More Than A Meal
Anita Hajivandi is the "Food Saint" in her Appalachian Ohio hometown
Story: Nate Swanson, Blake Nissen
Stills: Nate Swanson
Multimedia: Nate Swanson, Blake Nissen
The savory aroma of pork and sausage, the sight of sweet sorghum molasses mixed with creamy butter, and the taste of it all transports Anita Hajivandi back to the kitchen of her rural Appalachian home where her grandmother would cook hearty and traditional meals from recipes passed down through generations.
Today, Hajivandi spreads the same warmth and comfort of homemade cuisine to as many people as she can.
The culinary saint can often be found at the River of Life church in Rutland, Ohio where she co-directs the church's food pantry with her husband, Moe. But to the frequent visitors of the food pantry, she provides more than just packages of nonperishable items — she also serves up good, old-fashioned, homemade meals.
Hajivandi sits on her front porch in Rutland, Ohio.
“I think some of the greatest joys I've had have been when I've cooked for people,” she said. "I've made a lot of friends. . . most people love the food I cook.”
A native of Rutland, Hajivandi is all too familiar with the region in which she was raised by her mother and grandparents.
“I grew up on a great farm. . . a hundred acres. We ran wild. . . I had a great life,” she said, reminiscing her adolescent years. “I really embrace it. I think it was a wonderful childhood. It was a childhood of work. . . you work hard, you play hard.”
River of Life church in Rutland, Ohio, faces unusual humidity and rain on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, as it welcomes those in need at its food pantry.
Hajivandi stands next to her husband, Moe, while joining in song with the church choir at River of Life.
Cans of green beans lay in boxes stacked on top of one another and draped in plastic covers.
Anita and Moe work together with preparing boxes of food during another day at helping direct the food pantry operated out of the church's basement on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021.
Anita squeezes through volunteer Larry Young (left) and her husband, Moe, while directing another day at the food pantry on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021.
Volunteers with the food pantry operated out of River of Life church in Rutland, Ohio, haul tables and chairs into position for organizing food into bags and boxes for those in need on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021.
Anita and her daughter, Faith, keep track of the individuals coming in to River of Life church for receiving food packages from the pantry.
Awaiting people to drive up in the church parking lot, Anita, Faith and Larry keep together occupied outside.
“I love cooking. I enjoy helping people you know, that's why I think I'm drawn to the food pantry,” Hajivandi said. “I kind of fell into it by accident, really. And truly, I never dreamed I'd be managing a food pantry. But it's been very satisfying to know that you made a difference.”
Hajivandi says her cooking offers the reassurance that visitors need to get through each week and a connection that some may be longing for. She is certain that good food fosters a bond between those who share a meal together. No matter how the food is prepared or how it’s received, it’s a gift that comes with no strings attached — it’s just about the natural act of giving and receiving."
Hajivandi keeps a close watch on the food cooking on the stove.
Growing up, there was no influx of money pouring into Hajivandi’s life, so going out to restaurants wasn’t an option. The food she ate, like many other Appalachians, was harvested in the summer and preserved for fall and winter. It was the standard. The change of seasons controlled what was on the plate.
Cuts of pork rest on a tray while a cast iron pan is heated over a stovetop.
Daughter Faith prepares to wash apples while Hajivandi talks about the cooking process for the traditional breakfast she grew up eating.
But no matter the time of year, the breakfast spread Hajivandi enjoyed as a child “seven days a week” included coffee-fried pork with cured ham, sausage gravy biscuits, fried apples and eggs paired with a piping hot cup of coffee. To cool it down, Hajivandi was taught to first pour the coffee into a saucer, then back into its cup.
Faith scoops coffee grounds into the pot as Hajivandi cooks sausage in a cast iron pan for "sausage gravy biscuits."
Using sorghum, a common sweetener in Appalachia, Hajivandi spoons small amounts over fresh biscuits to go in the oven.
According to Hajivandi, morning meals like this one were the standard for coal miners, who, with their integral place in the national union workers movement of the early 1900s, are an essential part of Appalachian history. Like the coal miners, Hajivandi said many Appalachian folks like to enjoy a big, filling breakfast before setting out to conquer a day of hard work.
“Rarely was it — I mean, never was it — pancakes or cereal. That might be a treat every once in a while, but it was the same because you know people work on a farm,” she said. “They work in coal mines. They ate a big, hearty, heavy breakfast.”
Apples are peeled one-by-one before going into the skillet to cook together with butter, sugar and cinnamon.
Flour dusts the apron wrapped around Hajivandi while the coffee-fried pork is finishing its tenderizing over the stovetop.
Like how she once did as a kid, pork is picked from the pan and sandwiched between a biscuit.
Hajivandi’s childhood memories of life on a farm are a significant inspiration to the cuisine that she prepares today. To her, preparing and eating this food is a gateway to an open table, welcoming anyone and everyone, which is why she dedicates so much of her time to the food pantry. Before the coronavirus altered life as we knew it, her culinary skills were brought to the kitchen to prepare meals for visitors to enjoy and open the doors to the church for everyone to come in for a feast. Bringing together the community with food is one thing, but to cook the food with love in this sense carries a meaning greater than anything else. It’s cooking with intention that creates meaningful and lasting connections.
Hajivandi demonstrates a trick used by her father to cool off the coffee: taking the cup and pouring the drink into the saucer before pouring it back.
A full plate of a traditional Appalachian Ohio breakfast prepared by Anita and Faith Hajivandi: coffee-fried pork, fried apples, sausage gravy biscuits, eggs, biscuits and sorghum.