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To make my 12-person quiche I need: 12 eggs, 4 cups of cream, a pound of Emmenthal and two giant bags of frozen spinach. No, I’m not on lockdown with a soccer team, nor am I hosting an illicit dinner party. I am cooking for the nighttime ER team at the Hôpital Nord.

My effort isn’t a solo act, but in alliance with one of the grassroots associations created in response to the coronavirus crisis. The clearly named Cuisinons Pour Les Soignants de l’Hopital Nord (Cook for the Medical Staff of the Hopital Nord) gathers local home cooks, restaurants and food purveyors to make meals for hospital staff. For those who aren’t culinarily inclined but want to contribute, Pizza du Coeur delivers Marseille’s most popular food to caregivers.

Both of these locally grown initiatives are concrete responses to the “how can I help” question that has nagged so many – myself included – during the Covid-19 crisis. “It’s wonderful to have compassion, but feelings without action doesn’t help anyone,” voices Adnane, a poissonièr who donates to Cuisinons Pour Les Soignants.

Along with Pizza du Coeur, the group is lending a hand with life’s most essential thing: food. Their success illustrates that it doesn’t take a lot of time, money or manpower to help out. The most important ingredients are will, action and the willingness of others to join the cause.

During this confinement, I’ve been joining the home cooks who are finding pleasure and therapy in the kitchen. I’ve been thankful to share each new pasta, slow-simmered stew and baked good with my boyfriend. Yet feeding those in need (I’ve also cooked for the homeless and set up a panier solidaire) instills something greater than joy: purpose and a way to connect to community in spite of being physically closed off.

That is the added bonus of these two associations. As well as giving overworked healthcare workers a comforting meal, they provide meaning to those who take part – the secret to surviving a crisis, as this NYT piece reveals. In this city of 111 villages, many Marseillais tend to stick to their own quartier. Feeding the front lines brings us beyond our neighborhoods and closer to our city.

Cuisinons Pour Les Soignants de l’Hôpital Nord

As coronavirus cases escalated, friends Cécile and Pat wanted to aid local hospitals in need – to “do something small on a human scale.” Since fabricating masks, gowns and tests were not in their wheelhouse, they called their friends in healthcare for ideas on how to help. “Our cafeteria is closed and no one will deliver this far,” voiced Aurelien, an ICU anesthetist at the Hôpital Nord at the northern tip of Marseille. “We work all night and we’re super tired…frankly, to boost our moral and our strength, we need grub.”

On March 23, the duo put a call out to friends and on Facebook. It was a long message that showed Pat’s humorous side – “Cook with heart. Cook with your kids. But don’t cook your kids’ hearts even if they’re a pain” – and contained strict sanitary rules for cooking and packaging the food. “At first, we were afraid to cook. Their [the hospital staff’s] lives were in danger at work. We didn’t want to deliver the danger to them,” confesses Pat in a thick Marseille twang.

Families, couples, singles and neighbor collectives make their favorite comfort food recipes: pasta Bolognese, pissaladière (a Provençal onion anchovy olive tart), gratin dauphinois (creamy sliced potatoes) and cookies adorably stamped with “merci.” Some cooks handwrite their menus, listing ingredients in a way that would make a nutritionist proud. Others have their kids paint watercolors. Almost everyone includes a thank-you note. Inspired by the croix camarguaise, the three-virtue symbol of the nearby Camargue region, my note celebrated the faith (cross) Marseille has for our caregivers, the hope (anchor) they give us in this crisis, and the charity (heart) that their generous souls embody.

Cuisinons Pour Les Soignants has had no problem finding willing cooks. Their effort gives Marseillais a good cause to pour their time and culinary skills into. And, as Pat points out, “sadly people are more sympathetic to healthcare workers than the homeless.” Pat and Cyril, a taxi driver eager to use his free time productively, pick up the meals across town. The cooks are always happy for a brief moment to commune with the outside world, even if it means makeshift masks like ski goggles or luchador (Mexican wrestling) masks.

In addition to individuals, Cuisinons Pour Les Soignants has also reached out to local chefs and boucheries, épiceries and other food vendors. Some are friends, like Xavier, the chef at Madame Jeanne whose ajo blanco couscous with merguez mussels and cod was a hit with St. Joseph’s hospital staff. Some were found via cold calling, like the boulangerie Bar à Pain, which instantly offered up their artisanal loaves. Others came to them. After reading an article in the local paper, Adnane of Poissonerie Côte et Mer gave ten kilos of whiting. Grateful to be in business when many others are temporarily shuttered, the generous fishmonger has donated 100kg to initiatives across Marseille that feed the less fortunate.

Each time someone donates, Cuisinons Pour Les Soignants sings their praises on Facebook, listing individual’s names and linking to businesses, promoting the “good guys” as a way of thanks. They post photos of home cooks proudly showing of their baked goods and of scrub-clad doctors and nurses gathered around their benevolent feasts. Along with screenshots of the caregivers’ heartfelt thank-you texts, these feel-good posts are the highlight of every participant’s feed.

“It’s beautiful these connections that we’ve created between the caregivers and the volunteers,” enthuses Pat. That’s what motivates him and Geraldine (a friend who stepped in when Cécile had to return to work and take care of her kids) to take the time to post these inspiring messages. Once social distancing ends, they’ll host a group apéro on the beach – with no shortage of good things to eat, naturally.

Pizza du Coeur

It all began with a text. “Applauding is great, but we could also take action. Why not donate pizza to hospital staff?” In two days, Jérémy Mayen received €600 from 50 people – enough to deliver 80 pizzas to three city hospitals on March 22. A Leetchi fundraising drive and Facebook page followed, and the physical therapy student and his friends had baked up their own “war effort.”

At first, hospitals were hesitant to receive pizza due to safety concerns, which were especially heightened at the hectic start of France’s lockdown. In response, Pizza du Coeur enacted their first rule: to limit their deliveries to just two individuals – a pharmacist and a physical therapist – who are always equipped with masks and gloves.

The second rule allows Pizza du Coeur to spread their support beyond the blouses blanches (lab coats). Each order is done at a different pizzeria to help these small businesses that have been so financially hurt by the crisis. The first, Pizza Lambada, is run by the father of one of Jérémy’s friends. Now, pizzerias call him, eager to take part in this community endeavor.

Pizza wasn’t just chosen for its portability. It is a religion in Marseille, devoured by families at beach picnics, shirt-sleeved politicians at events and teens in sweats outside l’OM games, “I wanted to give something that everyone would enjoy including those who are halal, kosher or vegetarian,” explains Jérémy. That’s why they stick to cheese – traditionally Emmenthal, not mozzarella, here.

Post-delivery, doctors and nurses text their appreciation. “You gave us the force to face our long night of work!” writes the digestive surgery team at St. Joseph Hospital. Photos are also sent from the 11 hospitals and 4 EMT stations that Pizza du Coeur has reached. The staff make peace signs and hearts – the international gestures of thanks – with their hands. Though their mouths are hidden under their masks, you can tell they’re smiling.

“I’m as touched by the donations of €2 as I am by the woman who gave us a generous €1,000,” gushes Jérémy, aware that many who contribute are fellow students without work. Dealing with the money and paperwork has been the challenging part. “We had no idea how to run a business,” he admits. Pizza du Coeur has been a crash course in entrepreneurship. Having learned a number of lessons, they’re now happy to advise other Marseillais looking to start their own initiatives. Yet another way their efforts have expanded their community.

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Cuisinons Pour Les Soignants de l’Hôpital Nord and Pizza du Coeur

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