merge fundraising with a sense of personal gratification--for those who give and those who receive.

Holly Lachowicz, who has been involved with Primavera since 1983, and Nancy Bissell came up with the bright idea of creating cookbooks for sale flavored with a local twist. "We did three of the spiral-bound books and, in 2000, did a cookbook that featured recipes from local restaurants," said Lachowicz. That cookbook in 2000 brought in around $32,000 and helped get the fundraising/brainstorming wheels spinning faster.

Primavera's latest foray in the cookbook field is its slickest, and it is wonderful. Tucson Cooks! An Extraordinary Culinary Adventure features nearly 100 unique recipes from 29 independently owned Tucson restaurants.

It's a joy to read, and not simply because of mouth-watering recipes such as twice-cooked prime rib with cabernet jus, Jack's famous green chili chicken soup, and gorgonzola gnocchi salad. I mean, these are great recipes, but Tucson Cooks! is fun to browse through, with its backstories of personalities, histories and hands-on experience. It's the result of brainstorming polished to a high luster.

In 2002, the Primavera Cooks! program was launched, teaming up restaurants, chefs, patrons, Primavera supporters and all their friends. The process is this: Participating apprentices each pony up $200 to work with a chef, develop a menu, and prepare and serve what they have created. Each of those apprentices guarantees an eventual table of five guests or $500, whichever comes first, for the ensuing dinner party at the restaurant. Primavera receives 70 percent of the $100-per-plate proceeds, as well as the apprentice fees; the paying diners get a $70 tax deduction. Everyone is well-fed and in good company.

"That first year (2002), Pat (Connors) of Pastiche and I put together and coordinated the event. Now the committee has 25 members, and we have underwriting," said Lachowicz.

They also have a terrific success, measurable in a lot of ways: Somewhere in the neighborhood of $66,000 was netted from the 2005 program of apprentice cooks, generous restaurants and delighted diners, along with high visibility for the organizations involved and die-hard support from repeat program participants, who have already re-signed for half the spots available in the next round, which begins May 18.

"We only have two apprentice spots left," said Lachowicz earlier this week. "But we've got plenty of room for the guests" who want to come for dinner. This is what might be called a delicious success story--and an inventive way to learn, to do, to have fun and raise money for Primavera, the organization whose focus on decency in confronting homelessness is very much a part of the soul of our community.

If you're interested in the two apprentice roles that remain, or being a diner/supporter at one of the 10 affiliated events (at Janos, Pastiche, Feast, Cuvée World Bistro, Montana Avenue, Elle, Acacia, Jonathan's Cork, Westward Look and Kingfisher), call David Elliott at Primavera, 623-5111.

Finally, speaking of money spent ... a number of people have expressed interest in what the GOP faithful (and a few Democrats invited by Republicans those same Democrats hugely respect) had a week ago when the vice president dropped into town for the night at a $500-per-plate fundraiser at the Westin La Paloma. Your faithful correspondent, a guest, reveals all:

· A salad of baby greens with peppered goat cheese, kalamata olives, marinated sun-drained tomatoes and a Burgundy house dressing.

· Peruvian-roasted chicken breast and wild-mushroom-dusted beef tenderloin, asparagus and provencale tomato, Boursin sweet whipped potatoes, chipotle chili essence and freshly baked rolls with butter.

· Fresh carmelized crème brulee with fresh berries.

· Cash bars were open before dinner, and non-French wines were served at dinner; coffee and tea with dessert.

And thus endeth my second confession.

From the Inbox

To Roberta2: I am sorry my "reviews have been excruciating" for you to read. It would help if you don't consider them reviews. I don't, and they aren't. They're about food and backstories. I leave the reviewing to my betters.

To John W.: Thanks for the great words and the shared memories of Spain, the food and the fun. You've always been someone who teaches much about the dance of life and the choreography of the spirit.

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