Thursday morning, when Sue Schmincke preheats her ovens at Paul's Place, she'll kick off her 20th Thanksgiving at the Pigtown soup kitchen and community outreach center.
In those 20 years, Miss Sue (as she's known around the neighborhood) has served hundreds of meals a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year. She rarely misses a day of work. And in the 16 years she's been the kitchen manager and head chef, she's never run out of food, even when the line outside Paul's Place stretches to 500 hungry Southwest Baltimore residents.
A Pigtown native, Schmincke has been familiar with Paul's Place since it opened in its first location, at St. Paul the Apostle Church on Washington Boulevard, in 1982 (the organization moved to its current location, on Ward Street, in November 1996). "My mom lived next door," she explains.
Paul's Place is still a neighborhood hangout for her family. On any given day, a few of her grandchildren might be darting in and out of the kitchen door.
Schmincke didn't start working at Paul's Place until 1992, when she was the organization's first female employee. "Back then, they only hired men," she laughs. "I started out cleaning and serving. Then I was thrown into the kitchen on weekends when someone wouldn't show up."
When Schmincke finally made it to the kitchen, she was in her element. "I've always experimented with cooking," she says.
These days, she can practically run the kitchen with her eyes closed. "It's all in my head," she says. "I've been doing it for so long. Even when you think you should panic" — like on those days when the Paul's Place crowd unexpectedly swells — "I don't panic. I just laugh."
Schmincke's typical day starts early, around a quarter to five in the morning. She arrives at the Paul's Place kitchen — a medium-sized facility filled with gleaming stainless steel and well-scrubbed counters — checks the meat she's cooked overnight, and begins prepping and cooking for that day's meal.
She cooks all day, with an assist from Brad Clevenger, who helps with dessert and salads. Additional casseroles come from eight area churches.
For Thanksgiving, and everyday meals, Paul's Place relies on the generosity of numerous community organizations. In addition to those church-made casseroles, Paul's Place partners with Maryland Food Bank, Graul's, Eddie's, and Food Lion to keep its pantry stocked.
Schmincke supplements the donated food with regular shopping trips funded by grants.
The Thanksgiving meal is a special one at Paul's Place. It's not one of the year's most crowded meals, thanks in part to the 120 baskets filled with turkeys donated by Graul's, and other ingredients, that Paul's Place distributes in the community the week prior to the holiday. But it is one of the most festive days of the year.
Prep for the Thanksgiving meal starts early. Schmincke started roasting her turkeys last weekend, knowing she would need her ovens for side dishes and breakfast on the holiday itself.
In addition to turkey, she'll serve all the traditional Thanksgiving fixings: sweet potatoes, dressing, green beans, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce, capped off by pumpkin pie (also donated by Graul's).
After so many holiday meals, she has her Thanksgiving process down to a science: "I have big turkeys, and I put them in the oven and let them cook. I'll come in over the weekend to take them out and cut them up. I just start that weekend to get it all set up. I cook my dressing the day before because we do breakfast [Thanksgiving] morning. I get my sweet potatoes set up with sugar and butter. I have the dressing all prepared, so I just have to heat everything up and make the gravies."
As the Paul's Place dining room fills, a neighborhood choir and musicians play music, keeping the mood light and the crowd happy.
That happiness makes its way into the kitchen. "Everyone is so thankful on Thanksgiving," says Schmincke. "I feel very appreciated."
But Schmincke is shy about accepting too much praise. She's proud of what she's contributed to Paul's Place, but humble about her accomplishments, blushing when Paul's Place executive director Bill McLennan sings her praises. "It's rare to find someone to work for 20 years," he says. "Every day she can tell what the general mood in the neighborhood is and knows how many people we are going to serve. We never run out of food."
Schmincke is quick, though, with enthusiasm for her job. "I love what I do, and I put love into my work every day," she says. "I put a lot of love into my food."
People rely on Schmincke's much-loved food every day, not just on Thanksgiving. "We appreciate the attention around the holidays," says McLennan. "But we do 80,000 meals a year. We have needs in January, in August, every weekday all year. We have a need for a lot of volunteers and a lot of food."
One day, McLennan will need to replace Schmincke, too. She owns a trailer in Ocean City, where she vacations with her children and grandchildren. Eventually, she plans to retire there.
But even then, she won't stop cooking for those in need. "I'll find someplace like this to work," she promises.
Tomorrow afternoon, when the last meal has been cooked and served, Schmincke will head to her car, taking a turkey along with her. She'll drive to the beach to celebrate Thanksgiving with her family.
Meanwhile, back in Baltimore, thousands of people associated with Paul's Place — its employees and volunteers, and the neighborhood residents who rely on its generosity — will be giving their thanks for Miss Sue and all that she does.
Miss Sue's Meatloaf
Makes: 8-10 servings
4 pounds of ground chuck
2 cups mixed peppers and onions diced
1 can diced tomatoes
1 small can of V8 juice
1/4 teaspoon of garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon of onion powder
2 eggs, beaten
8 strips cooked bacon
Mix all ingredients together (except bacon and v8 juice) and form a loaf in your pan. Add the bacon strips across the top of the loaf. Pour V8 juice over top to keep it moist. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 hours. Check temperature to ensure internal temperature of 160 degrees. Slice and enjoy with tossed salad and your favorite macaroni and cheese.
<I>Note: A previous version of this story listed the incorrect number of meals per year that Paul's Place makes. The Sun regrets the error.</i>Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun